October 28, 2010
Chasing Asiatic Water Buffalo in Paradise
The Tiwi Islands are located off the northern coast of Australia in the Arafura Sea. They are comprised of Melville and Bathurst Islands. Melville is the largest, covering 6220 square kilometers of dense forest, tidal flats and sandy beaches. To the archery hunter wanting to pursue water buffalo, it is a real life "Fantasy Island."
I've wanted to hunt Asiatic water buffalo ever since reading Fred Bear's Field Notes when I was sixteen years old. In 1967, Fred and his friend, Bob Munger, hunted these beasts on Marajo Island off the coast of Brazil. This was Fred's last major overseas bowhunting trip. They certainly encountered some hardships during their hunt, but finally bagged their trophies.
I first heard about Melville from noted archery hunter and author Don Thomas, after he participated in an exploratory hunt. Don hunted there with Australian hunter, guide, and author Bill Baker. Many archery hunters in OZ refer to Bill as the "Fred Bear" of Australia. After hearing Don's glowing reports of his experience, it seemed fitting to book a buffalo hunt with Australia's own "Fred Bear." I contacted my hunting buddy, Dale Karch, to see if he was interested in another venture. I smiled when he snapped back, "Yes, when do we leave?"
Mature, Asiatic water buffalo bulls can weigh over a ton. They have very thick hides and wide ribs that nearly touch together over parts of their anatomy. Bill recommends a minimum bow draw weight of seventy pounds and minimum arrow weights of 750 grains. For broadheads, he suggests strong single blade construction that are dry-shaving sharp. He also believes a lubricant coating on the head and fore shaft aid in penetration.
We had six months to get ready. Dale and his wife, Sandie, own 3 Rivers Archery. I told Dale that I thought a narrower broadhead would be the ultimate buff head. Using his business connections, Dale presented me with a dozen and a half Zwickey prototype heads a few weeks later. The months passed quickly as we rounded up the right gear and practiced with different arrow combinations. I settled on a 90-pound takedown longbow. Dale picked a 73-pound takedown longbow of his own design and 1000 grain carbon shafts.
Not only can the buffalo be dangerous, but some of the other critters that roam the Tiwi Islands also can pose a serious threat to your well-being. The author encountered this saltwater crocodile while he was still-hunting along a small creek.
Late in June, we made it through all the connecting flights and met Bill and his wife, Linda in Darwin. After a great supper and a night's rest, we took a shuttle to the charter service. The 80-kilometer flight to Melville was smooth and scenic. Bill asked the pilot to swing over some of the areas we would hunt before landing in the village of Snake Bay.
Les and Annette Woodbridge greeted us on our arrival. They owned the comfortable, remote fishing camp where we would stay. After a visit and a few drinks at the main camp, we loaded up and made the two-hour drive to the Johnston River Camp. After unpacking and settling into our comfortable accommodations, Dale and I put our bows together and loaded quivers. With a few practice shots into a sand pile we felt ready to start hunting the next day.
More like a scene from a Hollywood movie than the perfect place for an exotic archery hunt, these islands off of the coast of Australia offer archers the opportunity to spot and stalk huge water buffalo in an unbelievable setting.
After supper, Bill laid out some maps and discussed the lay of the land and where we would hunt. Bill experienced good success in some areas, but there were parts of the huge island he'd never explored yet. We made sure he knew that we were keen to check out some of the new ground as part of our adventure.
The Honey Hole
Our hunt was a two on one, so Dale and I took turns stalking. This was fine with us because we wanted to share each other's hunt and possibly videotape the action as well. We drove to an area named the Honey Hole the next day. We shouldered our packs and slipped into the tropical forest. It felt good to hike through new country. The unfamiliar vegetation and birdcalls were almost intoxicating as we snuck into the wind, constantly on the lookout for buffalo. Bill spotted a couple of bulls and we circled around for the best wind and cover to approach. I was up to bat first. Bill led the way while Dale and I fell in single file behind him. We kept Billy's body between the bulls' eyes and ourselves. This kept our noticeable movement to a minimum. When we reached the
50-yard mark we stopped and dropped our packs. Bill slipped off his shoes and we followed suit. Before closing in, Bill tied a piece of surveyors ribbon on a bush, marked a waypoint on his GPS and chambered a round in his rifle.
I stayed close to Bill as we eased closer. Each footstep was a planned move and our stocking feet barely made a sound. Dale stayed back a bit to film without jeopardizing the stalk. At 25 yards, Bill pulled up behind a tree and nodded for me to go ahead. The two bulls that had been standing near each other started moving around. One bull's horns grew straight out before sweeping back and he was my intended target. I nocked an arrow and eased ahead, feeling clumsy and a little alone. After I'd gained a few yards, the second bull stumbled into some thick brush to my right with his rear end towards us. With only one set of eyes to deal with, I positioned a bush between the buffalo's eyes, and myself and slipped into 18 yards. I glanced back to locate Bill and was surprised to find him just a couple of steps back. He gave me the "Take him if you want him, but we can find a bigger one" sign. Looking back at the bull, I decided I wasn't in love with the shot he offered. He stood broadside, but leaning forward with his leg blocking some of the vitals. I'd run out of cover so I just watched as the bull joined his buddy and they walked away. We saw 20 some more buffalo and spent quite a bit of time watching them the rest of the day, but had no opportunities to stalk.
We headed out early the next morning. Bill drove to a place where we could hunt Lawrence's Creek. He said the buffalo like to graze on the salt grass flats and walk back to the forest in the morning. Three miles from the truck we spotted a bull feeding. Dale
wanted to try him. We closed the distance, lost the packs and shoes, and started the final approach. I followed Bill and Dale into 20 yards. When they slipped in closer, I stayed put. Watching Dale close into 12 yards through the viewfinder, it occurred to me that he was facing the moment of truth. All the planning, practice and anticipation were over. It was time to shoot! Dale held his bow in the ready position, arrow nocked. When the bulls near front leg moved forward, Dale sped a shaft into the now forward crease. On impact, the bull whirled to face Dale and Bill and glared in their direction. Nobody moved a muscle until the bull bolted and ran to our right. I exhaled as the bull disappeared, crashing into the underbrush. We listened intently for several minutes before retreating to our boots and packs. Bill thought we should wait a bit and kept us entertained with tales of aggressive hogs, displaying the scars on his legs to back them up.
When everything goes right and a shot opportunity presents itself, it's best to have the utmost confidence in your equipment. Bows featuring heavy draw weights coupled with heavy arrows and stout two-blade broadheads are a must when facing thick skinned dangerous game.
Taking up the trail, we followed light blood 65 yards to Dale's first buffalo. Back slapping and handshakes were in order. After photo sessions, we began caping and boning out the meat.
The islands are owned by the Tiwi people and controlled by the Tiwi Land Council. Part of the deal that Les and Bill worked out to allow bowhunting included salvaging the meat and transporting it to the locals. Several times during the butchering process, we were alerted to approaching herds of buffalo by the cracking of brush. We took refuge next to climbable trees as they filtered past. One group contained a bull whose travel route was over the top of Bill and me. At seven yards, I filmed as Bill leveled the big bore rifle at its head and grunted, "Oy." The bull gave him a dumb look and I thought he was going to do something stupid. The bull finally shook his head and turned. When he caught our wind, he thundered off, causing a stampede. We finally completed our task, shouldered our packs and trudged three miles back to the truck.
Hard Luck Times
The next couple of days I decided to demonstrate to Bill and Dale just how unlucky I can be. I blew countless stalks for various reasons. At one point, Bill and I had been snaking on our bellies in 16-inch tall grass for an hour. We were 10 yards from a big bull just waiting for him to turn. The tropical sun was frying us when the wind decided to change 180 degrees. After the bull blew out of sight, Bill rolled on his back, looked at me and exclaimed, "You deserve better than that, mate." I just shrugged my shoulders and replied, "Hey, at least I'm having a lot of fun."
The next day, we went back to the Honey Hole. We cut through the rain forest to an open, boggy, grass-covered area. Bill spotted a monster bull and we high tailed it to cut him off. The soft ground made for quiet going, but the huge bull was nowhere to be found.
Later on, we were working down the creek when Bill signaled he heard something. Dale and I looked at each other and laughed. Bill doesn't hear well and couldn't hear us whisper when we saw something. He insisted that we tap him with our longbows to get his attention and we had been prodding him all week. We worked slowly in the direction Bill pointed. After a while, Dale and I heard the sound too.
Splashing and sucking noises made their way to our ears. We closed in quickly with a favorable wind. We came to the edge of a 20-foot diameter hole filled with liquid red mud and two bulls. They were entirely coated with red slop as they rolled on their backs and pounded their heads into the bank. We held up just inside the cover 10 yards from the buffalo. One of the buffs was bigger and he came up the bank and stopped broadside. I was just going to shoot when he looked our way and stared blinking his mud covered eyes. How in the heck that bull saw us I'll never know. The other bull broke the tension by horning his buddy in the rump. The bigger bull lurched forward out of sight and the second bull took his place. It was time for me to kill a buffalo. When the bulls front leg went forward, I drove a broadhead through his heart. The bull bolted across the stream and tipped over on a muddy flat on the other side. He wasn't the biggest buff on the island, but I couldn't have cared less.
Bill's wife, Linda, had been stuck in camp all week preparing delicious meals for us. Bill had promised her a picnic lunch on the beach and Dale some fishing, so we took off for Tinganoo Bay early the next day.
Dale Karch, Linda and Bill Baker and the author pose with the authors second bull. Hunting guide Bill Baker has worked out a deal to donate the buffalo meat to the locals in exchange for the rights to archery hunt their land.
We stopped on the way for a morning hunt. Shortly after we started, Bill spotted a big bull standing in the shade under a cluster of Pandana palms. We circled to get the wind and stopped at 40 yards to lose the packs and shoes. The final approach was pretty much wide open. It looked impossible. Dale stayed at the packs to videotape and I tucked myself in Bill's hip pocket as he moved toward the buffalo. I knew we would never complete the stalk, but I was game to try. The area around the bull was scenic, almost like a garden with the fluorescent green Cycads spotted artfully around. When we made it to 20 yards, I realized maybe it wasn't the impossible stalk. Bill held up at 15 yards and signaled for me to go ahead. I crept forward. The bull was slightly quartering away, but I only had a six-inch slot between two Pandana trunks to his vitals. I glanced back at Bill and eased closer. "He must think I want to jump on this bull and ride it," I thought as I inched along to get a wider shooting lane. The bull turned his head in our direction suddenly and for a few seconds I thought I'd really blown it big time. A wave of relief washed through my soul when the bull flicked his ears and turned his head back. I moved forward to eight yards, where I had a foot to shoot between. After a cleansing breath, I drew the bow and released. The arrow crunched on impact and drove in deep. Instantly I nocked another shaft. The bull turned his head to stare at the fletching while slowly turning a circle. When he offered his other side I heard Bill whisper, "Give him another one mate." I shot again with similar results. When the second arrow hit the bull looked at it and started turning the opposite direction. I shot once more, trying to speed things up. The buff took four steps and fell over. He never had a clue we were there. I gave Bill a bear hug. He grinned and said, "Well done mate! Don't think the other arrows were needed, but with your luck on big bulls they didn't hurt."
Linda wasn't far away waiting in the truc
k. Bill drove the rig closer to make the packing job easier and in a short time we were on our way again.
Tinganoo Bay looked like the set for Gilligan's Island. Emerald salt water lapped at the beach surrounded by a Mangrove forest. Linda got her day on the beach, Dale got in some bow and rod fishing, and I got a very nice bull. Just another day in paradise.
With a couple of day's left of our stay, we packed up and moved back to the main fishing camp in Snake Bay. Bill wanted to take one of Les's charter boats around the island and float up the outlet of Goose Creek to explore some new country. We shoved off early the next morning and witnessed a spectacular sunrise as we glided over the swells.
Motoring up Goose Creek felt like going back in time. Unspoiled by man, crocodiles slid off the water lily-lined banks while the skies teemed with waterfowl. The skipper dropped us off with a radio so we could get picked up later on. The area was unusually wet according to the locals. We walked up on a lot of water buff, but the terrain was much swampier than where we had been hunting. I weigh more than Dale and Bill. About the fourth time I sunk to my hips, I looked at Bill and whispered, "Please God, Don't let Dale kill a buffalo in here." Bill was so tickled by my statement he grabbed a tree to keep from falling down laughing.
The rest of the trip went quickly. Dale shot his second buffalo on dry land and the locals performed a corroboree (a dance that tells a story) for us. We really enjoyed the show.
You know you've had a great hunt when you want to return. I'd only known Bill for 10 days, yet I consider him one of my close friends. Within a month of returning home, Dale and I made plans to return to OZ and hunt with Bill the next year.