More Buffalo with a Bow

 Australia, North America, Greenland: 2002 – 2015
More Buffalo with a Bowseven species.
By Dr Adrian de Villiers       

We go on these adventures to hunt different species for the whole adventure. Only a fraction of the time is spent actually dispatching the animal, and we do love the animals we shoot, as strange as it sounds. By them having value, they in turn are protected, and only the older bulls are taken.                                                                 

Many years later, in 1998, I saw an advert in Magnum magazine for buffalo hunting in Australia, for those awesome, huge, wide-horned water buffalo. Graham Williams of Australian Buffalo Hunters was not keen to take a bowhunter, and said I would have to practice at 70 yards as he was sure he could get me that close, but not much closer. I was again using a 105# bow, and it was shooting incredibly well, even out to 70 yards. I took my 14-year-old son Ryan, also a bowhunter, to the Outback north of Darwin, and changed to a 100# bow. What I loved about my new bow was the adjustable “Let off” – I could draw 100 lbs and only hold 10 lbs. This meant that I could draw the bow when I saw an animal coming, and hold as I let it get closer.

My first Australian buffalo hunt was a text book walk and stalk. We saw a lone bull lying under a blue gum tree in the heat of the day, deep in the shadows. He had chosen a good spot – a lone tree surrounded by a dried-out swamp, the ground burnt rock-hard and knobbly, and all hell to crawl on in the 40 degree sun! He had his back to the wind with zero cover anywhere within a 180 degree radius of his eyes.

“If you go right around and come in from his left side you may be able to crawl up behind the tree in his blind spot. I’ll wait here and watch you. Watch me with your binoculars – I’ll tell you when to go and when to stop,” Graham said. I made my way around through the blue gum forest until I was about 70 yards away on the bull’s blind side. As I started to crawl in poor cover, trying to line his left eye with the tree trunk, I realised that he had chosen his spot really well. The wind was blowing almost towards him from behind. Once behind the tree trunk he would definitely smell me – it was a catch-22 situation. I was about thirty yards from the tree, just getting up out of sight of the bull, when he burst out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter. I just saw a dust cloud.

My bow was set on 30 yards, and not sure what was happening, I instinctively drew it. The buffalo made a wide arc, charging towards Graham, and then back around the tree towards me. He lumbered out, and at 30 yards he stopped, head down and tilted back, typical buffalo pose, nose up trying to get my scent. I noted the deep sweep of his nice long horns, and a six-inch gap where a good shot could enter the chest. I had a bright green nock on my arrow, and that’s all that showed after the shot.

“How lucky was that!” Graham said. My bull was top 10 SCI – I was chuffed to say the least.

“I’d love to come back with my older son Shane,” I told Graham. “I want to add the banteng to my list of wild oxen. Can you arrange it for me?”

In late August 2002, Shane and I were both there, shooting 100 # bows and 1000-gr arrows.  We had an Aborigine hunter to take us for a banteng. As far as I know, the only huntable ones are on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territories of Australia, originally imported from Indonesia. Indonesian sailors dropped them off to breed so they could hunt them for fresh meat when they regularly passed by. They also left water buffalo there for the same purpose. A rickety game fence across the base of the peninsula is designed to stop them spreading into the Northern Territories.

In 2004 Shane and I arrived via bush plane at Murganella, a small dusty airstrip on the Cobourg Peninsula, to stay in an eco-tourist camp on the Arafura Sea run by Reuben Cooper, a famous ex-Australian rules rugby hero, and his wife Dawn, who gave us all exotic meals such as turtle skewers, cobia sushi, barramundi and kangaroo steaks.

Every early morning we would leave camp with Reuben’s bushwise son Sam, and go into the reserve where the Aborigines were allowed to hunt. A major drawback was that the Aborigines in the Northern Territories had banned the use of rifles and handguns, so we had no rifle back-up. I would have to be dead sure of all my shots.

After five days of walking with only two days left, late one afternoon we found a large herd near an old abandoned sawmill. There were banteng everywhere, bulls chasing each other past where we were hidden. The dominant bulls were black, the rest of the herd being more ochre-colored, similar to South African impala.  I stalked up to a monster male that had not yet changed to black, and was on the verge of shooting it when a pitch-black dominant bull, shimmering in the noonday sun, challenged him.  They stood face to face like two prizefighters. I was in a patch of long grass, dead still, my head covered in a leafy suit, my bow above the grass at full draw. I must have looked just like a dead tree. The bulls were only 30 yards away and both broadside. The non-dominant bull was a much better trophy, but the black one looked so much more majestic and just what I was after. I took the coal-black one.

I was ecstatic to have a banteng and such a pretty one too.  In 2002 there were only two bow-killed banteng in the SCI book, and he was only half an inch above the minimum-sized entry for banteng. In retrospect I should have taken the much bigger non-dominant one, since my cape was miss-handled and arrived at the taxidermist mouldy with bad hairslip. I had to buy a new cape.

A yak hunt was next, in 2002. Originally from the Himalayas, Mongolia and China, there are 14 million in China and 600,000 in Mongolia, and have been imported into various countries. Wild yaks are not huntable in their countries of origin, so I looked for places where they could be hunted as free-roaming as possible, as in Texas and Colorado. The yak, like the musk ox, is a primitive species, and not nearly as alert as the Cape buffalo, bison, or banteng. If threatened, they tend to form a circle or “lager” with all their heads pointing outwards with the females and young in the middle, or they stampede off like a flowing woollen blanket over the hills as musk oxen do. But we were warned that they could charge if approached too closely, or were startled or wounded. We were told to stalk very carefully and stay close to the sagebrush which predominates in the windswept sides of the mountains. The cold winds that blew off the ice on the mountains suited them, as they do not do well in hot climates.

I eventually found my herd in a depression on the side of a dormant, snow-covered volcano. A freezing wind was blowing in December and the rivers were solidly frozen over. Shooting in gusty, ice-cold wind was not what I was used to back home in South Africa.

The desolate side of the volcano was totally bare of any wildlife, the undulations in the terrain subtly masked by the flat, grey-brown sagebrush. Once I got higher up the mountain I peeked over the edges of every depression, making sure not to skyline myself, and found the herd within my bow range. My camouflage and leafy suit worked perfectly. I glassed the yaks. The larger bulls were all beautiful animals and all looked like trophies. I needed to choose the right one, without having another behind him – my 104# bow and 1000-gr arrow could easily shoot straight through both.

As a big bull stepped clear I drew, anchored, and waited till my 56 yard pin (single moveable pin set beforehand) was steady, as I was below the lip of the depression. I made a slight allowance for the downhill angle, aiming a little lower, and released the deadly missile. The shot was perfect. It looked a bit far back, but the animal was quartering away and I had aimed at the opposite front leg. The wind had drowned out the sound of the shot, and the rest of the herd was unaware that anything had happened. My animal jumped forwards and spun around. When the other bulls saw he was agitated and smelt the blood, they suddenly started attacking him.  I have seen that with Cape buffalo, wildebeest and Australian water buffalo. I am not sure if it’s an instinctive reaction to get the wounded animal away from the herd as it could attract predators, or if it’s an opportunity to take over the spot of the dominant bull. 

In no time he was down and dead. As I stood up and the herd saw me, they rushed away to disappear into another unseen depression. I marvelled at what a beautiful animal he was with an awesome set of horns. He was #1 SCI for many years before being overtaken.

In 2014 I decided I should try and get lucky No7, the musk ox. I had once almost frozen to death in deep snow on a mountain lion hunt in Idaho, and had seen videos of musk ox bowhunts in snow many degrees below zero, and was not interested in that at all. Frank Feldman of Greenland Bowhunters took autumn bowhunts in Greenland in much more temperate conditions. A year later I was on my way there for my Arctic adventure. As we flew over Greenland to land at the Narsarsuaq airport, I got a glimpse of the Arctic ice shelf. Greenland is the largest island in the world. A five-hour boat ride to the little island we stayed on was a joy, with blue, house-sized icebergs floating past in the fjord. Our route was blocked by a jumble of icebergs, but the boat captain skilfully slipped through.

At 61.01.462N and 47.52.408 E, we changed from the large launch to Frank’s smaller PT boat. It was drizzling and cold and misty, but not much further to the camp on a small island, and after four days’ travelling from South Africa, I was glad to get to my new “home,” a 5m² log house.  It was Sunday 6 September 2015.

I spent the day assembling my bow, setting my sights and practicing on the small broadhead butt supplied by Frank. Monday morning I was up early, having not slept at all from excitement. In the middle of the night I had walked outside and seen the Northern Lights Aurora Borealis, caused by the magnetosphere of the earth being affected by the solar winds. The spectacle was awesome, and further proof of how far away from home and my comfort zone I was.

We left early in two boats and cruised the fjords, and soon found a herd lying up on a plateau overlooking the beach. Frank glassed them – there was a good old bull. Dropping anchor, we silently rode to the shore on the smaller outboard. The team waited while Frank and I approached on foot. As the herd was facing our way, we had to make a wide detour into the side of the mountain to get around them and into the wind. On our way through the large rocks we literally bumped into two large bulls that we had not seen from below. We carefully maneuvered around them once we determined that the herd bull was better. The herd was scattered about on the lower of four contours, near the beach. The ground was covered with soft, spongy moss and large boulders. We had to belly crawl from rock to rock, and eventually I was soaking wet.

There were 15 females with young, a herd bull, and about four mature bulls that were trying their luck with the big one. He would graze, chase off a younger bull, and then lie down for ten to 15 minutes, only to get up and chase off another one. He would walk over, sniff at one of his cows and lie down again. Each time we slithered into position, he seemed to time it perfectly and get up and walk away from where we were. On one occasion we were sliding on a slippery mossy slope when a bull suddenly appeared twenty yards in front of us. We were in good camo, me in a padded leafy suit and Frank in Kuiu camo. The bull saw us, did not know what we were, and just backed away.

Eventually we were well hidden, above the dominant bull we wanted. Lying almost flat, I could just see the top of his back.  Once I rose up, almost all of the herd would see me, except for the bull. How they reacted and how quickly I shot would perhaps be the difference between success and failure.

“Nock an arrow, set your sight on 30 metres, stand up very, very slowly, and shoot him in the middle of his chest and directly in line with his hump,” Frank said. I had six “Dr Death Broadheads” my own make and design, and nine Spitfire mechanicals for caribou, having previously lost two Dr Deaths practicing on the small broadhead butt in the high winds near the camp, and only had four arrows with fixed blade heads, the only ones legal for musk ox in Greenland. The Dr Death broadheads weighed 185 gr and the Spitfires 100gr. My sights were set for the Spitfires at 30 metres and they shot perfectly with both points. The longer the shot the more the arrow would drop from where it was sighted in.

I drew my #75 bow and slowly stood up, aimed perfectly behind the shoulder and shot. I watched as the arrow appeared to drop out of sight, then heard a horrible “crack” – the sound of solid bone being hit. I had hit the humerus just above the elbow.

“You hit the brisket, much too low,” Frank said. “Try to get another shot in quickly.” Surprisingly, the animal hardly reacted to the shot. He spun around looking behind him, perhaps thinking one of the younger bulls had hurt him. My bow was so quiet with the 800 gr arrows that he never knew he had been shot. I drew, and waited for him to turn.                                                                                                                                                                                   “He’s still at thirty,” Frank said.  I thought I had shot perfectly. But it was low. How could I shoot so badly at so close a range? I was shooting steeply downhill – I should be shooting high. As the bull walked further and further away, Frank said, “We cannot leave a wounded bull out here. If he starts to run for the hills, I am going to have to shoot him with my rifle, or you can!”  I was horrified. All this way to shoot it with a gun.

“Frank, I’ve still got two arrows left.  He’s close enough for a shot!” He was milling around with the herd at 70 yards. They were only slightly agitated, smelling the blood on his leg. He was perfectly broadside with a female just in front of him, another covering his abdomen, with less than a metre clear over his shoulder. I had practiced a lot with my Bowtech destroyer up to 90 yards with 100-gr points – my only problem would be estimating where to set my sights with the heavier heads. I set them on 75 m – the range finder told me it was 61 m or about 67 yards. I had to pull off a good shot, or I could lose my trophy to a rifle shot. Luckily, the arctic winds had not yet started for the day and it was dead calm.

I was so angry at myself that my buck fever was gone. I was calm and focused. I was now a sniper, and everything depended on this shot – the arrow drop was my only concern. My release felt perfect, I heard a soft “thud,” and I saw him shiver.

“I got him. I got him, he’s mine now.”

“I think you hit him in the foot.”

“No way, the shot was good.”  Although I had bright pink fletches, in the dark shadow of the mountain neither of us could see the arrow clearly. The herd was on a plateau just above the beach. I had previously glassed the plateau from the boat and seen a footpath going down along the rocks, so I knew where he was going when he went over the edge. I had one arrow left. Frank was still sure I had missed the long shot. Nocking my last arrow, I sprinted up, hoping the bull was still close by the edge. When I looked over, I saw he was at 65 m, quartering steeply away and walking slowly. I aimed a metre in front of him and released, just in front of his left hip, angling towards the right shoulder, the pink fletches bright in the sudden sunlight.

I grabbed Frank and hugged him hard.  “I got him. I got him, that’s a heart shot.”

When we caped him out we found that my long shot was perfect too, just behind the shoulder – he was already dying as he walked off the plateau. I never let an animal suffer unnecessarily so I would have shot that last shot anyway.

My bull was so old and his tips so worn down that Frank said he doubted that it would survive another cold winter. The artic conditions, the massive blue icebergs passing in the fiord, the turquoise water, and the huge cod we caught will be a memory I will cherish forever.                                                                                                                       

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