A Cracker of a Trip

By Steve Price

On the first day of July of this year, my good friend Richard East and I began our journey to the Northern Territory for our first adventure in Australia’s Outback. I booked our trip in March 2015 since our outfitter, Andrew Mackay, is regularly fully booked well in advance of his hunting season which begins near the end of May and continues through the end July. I was very encouraged about our July booking since my research had revealed that the average rainfall in that region is the lowest for the year during July, and the temperatures and humidity are the most comfortable for outdoor activity.

Our travel began with a drive to the Atlanta International Airport, followed by a two hour wait, a one and one-half hour flight to Dallas/Ft. Worth, a three hour layover, a sixteen hour flight to Sydney, a three hour layover, and finally a four hour flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. Andrew and Lora, his chief cook and camp manager, were posted at the baggage claim area to greet us. We were relieved to learn that we would stop for the night after a two hour drive. As you can sum for yourself, over thirty three hours have passed since our departure from home.

Andrew had arranged our overnight stay in a comfortable roadside combination motel and pub establishment located about half the distance from Darwin to the town of Katherine. The food was excellent, the people friendly, and the atmosphere relaxing. By this point I had no idea what the date was nor did I bother to work it out. The next morning they served each of us a breakfast that would have sufficed for a family of three, and then we were off. Since we were to be in a remote camp for ten days, we made our one and only grocery shopping trip when we arrived in Katherine. Once the shopping was complete, Andrew carefully arranged all our gear, the groceries, a 50 quart cooler, an additional spare tire, a small air compressor, a filled propane bottle, and two large fuel containers into the rear compartment of the Toyota Land Cruiser. We drove for what seemed like two hours on the well-paved Stuart Highway Number 1 until we turned East on to Roper Highway Number 20. This section of road is partially paved and partially dirt. Some sections are two lanes and some are one. The Roper Highway is not well-traveled and is primarily used for access to the Arnhem Lands by the Aboriginal people.

We rode for nearly two hours on the Roper Highway to reach the Big River Station which was to be our home for the next few days. The term “Station” in Australia is equivalent to a ranch in the United States. Station properties in this area have a minimum size of 365,000 acres as mandated by the government. The limitation is based on the calculated cattle-carrying capacity of 4,000 head (which is determined to be the minimum to earn a ranch living). Once we entered the station main gate, we traveled for at least an hour more. During the last leg of the trip, we traversed three river crossings that would have been impossible (to keep your feet dry) without a 4X4 equipped with an aftermarket lift kit and tall tires. The hunting camp was established in a beautiful setting deep in the bush country on an elevated flat area above the Roper River. My attention was immediately captured by the sound of a beautiful waterfall less than 100 yards from the dining table. One would expect to pay a premium at a fine restaurant to experience a view to rival this. We were possibly 100 miles from the nearest available utility power. Our camp included a fully equipped kitchen with two refrigerators, a microwave, a toaster, and two grills. Lora constructed a small raised garden where she harvested freshly picked herbs to enhance our meals. Near the kitchen was a meat grinder and stuffer used to make fresh sausages with game meats and spice blend recipes that Andrew had collected during his travels to different countries of the world. Our private tents were large and comfortably furnished with double beds, nightstands with lamps, and fans. The most notable amenity was the spacious hot shower that Andrew engineered himself and constructed with Lora’s help. No finer shower ever stood in a hunting camp. By now you have ascertained that the camp is equipped with a dependable generator, and the two fuel containers packed in the rear of the truck were to provide electricity for the duration of our stay. Finally we are ready to settle in, unpack, and prepare to hunt water buffalo.

Each morning before dawn I was awakened by the faint starting of the generator mostly masked by the sound of the waterfall. By the time I was dressed and out of my tent, Lora had our lunches packed and breakfast well underway. Following a delicious meal usually highlighted with home-made boerewors (African sausage) or sweet Italian sausage, we were off in pursuit of buffalo. In the hunting area there are few roads. The ones that do exist can be nearly impassable due to erosion caused by the heavy rains during the rainy season in the winter months. To cover the massive property and not walk unknowingly into a dangerous encounter with buffalo, locating game here is primarily accomplished with a vehicle. A lifted Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with Diesel engine, tall tires, and Andrew Mackay at the wheel is virtually unstoppable. Roads are not required. We climbed rocks, river banks, forded rivers, and flattened anything that was between us and the desired destination. A New York taxi driver would be considered a novice compared to Andrew. By now, you have likely determined the need for the air compressor and the extra spare tire. We changed only one flat tire during the course of our hunt.

Richard declared that I was to be the first shooter since this was a 2X1 guided hunt. After two partial days of hunting an adjacent station property, Richard and I both had bagged gold medal boars. We had been unsuccessful in locating a respectable bull. “Respectable” would measure 92 inches SCI or more according to Andrew’s unwritten minimum. He hunted with a client who took a 106-inch SCI bull just a week prior to our arrival, so my expectations were high. Andrew made the decision to hunt Big River Station the following day. That third morning I announced that Richard was up to bat. Somehow the first shooter arrangement didn’t seem fair unless we took turns. Hunting 2X1 was a new experience for me, and I was finding it somewhat awkward. The same evening we spotted a wide heavy-horned bull accompanying a group of cows and calves. We slowly drove to a hidden spot down-wind of the group. Andrew quietly led our single-file procession to within 60 yards of the bull. Richard took the forward position, and his first round from the Blaser .375 H&H took the massive creature off its feet. One additional round for insurance, and the bull expired as the sun set. Richard and I felt that a load had been lifted. Andrew swiftly and skillfully caped the huge animal, and the trophy was in the Land Cruiser before dusk. When we arrived in camp, Andrew uncorked a bottle of champagne to celebrate the day’s good fortune in the bush.

Andrew is the stunt driver, the professional hunter, the tracker, and the skinner all condensed into a single man. He also performs the dipping and packing procedures. Andrew has guided professionally as his full time career for both dangerous and non-dangerous game hunts conducted in Australia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Turkey, Spain, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Argentina, Russia, Canada, and the United States for over 25 years. His experience as a professional hunter in “up close and personal” encounters with buffalo around the world, elephants, and leopard is extensive. Andrew is, without a doubt, the first man you want beside you when the hunted becomes the hunter. As you might imagine, he also retains an endless collection of entertaining first-hand experiences to keep things interesting when the hunting day concludes.

We continued our quest for trophy buffalo the following morning. We saw everything but the bull we were seeking. Big River Station has no shortage of young bulls and cows. It also holds a significant population of wallabies and a few kangaroos (most kangaroos are found in the southern regions of the country). Fresh water and salt water crocodiles sunned on the banks of the Roper River. We encountered an abundance of wild donkeys, a few wild horses, and the occasional dingo. I made a minimal contribution to the dingo population control effort. Right about noon, we spotted a possible candidate for the trophy we wanted. He was grazing with a group of cows and calves. Again, we drove out of sight to a downwind position. We approached the animals on foot using the high bank of a dry creek bed for cover. We were able to get within 75 yards of the bull but due to the heavy bush could not get a good vantage point to fully evaluate his headgear. The cows had begun to move our direction which presented a potentially bad scenario. This time of year many calves are born, so most of them are very young and vulnerable. Few animals pose more danger to hunters than a buffalo cow with a new calf. Slowly we managed to move away from the cows and close the distance on the bull with the same maneuver. The stalk seemed to continue for thirty minutes, but it was probably closer to ten. Finally we gained a position to evaluate the “business end” of this beast. He met our criteria. The initial Barnes triple-shock projectile from my custom Weatherby .375 H&H propelled the huge animal into an inhibited forward motion, and the second sent him to the earth where he remained. We arrived in camp early that afternoon where Andrew uncorked yet another bottle of champagne to launch the second celebration of the week.

The fifth day, we tried our luck as anglers in search of the exceptionally flavorful barramundi. Lora told us that these fish tend to lie in wait for their prey under sunken logs and other underwater cover, but the most important thing to keep in mind is DO NOT STAND NEAR THE EDGE OF THE WATER. The water is deep all the way to the bank, so a crocodile could lurk unseen. After the morning and evening bait-casting sessions at different areas along the river, we conclusively demonstrated that we were better hunters than fisherman. Other than our guides, a ten-foot salt water crocodile was the only eyewitness to our shortcomings as anglers.

Of course table fare is a very important aspect of any hunting experience. Fresh grilled barramundi taken from the river beside the camp was the featured item for was most certainly my favorite meal in camp. We feasted on a variety of meats including rusa deer, sambar deer, lamb, and juicy beef steaks. We were served a delicious well-balanced meal three times daily whether in camp or in the field. One evening Lora served New Zealand green-lipped mussels with wasabi for a dinner appetizer. One morning she surprised us with eggs Benedict. Needless to mention, a low-cholesterol diet was not in my list of priorities for the duration of the excursion.

Noteworthy “comfort facts” include the following: I saw no insects other than ants. There were no bushes, trees, or vines with thorns or poisonous leaves, and I was told that snakes are rarely seen that time of year. The low temperatures were approximately 65F and the highs around 90F with about 40% relative humidity. Since a July rain shower is a rare occurrence, the rain covers were removed from each tent revealing a magnificent view of the Southern Hemisphere sky over the bed.

During our visit, the owner of a neighboring station took us up for a helicopter tour of his station property with an opportunity to spot buffalo there. The four-seater R44 was a great way to see the huge property in about 45 minutes; however, we were unsuccessful in our search for buffalo. I commented that it was a great day for a helicopter ride, to which he replied in true Aussie style, “It’s a cracker of a day!”

On our return trip to Darwin, we took a detour to visit Mary River Station. The owners of the property designed and constructed a unique lodge equipped with indoor pool, mechanically-operated roof panels that open and close to control air flow, and trophy animal mounts taken from the property as well as from other countries of the world. During the first afternoon hunt, we glassed rusa deer, sambar deer, scimitar horned oryx, addax, eland, and a small group of banteng. Richard took an exceptional Javan rusa deer that afternoon, so we opted to spend the remainder of our visit preventing the dust from settling on the reclining sofa cushions while sampling a collection of fine Australian beverages.

As with most good things, there also was a bit of pain. A pre-requisite to obtaining the required approvals for a hunting trip to Australia is applying for an Australia Visitor’s Visa. Once obtained, Qantas Airlines requires the Visitor’s Visa number with a request for a dangerous goods permit to allow your ammunition to be placed in your check baggage. Permit applications must be made weeks in advance (for each state in which one intends to hunt) to import a firearm, possess the firearm, and hunt with the firearm. Three additional permits are required to export the firearm back to the US. This is six permits total for border patrol and police use in addition to the Visitor’s Visa. One must plan thoroughly before attempting to take a firearm to Australia. The requirements are bordering on the absurd, and the time spent with polite officers was excessive.

In conclusion, Australia’s Outback is a superb place to meet incredibly friendly English-speaking people, enjoy great fair-chase hunting, and have a “no cellular devices in use” experience. I highly recommend it!