Showdown at Armour Plains by Bill Troubridge

The crisp half light that proceeds the tropical Australian sunrise made the black hulking forms of the  Water Buffalo stand out starkly against open plain.  The three bulls, having completed their nightly foray to feed on the lush grasses along the forest edge, were moving at a steady walk through the series of  Pandanas palm stands.  Here we had lain in ambush since before first light.  Within minutes they would pass us 60 yards away, far out of range for my crossbow, and now was the time to either act boldly or admit defeat.

I turned to Jim Dieckman, my PH on this hunt, and motioned that I thought that we should crawl closer in hopes that they stopped, but within a few yards it was certain that they’d be long gone before we reached them.  My daddy always told me that “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, and with this in mind I motioned with hand signals to Jim that we should try a less stealthy approach.  He shrugged his shoulders and whispered “might as well try” and we were off on an intersecting course with our now somewhat less than unsuspecting quarry.  Many years ago while hunting in my home country of Canada I learned that many animals would allow a fairly close approach across open ground if you can first, never look like you are a predator, and second, never walk directly towards your prey.   As I crossed the short grass plain I sauntered slowly back and forth, bending occasionally in mock feeding activity, never stopping to look directly at the three buffalo.  The bulls stopped in their tracks when they saw me, bunched up and stared in awe as a balding, middle aged Canuck with glaringly white legs wandered in their general direction.  I kept track of their movements out of the corner of my eye as I counted off the paces.  At about 30 yards I knelt down and turned to prepare for a shot, but was disappointed to see that all three bulls were facing me, providing unacceptable shot angles.  This was standard operating procedure.  Over the first days of my hunt we had had several similar opportunities and our experience was that eventually the Buffalo would spook, wheel, and run without a shot.  Great learning experiences, but Buffalo 101 wasn’t the reason we were here!

My wife Kath and I have been avid crossbow shooters for decades.  In the early eighties we started a crossbow manufacturing business called Excalibur Crossbow, dedicated to making the finest quality hunting crossbows, and as anyone who has started a business from scratch will know, years of hard work and commitment severely limited our hunting options.  In the last few years, since Excalibur has grown and become successful we have vowed to make up for lost time.   Last year when we met Jim from Havago Safaris we knew that a hunt for Asiatic Water Buffalo in the steaming northern Australian outback was exactly what the doctor ordered!  Here was a chance to test our crossbows in some of the most rigorous conditions on the toughest game animal outside of Africa.  As well as this obvious challenge, we would be able to experience what is certainly one of the most unique ecosystems that this planet can offer.  Every day we saw hundreds of wallabies as they went about the things that only a wallaby can do.  Parrots, cockatoos, shore birds and waterfowl were in abundance, and their raucous cries followed us everywhere this amazing adventure took us.  Each evening we were reminded of just how foreign these remote plains were as fruit bats the size of ravens flew heavily through the gathering darkness.  This truly is a place where lasting memories are made.

Jim Dieckman, our PH, guide, and mentor on this expedition, regularly brings clients to the Darwin area hunting for Buffalo.  As a longtime native of the area he has a special connection to the land and the wildlife, as well as the people of the Northern Territory.  These are things that make a guide great, but he also has a love of the whole outdoors that completes the skill set required for greatness.  He’s not a big man, nor impressing to see, but he has a quiet competence that gets the job done, and wood skills and instincts second to none.   When Jim isn’t guiding buffalo hunters he is with his wife Debbie on their 12,000 acre ranch in Queensland, where they guide hunters for several species of deer as well as feral game.

Our accomodations at Carmour Plain were very comfortable.  We stayed in a self contained portable cabin under a huge tree near the ranchhouse. Every evening our host Matt, the owner of the ranch, served us the finest Australia cuisine as well as supplying us with the freezing amber remedy for our parched throats and dehydrated bodies.   Beer never tasted so good!  Good times and tall tales, some of which were true, abounded every evening until the days exertions beckoned us to bed.

One of the first questions I asked Jim was “Where the heck did these Buffalo come from”. I knew that they weren’t a longtime resident of Australia, but the real history of these bovine monsters surprised me!  In the 1820s the British established a colonial outpost not far from Carmour Plains.  Over a period of several years this colony failed due to inclement weather, disease, and native problems.  When the British left the remaining Buffalo, which they had brought to provide food and as a beast of burden, were abandoned.  Over the ensuing eighteen decades the buffalo spread until they populated a large part of the far North of Australia.  After hundreds of generations of wild living they have regained the instincts of their wild ancestors and are truly a force to be reckoned with.  The body size of these animals is actually noticeably larger than the Asian stock from which they have evolved!    A sad chapter in their story occurred just over a decade ago when the Australian Government attempted to eradicate what by then had become a symbol of this wild land.  Concerns about disease being spread to cattle and a desire to return the land to it’s original indigenous condition led to years of persecution during which Buffalo were routinely rounded up and destroyed.  It is only in the past few years that the population has rebounded and the future of these majestic animals seems assured at this time.

Hunting Water Buffalo with a crossbow requires some special considerations (and possibly a weak mind). These one ton plus animals are built like a tank.  You couldn’t design Buffalo better, if making them arrowproof was your intention!  Their first layer of armor is their skin, which is actually a full inch thick over their shoulders.  Next, like all the bovines they hide their lungs well under their front legs, making it necessary to drive an arrow through several inches of tough muscle to penetrate to them on a broadside shot.  Any shot behind the shoulder and not angled well forward is a recipe for a charge.  The crowning achievement of their design is their ribs.  At two to three inches wide and a full half inch thick they represent a very formidable defense against our projectiles.   These are definitely NOT the whitetails we hunt at home!

Different challenges call for different solutions, and it was apparent that the fast, lightweight arrow and broadhead combination we us for Canadian whitetails wouldn’t be the ticket for these Aussie monsters.  After some research and experimentation we chose a Goldtip carbon shafted arrow of very heavy design along with an unvented, two blade, cut on impact broadhead by Magnus.  This combo weighed about 700 grains, twice what our whitetail arrows do, and would guarantee maximum penetration.  The crossbow we chose was a prototype of our new Maxim model.  At 225 pound draw weight it would throw our heavy, carbon missiles at about 275 fps for well over 100 footpounds of hitting power.  Not impressive as safari rifles go, but in archery terms this is cutting edge performance.

Like all archery equipment, the crossbow is a short range weapon.  My personal maximum range for Water Buffalo was 30 yards.  Within this range the errors in distance estimation that plague all bowhunters in times of stress are minimal, and the precious energy the bow imparts the arrow hasn’t appreciably dropped off.

I was certainly well within my thirty yard maximum, but due to the frontal angle that the three buffalo bulls were presenting, there was absolutely no chance for a reliable shot into their vitals.  The largest bull walked slowly towards me, stopping at twenty yards.  This was close enough to see the moisture in his nostrils, then he whirled and rejoined the group…..a standoff was developing and things were becoming tense as they stared me down.  This was a standard tactic designed to intimidate me, and honestly, if you’ve ever had over three tons of buffalo staring down their noses at you, you’d see that it’s pretty effective!   At that moment I was glad that Jim had his .458 on hand.   The stalemate ended when Jim, who had stopped well behind me, crawled off at 90 degrees to the Buffs.  This was a solution that we had discussed after earlier stalks, and was aimed at giving them two points at which to face at the same time, an impossible task even for these giants.   The opportunity for a shot finally came when the bolder Buffalo turned to face Jim.  Within a fraction of a second my thirty yard aiming point was on the sweet spot, dead center above his leg and mid shoulder.  The heavy arrow’s impact was louder than the crossbows report, and it sunk into his shoulder beyond the front of the feathers. Instantly all three bulls sped out into the plain, but within fifty yards the mortally wounded bull stopped and was joined by its companions who tried to encourage him on.  Within minutes he crumpled to the ground and was dead.    All that remained was to convince my bull’s friends, who were standing guard over his body, to leave.  Luckily they were not in the mood for a second skirmish and as we approached them the two survivors galloped off into the rolling grass.

I was overwhelmed by a flood of emotion as we approached the fallen Buffalo.  I felt a pride in our accomplishment and a sense of relief.  After days of tough slugging through the extreme heat and humidity success was finally ours.  I was also humbled by the sheer size and strength of the animal whose life we had just taken.   Unlike many animals, these bulls are certainly as impressive in death as they are in life!

This was far from our only adventure with Havago at Carmour plains.  During our time there we traveled extensively through the rugged outback where the huge tidal plain adjoins the forest.  Kath had the opportunity to crawl with her crossbow to within yards of a small herd of bedded Buffalo, only to have it all fall apart when a cow and calf spooked, ran and stood between the bull she wanted, then left taking him with them.  Her eyes still widen when she tells the story!  She did better with the plentiful feral hogs however, taking several truly impressive boars with her crossbow during our stay.

Being an avid waterfowler I was fascinated by the thousands of Magpie Geese that we saw daily.  On the last afternoon of the hunt the owner of the ranch and our host, Matt, suggested that we take his shotgun and bring some geese back for supper.  Now I’m no rocket scientist but I know a good thing when I see one, and he didn’t have to ask twice!  That evening Jim and I were at the edge of the plain to intercept them as they left their open feeding grounds to fly to the trees where they roost.   Seven big geese and a cranky King Brown snake later (we almost stepped on it!) we were back at the truck and ready for a few “cold” browns and one of the most delicious meals I can remember.

As always our time in the Northern Territory was over far too quickly, and it was time to return to the land of ice and snow.  The good times, good friends, and good hunting we experienced there will not be soon forgotten.  Kath and I are looking forward one day not too far into the future to a return engagement with Havago Safaris and the black bulls of Carmour Plain.  Count on it!