Buffalo the Hard Way

Hunting Australian bulls with bows and arrows leaves no room for error.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The grazing bull's head pivoted suddenly and caught me mid-stride. Bovine tranquility evaporated at once, replaced by a look that suggested curiosity, contempt and an utter lack of respect for my camouflaged figure crouched 20 yards away. Even after considerable experience with the species, I couldn't decipher the bull's mood, beyond the realization that I suddenly had his complete attention. And with the nearest climbing tree more than a hundred yards away, he most certainly had mine.

Quartering toward me, the bull offered nothing but massive neck and forequarters, an impossible shot for bow and arrow. The next move was his. The possibilities ranged from a charge to a snort and a clatter of hooves in the opposite direction, undoing all the effort I'd invested in the long, careful, painstaking stalk. But by then I knew enough about Asiatic water buffalo to anticipate a long, tense face-off that just might end with an opportunity to slam an arrow through his ribs...if I could maintain my discipline and composure. At the moment, that "if" loomed as large as the bull himself.

I don't know why animals I'm stalking always seem to detect my presence when I'm in the most uncomfortable position imaginable. But there I was, weight concentrated awkwardly on one leg, back throbbing in a contorted semicrouch, certain that any motion would break the spell. There was nothing to do but wait as the minutes ticked by beneath the blazing tropical sun.

The Road to Melville Island
The trail had begun the year before when friend and legendary Australian bowhunter Bill Baker had contacted me. Although Baker had amassed a remarkable record of success with bow and arrow, he had never managed to take a buffalo. He had just investigated the possibility of hunting these imposing animals on the remote Tiwi Islands, a tropical wilderness untamed even by the wild standards of the Australian Outback. He asked if I would like to join him on the initial exploratory trip. There was no guarantee of anything but adventure, but that's the kind of hunting I love most.

After recruiting fellow Montanan and longtime hunting partner John "Rosey" Roseland to our expedition and working diligently to master the heavy archery tackle we would need, we began to count down the days until our departure.

Trouble on the Hoof
As a veteran of numerous adventures Down Under and an enthusiastic student of natural history, I had already become fascinated with Australia's unique wildlife. No large game animals are indigenous to this isolated ecosystem. The country's early European settlers, an engaging mix of convicts, colonialists and adventurers, promptly set about correcting this deficiency. For better or worse, they imported hogs, goats and a half dozen species of Eurasian deer that thrive in totally free-ranging populations today.

The formidable Asiatic swamp buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, arrived from Timor in 1828. Originally intended as a source of meat and hides, the buffalo had other ideas. It promptly dispersed across what is now Australia's Northern Territory, colloquially known as the Top End. The area's hardy stockmen and commercial hunters granted the buffo abundant respect for their size and occasionally evil tempers. For nearly 200 years, buffalo stories have been a part of the legend of Australia's outback, much as bear tales crop up around campfires in Alaska.

When these animals began to attract attention from American bowhunters a decade or so ago, they were initially viewed as a tune-up for their better known African relative, the Cape buffalo. With the benefit of experience, a number of observers familiar with both species (myself included) now think those priorities could easily be reversed. In terms of size, body structure and disposition, the two are quite similar, differing primarily in the shape of their horns, which sweep backward in graceful, glossy arcs on the Asiatic version. Plan on dealing with an honest ton of muscle, hoof and horn. While their vision is only fair, their hearing and sense of smell are both excellent, and their personality can be summarized with two adjectives: belligerent and unpredictable.

In sum, a mature bull is one hell of a critter, especially when tackled with bow and arrow.

The Genuine Middle of Nowhere
My personal feelings about big-game species invariably depend as much on impressions of habitat as on the quarry itself. No doubt this contributes to my fascination with Australian buffalo. I've lived in Alaska and spent months in the bush from Siberia to Africa, but I've never seen wilderness quite like the Tiwi Islands. Rising from the Arafura Sea an hour's flight north of Darwin, the commercial and cultural hub of the Top End, Melville and adjoining Bathurst Island seem to belong to another epoch. Forget any sense of the confinement one might experience on a South Pacific atoll; except for Tasmania, Melville is the largest island in Australia, and it's as good a place to get lost as any I know.

The ancestral home of the Tiwi people, the islands are an aboriginal homeland today, and entrance to the area requires permission from the local governing council. More buffalo than people inhabit Melville, and once you bounce down the road from the landing strip in Snake Bay, you shouldn't expect human company until you decide to bounce back. Imagine Alaska's North Slope with palms, gum trees and haunting green cycads instead of tundra.

The emptiness carries the same kind of emotional impact.

While wild hogs share the bush with buffalo throughout most of their Top End range, there aren't any on Melville Island, and locals concerned about the potential impact of introduced species on fragile island ecology want to keep it that way. This makes Melville a one-species hunt, but buffalo still aren't the only show in town. Local waters enjoy a reputation as one of the greatest saltwater fisheries in Australia.

The Circle Closes

Which leads us back to that close-range confrontation...

Rosey, Bill and I had set out that first morning of the hunt to stalk our way along a meandering creek bed that the Australian dry season had turned into a series of mud holes. Our quarry was called water buffalo for a reason, and we knew that as the temperature began to rise, bulls would appear from the surrounding thickets to enjoy their daily wallow. Since I'd deferred to Rosey on two unsuccessful stalks the previous evening, I was up at the plate. And I meant to take the first mature bull that offered a perfect shot.

We'd covered two miles by the time we spotted the lone bull grazing through the grass. The terrain was open, but every time he lowered his head to feed, the dense vegetation obscured his vision, so I decided to try a stalk. Before I left the cover of the brush, I quickly rechecked my tackle: 78-pound recurve, 1,000-grain wood arrows made from Brazilian ipe, carefully honed 2-blade broadheads. I felt confident that my gear was up to the job.

The wind held steady and an hour's worth of cat-and-mouse eventually brought me into bow range...and the uncomfortable standoff described earlier. Somehow, I managed to maintain my contorted position for 20 minutes without moving anything but my eyes.

What happened next provides an important distinction between buffalo and North American hoofed game. Even if I'd survived that kind of scrutiny from an elk or a mule deer, the animal would almost certainly have resumed feeding away from me. But when the bull lowered his head to graze again he actually continued in my direction, no doubt confident that he could deal with me if I turned out to be some kind of threat.

For bowhunters, especially those carrying traditional longbows or recurves, the problem on open-country stalks usually reduces to: Get close enough! But as the range narrowed from 20 yards to 12, proximity was no longer the issue. I needed a perfect shot angle-dead broadside to slightly quartering away-but for what seemed like an eternity the bull refused to offer one. When he finally began to open up, the middle three fingers of my right hand tightened on the bowstring. But I wasn't ready yet: His near foreleg needed to come forward, opening up as much of his thorax as possible. And so I continued to wait, fully aware that one random puff of breeze could make the long stalk unravel at any minute.

Finally the moment of truth arrived. Concentrating on an imaginary spot the size of a nickel tight against the shoulder crease, I came to full draw while the bull's eyes remained shielded by the grass. This was no time to question one's ability or equipment, and as my right thumb knuckle hit the familiar ankle point on my jaw, I reminded myself of the many hours of practice I'd invested in this shot and all the lethal energy storen to rise, bulls would appear from the surrounding thickets to enjoy their daily wallow. Since I'd deferred to Rosey on two unsuccessful stalks the previous evening, I was up at the plate. And I meant to take the first mature bull that offered a perfect shot.

We'd covered two miles by the time we spotted the lone bull grazing through the grass. The terrain was open, but every time he lowered his head to feed, the dense vegetation obscured his vision, so I decided to try a stalk. Before I left the cover of the brush, I quickly rechecked my tackle: 78-pound recurve, 1,000-grain wood arrows made from Brazilian ipe, carefully honed 2-blade broadheads. I felt confident that my gear was up to the job.

The wind held steady and an hour's worth of cat-and-mouse eventually brought me into bow range...and the uncomfortable standoff described earlier. Somehow, I managed to maintain my contorted position for 20 minutes without moving anything but my eyes.

What happened next provides an important distinction between buffalo and North American hoofed game. Even if I'd survived that kind of scrutiny from an elk or a mule deer, the animal would almost certainly have resumed feeding away from me. But when the bull lowered his head to graze again he actually continued in my direction, no doubt confident that he could deal with me if I turned out to be some kind of threat.

For bowhunters, especially those carrying traditional longbows or recurves, the problem on open-country stalks usually reduces to: Get close enough! But as the range narrowed from 20 yards to 12, proximity was no longer the issue. I needed a perfect shot angle-dead broadside to slightly quartering away-but for what seemed like an eternity the bull refused to offer one. When he finally began to open up, the middle three fingers of my right hand tightened on the bowstring. But I wasn't ready yet: His near foreleg needed to come forward, opening up as much of his thorax as possible. And so I continued to wait, fully aware that one random puff of breeze could make the long stalk unravel at any minute.

Finally the moment of truth arrived. Concentrating on an imaginary spot the size of a nickel tight against the shoulder crease, I came to full draw while the bull's eyes remained shielded by the grass. This was no time to question one's ability or equipment, and as my right thumb knuckle hit the familiar ankle point on my jaw, I reminded myself of the many hours of practice I'd invested in this shot and all the lethal energy store.