Bucket list buff

“If ya don’t mind; I wanna stop here an’ go for a walk in the bush. I’ve got the German mechanic’s head hangin’ up in there an’ I wanna check on it”

My mind raced as I ticked off a range of scary possibilities. I’d only met Bryan ten minutes before; about six and a half feet of rugged muscle and quiet, almost intimidating presence.

For a brief moment I wondered what the German mechanic could have done to deserve decapitation.

Anthony must have seen the look on my face. “It’s a buff head.  Bryan’s hung it in a tree until the skull is clean enough to hang on a wall”Anthony and Bryan set off into the roadside bush and were soon out of sight.

The scrubby monsoon woodland of the Top End looks deceptively open, but even a large animal like a buffalo can become invisible just a few metres into the trees. With the boys gone I paused to think about what I was doing up in Arnhem Land.

Former editor and great mate Anthony had returned to his original career; teaching in the remote northern Aboriginal communities. I’d stayed with him before; plenty of boars and barra on that trip but no luck on buffalo.

This time I was serious; I’d brought a brand new rifle and we were on our way to the range to sight it in.  Anthony’s mate Bryan is a dedicated hunter who, like Anthony, has gained the respect and trust of the traditional land owners; and conditional permission
to hunt on the Aboriginal Homelands. I was privileged to be their guest.

By now the boys were back; with a pair of strangely pale horn casings. The nameless German mechanic had shot an almost albino buffalo.  They remove the casings from the skull as soon as possible; dingoes chew on them to get at the spongy, tasty horn cores.  Hyenas can ruin African trophies in the same way.  

We climbed back into Bryan’s ancient Toyota and headed for the rifle range. Well, it was KIND of a range:  facilities consisted of an old chair and an upturned section of concrete culvert for a bench. 

Bryan took a look at my new stainless synthetic Sako A7 in .308 Win. As a once a year hunter who mostly chases pigs and deer, I can only justify having one rifle.

Over the years that a buffalo has been on my bucket list I’ve seen many minimum calibre recommendations; from .270 Win up to 375 H&H. The .308 is about as much gun as this skinny old guy can comfortably handle; and it IS just barely adequate for Asian water buffalo, however  many thousands were killed with 7.62 NATO ammo during the BTEC shooting campaign.

Bryan has a beloved old Brno in .375 H &H; but he shoots most of his buffs with a Ruger .30-06. He agreed that the little Sako would be “OK”, but not the ammunition Anthony had bought for me. 

“Those bullets are no good, they’re for medium game” I’d requested 180 grain factory loads; the bullets they’d sold him were lightly jacketed soft points; designed for medium game like deer or pigs. 

Buffalo are large, thick skinned, heavy boned animals; an effective projectile has to penetrate deeply.  Bryan hand-loads Woodleigh 180 grain PSP big game bullets in his ’06, and he kindly offered to load me a few.

The sighting in was a formality;  I only needed  4 shots to get the rifle shooting in line and  2 inches high at 100m. That meant I could hold the crosshairs on a buff’s vitals anywhere from point blank to around 200 metres, about maximum effective range for the little .308 on
a buffalo.

Later that night, after a tasty meal of buffalo ribs we convened in Anthony’s reloading room. He shoots a Marlin guide gun in 45-70; as a life- long barefoot bow hunter he knows how to get close.

Yes, he’s taken a buffalo bull with a single arrow. He has the dies for a .308, so we could pull a few of my factory bullets and replace them with the Woodleighs, carefully checking
the seating depth.

It was a couple of hours drive out to the floodplain we were going to hunt, so we made an early start. Once again we squeezed into Bryan’s Toyota, which was towing his favourite toy; an Argo eight wheeler amphibious swamp buggy. Plan was to locate the buffs by vehicle and then stalk on foot.

I got to know Bryan better on the drive out to the Homelands; he’d learned to hunt fallow deer in his native Tasmania. His current hunting location was pretty special with buffalo, pigs, banteng, “bullocky” or scrub bulls and sambar and rusa deer available nearby.

He’s often asked to hunt by the traditional land owners. They effectively own the buffalo and pigs on their land, so it’s only fair that they get most of the meat. This time he’d been asked to supply meat for the important “young man’s ceremony” or initiation that was to be held the next night.

We called in briefly at the Homelands outstation to pay our respects.  Then the hunt began in earnest. Bryan advised me to keep my rifle at the ready, as buffalo could appear at any time. Was he psychic?  Seconds later he slammed on the brakes; a group of buffalo were standing in the middle of the road!

“Get out an’ shoot one!” suggested Bryan. The trio of buffs looked like a cow, calf and a young animal of indeterminate sex. I didn’t really want to kill a cow or calf; but we were after meat and I was the only one with a rifle to hand; I decided to try for the yearling.

The buffalo started to walk away as soon as I got out of the vehicle. I slipped the 3 round magazine into place – and all the cartridges popped out onto the ground.

“Don’t panic!” I told myself. I dusted off the rounds and reloaded the mag. But as I opened the bolt to chamber a cartridge all the rounds popped out again. I said a word as the world’s luckiest buffalo ambled off into the scrub.

You shouldn’t go on a serious hunt with an untried rifle.

At the range I’d loaded the rounds singly and hadn’t noticed the problem with the magazine. Bryan offered me his Ruger, but I liked the Sako’s accuracy and fit; so I decided to persevere.

The track petered out as we reached the gallery woodland at the edge of the floodplain. We parked the vehicles and went for a careful stalk to see if any buffalo were nearby. The strong barnyard scent of buff was in the air; but we saw nothing as we traversed the band of palm and melaleuca scrub.

As we stepped out into the open I was confronted by the sight of at least a dozen buffalo grazing on the far side of the floodplain lagoon; just like the plains of Africa.  “We’ll need the Argo to get to ‘em” declared Bryan.

Back at the vehicles Bryan looked puzzled. “Has anyone seen the key to the Argo? It’s ALWAYS in the ignition”

No one had.

“Have you got a spare?” asked Anthony

“Yeah, back at home. Two hours drive away.” The big fellow looked like he might cry.
“Well, we better use THIS one then” said Anthony with a grin as he took the key from his pocket Bryan uttered a few choice words. He told Anthony to expect revenge; served cold Klingon style. “When ya LEAST expect it!”

We piled into the Argo. I’d never ridden in an 8-wheeler before and I was amazed at how well the little amphibian soaked up the bumps; the only suspension being the low pressure tyres. 

We burst out of the tree-line onto the open grassland around the lagoon. A large bull buffalo was standing in the water about 500 metres away; he must have been hiding in the scrub when we walked through; hence the strong smell. He’d wandered out to feed during the delay caused by Anthony’s little joke.

The buff’s head came up at once and he started to trot towards the nearest cover; which was fortunately on our side of the lagoon. By the time we had closed to within 200m he was at full gallop, neck outstretched and horns laid back.  

Having dumped all my ammo AGAIN I loaded a single round. I lead him a little; holding the crosshairs on the front of the bull’s chest. He slowed just as I fired and I saw him stagger as the bullet hit. He stumbled and fell; but was quickly back on his feet; wobbling toward the safety of the scrub.

I reloaded but Bryan told me not to shoot.  “Not until he’s on dry land, we can’t cut him up in the water and he’s too big to move”

As the buffalo staggered out of the water I shot him again just behind the front leg, but he didn’t even seem to flinch as he disappeared into the trees.

“He’s down” said Bryan.

I loaded a third round and ran up to the edge of the bush. The bull was down alright; he had only just made it past the tree-line. My first shot had broken his shoulder and taken out the lungs, but somehow he had run almost 100 metres. I gave my tough quarry the courtesy of
a finisher behind the ear.

After photos we butchered the buff; taking every bit of usable meat.  Bryan estimated he was around 800kg; he had a decent pair of horns but he was a young animal carrying plenty of fat.

He proved to be excellent eating when we dined on fillet steak that night.  Of course most of the meat went to the traditional owners and the Community; as did the half dozen pigs we shot later.

I am happy to report that my dealer fixed the magazine problem with a minor adjustment to the feed lips; apart from that glitch I was very happy with the Sako.  It was light and easy to carry; although good stock design meant that it kicked less than my two previous .308’s.

A bit of work with a damp cloth had it looking like new again after a hard day’s use in a muddy swamp. And it was more than accurate enough for my modest abilities.  I’ll be hanging on to it!

I was also impressed with the Woodleigh projectiles; my second shot had gone clean through; but the first bullet had done the most damage; penetrating deeply after breaking the shoulder and expending all of its energy without exiting. I left my remaining cartridges with the boys for a projectile upgrade.  I’ll be back!


This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Sporting Shooter magazine.




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