Like the drone of a giant insect, the hum of the didgeridoo filled the hot afternoon. To the syncopated rhythm of the singing sticks, near-naked natives chanted a cacophonous medley. Hypnotized by the strange sights and sounds, I watched one of the oldest rituals of man performed by some of the most primitive people on earth in one of the most remote and least-known parts of the globe. The ceremony was a native corroboree, the people were Australian aborigines, and the place was that continent's Northern Territory, one of the last of the world's great wildernesses.
Spread over more than half a million square miles, the Northern Territory covers a sixth of Australia yet supports less than 2% of its population. It is a land of infinite resources and of riches beyond compare, but it is also a rugged land that has stubbornly resisted all efforts to tame it. Today the territory is still a place of empty spaces and broken dreams, of rivers with too much water or none at all, of towns without people and crossings without roads. By jet it is only 1,000 miles from Sydney, but it might as well be a million. For most Australians, the territory is that vague and shadowy somewhere they call the Never-Never or the Top End. But for the sportsman, the explorer and the adventurer, it can be the most exciting of all hunting grounds.
The main city and the gateway to the Northern Territory is Darwin, where civilization suddenly stops. At the city limits streets give way to trackless bush, houses to row upon row of towering anthills and people to buffalo, feral cattle and wild horses. There is only one proper road out of Darwin. It runs through Katherine south to Alice Springs. The route from west to east has no name. It is only a dirt track through the bush. Here and there along the track is a clearing with a store of sorts where a traveler can rest while he refuels his vehicle and himself.
There is such a store at Jim Jim, 190-odd miles east-southeast of Darwin, at the edge of the area known as Arnhem Land. It is a tiny box of a place set upon stilts and occupied almost entirely by a counter and several refrigerators filled with beer and soda pop. The store is owned by an expatriate Englishman named Tom Opitz, who runs it with his wife.
April 8, 1968
There are only two seasons in the Top End: the Dry, which runs from April through October, and the Wet, which for half the year turns the territory into a watery wasteland. In this season, when the east-west track is under water and floods rise partway up the stilts of their store, the Opitzes are cut off even from the occasional passing wayfarer.
The Wet had not yet begun when we flew into Jim Jim last October. We landed on a crude strip hacked from the jungle behind the store. With me was a photographer, Vic McCristal, and a hunting and fishing guide, Brian Craig. Brian's assistant, a young New Zealander named Bert Silver, had trucked our safari equipment and supplies in from Darwin the previous day.
We set up camp the first evening at the edge of one of the most beautiful lagoons I have ever seen. It was several miles long and in places half a mile across. Patches of water lilies floated on the surface, and dozens of bays and inlets probed the jungle. Along the shore pandanus trees dipped their roots into the water, providing shelter for myriad fish.
Just before dusk we gathered fishing equipment, backed the truck to the water's edge and launched the small boat we had brought with us. Fish broke the surface as they fed. Every now and then there was a splash, louder than the others.
"Barra chop," Brian said. "Cast towards it."
I was using spinning tackle with a silver-colored surface plug similar to one we might use for bass in this country. I cast, then rapidly retrieved. Suddenly the water erupted around the plug. A fish ran with the lure, leapt, turned and raced toward the boat. I raised the rod, still reeling. Five minutes passed before I finally maneuvered it to the net.
"Now there's a fish," Brian shouted. "The aristocrat of them all—barramundi. You'll go a long way to match that fellow."
By Northern Territory standards it was not a large barramundi—just over five pounds—but its fight had been worthy of a fish twice that size. Strictly a tropical fish, the barramundi (Lates calcarifer) is found throughout the northern coastal belt of Australia, in fresh and saltwater rivers, inland lagoons, tidal estuaries, bays and inlets. Actually a giant perch, it resembles our tarpon both in appearance—silver scales, thick body and square jaw—and fight, but all similarities end there. The barramundi is virtually boneless, and its firm flesh makes excellent eating.
We ate broiled barramundi for dinner and listened to the music of the jungle. Even in Africa I do not remember hearing as many bird and animal sounds as in the territory. There was an uninterrupted concert of chirps and chaws, twitters and trills. From the lagoon the splash of barramundi and crocodiles accompanied the song. In the trees flying foxes played tag. Small animals scurried in and out among the bushes. Nuts dropped with unexpected crashes to the earth below. Overhead, wings mysteriously flapped in the dark.
As my ears grew accustomed to the various sounds, I noted a shuffling in the bush. At first I thought it a wallaby. As the sound grew louder, I realized that it must be a larger animal. It was coming directly toward camp. I moved behind a tree and waited. About 20 yards away a shape detached itself from the darkness. Brian, from behind another tree, aimed a torch toward the intruder. In the circle of light stood a bull buffalo, its head high, its nostrils sniffing the air.
I grunted at the buffalo, secure in my place behind the tree. It waited another moment, then shuffled off into the night. It was a perfect end to a perfect evening. Of all the game in the Top End, the Asian buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is the trophy. This unexpected visit had to be a lucky omen.
I was too excited to sleep. As I strolled about the campsite savoring the scene, I came upon a small wooden sign tacked to a tree. On it were printed the words POSITIVELY NO SHOOTING. I was astounded.
Brian was vague about the sign's meaning. It seemed clear enough to me. Under the loosely defined homesteading laws of the territory, the land we had camped on belonged to Tom Opitz. It was his privilege to declare it off bounds for hunting if he so desired. It did not take much conversation with him the next morning to learn that he had done exactly that. We obviously were camped in the wrong place for a hunting safari.
It had taken all of the previous afternoon to set up camp. It took the entire morning to take everything down and reload it on the truck. It was noon before we got under way. Our destination was a billabong near the headwaters of the South Alligator River, where, Brian assured me, the hunting was both excellent and legal. En route we stopped to enlist the services of one William (Yorky Billy) Alderson, who was supposed to be an expert on the area into which we were headed.
Yorky's mother had been pure aborigine. His father, as Yorky was fond of explaining, had been a Yorkshire man. Now 70ish, Yorky was thin and bow-legged, with sharp aquiline features and skin the color of bitter chocolate. Long ago, when buffalo were shot professionally from horseback, Yorky was one of the territory's best-known guns. When jeeps replaced horses, Yorky retired to the tin-roofed shack in which he lived with his wife and a multifarious assortment of dogs and children. Yorky supported them all on an incongruous combination of government old-age and baby-bonus pensions.
Although the billabong appeared on "a crude map of the area to be only a few miles away, our trip took five miserable hours, most of it in four-wheel drive. By the time we arrived, Brian had turned an ashen gray and his forehead was beaded with perspiration. He could not straighten up and was in severe pain. Only then did Brian admit through clenched teeth that he had undergone an operation for hernia 10 days before. He had made vague reference to an operation in Darwin, but he had suggested that it had been minor surgery, performed weeks before. It was now clear that he had been in no physical condition to undertake this safari.
There was still Bert. Admittedly he was inexperienced, but he was young and strong. Brian insisted that Bert and Yorky Billy together would be able to handle the guiding until he recovered. In the meantime, he would direct the operation from camp. The plan he outlined was for us to go by truck the next day to the South Alligator River, then by boat and outboard north on the river to a tributary identified on our map as Nourlangie Creek.
Brian said there were buffalo in this area with enormous heads. They had never been hunted, he explained, because there was no overland way to reach them and no one had thought of using a boat to do so. It sounded logical at the time.
Yorky Billy did not show up the next morning. We waited for him until 9 and then decided to go on without him. On horseback he could move much faster than our truck, and hopefully he would overtake us before we reached the river. But we did not reach the river that day, even though, through binoculars, we could make out the fringe of bamboo along its banks.
We managed to get the truck through the thickest bush, but we were stopped by the black-mud plain that lay beyond. In the Wet, the black-mud plains are covered with water, and the surface mud is yards deep. In the Dry this mud bakes to a stonelike clay, and great fissures and cracks form in it. A man can cross a plain by jumping the crevasses, but a vehicle cannot.
Yorky Billy was in camp when we returned after dark. Brian was up and feeling better. There was a roast simmering on the fire, and ice still left in the chest. Over dinner the future began to look brighter. Yorky knew a way to the river.
The next morning Yorky led us through the paperbarks and then along a narrow ribbon of traversable surface that threaded the otherwise uncrossable plain. By 10:30 we found ourselves standing at last on the bank of the South Alligator River.
The riverbed was 10 feet below us and about 50 yards across—no water, just mud and oozing, quicksandlike silt. In the middle a single riverlet of gray-brown water trickled. Nobody spoke. We all just stared.
Then, from the north there was a rumble as if of thunder. We watched in astonishment as a solid wall of water—a tidal bore—rushed along the riverbed from the sea. It reached the point where we were standing at exactly 10:45 a.m. By 11:15 the water was rising so rapidly that a two-foot post stuck in the bank vanished in minutes.
We hastily unloaded the boat, tossed in gear, guns and lunches, and slid it into the river. The tide was so strong that at first we had difficulty making headway against it. By 12:30 the tide began to subside and we picked up speed.
At five minutes to one we reached the mouth of what appeared from the map to be Nourlangie Creek. After four or five miles it narrowed rapidly, ending in a small bay choked with brush. We pulled the boat up on shore and moved to high ground. An hour later the water was completely gone from the creek. Again there was nothing but mud. The running tide, from low to flood to low, had taken only three hours and 45 minutes. It had been just long enough to float us to the place where Brian said we would find the big buffalo.
As if on cue a bull buffalo moved into a clearing about 500 yards away. As we debated the merits of its head the bull's attention was attracted by a group of cows on the horizon. It began to stroll toward them, putting more and more black-mud plain between us. There was no cover for stalking the buffalo across the plain.
We headed for a large billabong to the south, hoping to find either a better approach to the bull or better buffalo. When we reached it, hot and footsore, I pulled off my boots and waded in fully clothed. As I did, thousands of magpie geese rose from the water. They flew about 50 yards, then set down on the plain, a great, chattering blanket of birds. While I soaked, wave after wave of geese flew low over my head, dipping so close that I could have touched them with an outstretched arm. Fortunately, the lagoon's other inhabitants were less curious. As I came back up on the bank I startled two crocodiles that had been sunning in the mud near shore not 100 yards from where I had bathed.
At 4 o'clock, without having seen anything but scattered groups of cows, we started back across the mud plain. At dusk we reached the place where we had left the boat. A brisk wind was beginning to blow. There was a storm smell in the air, and as it grew dark flashes of heat lightning seared the sky. In the distance we heard thunder.
The men built a fire, and Vic shot a goose for dinner. Yorky gutted and plucked the bird and laid it on the fire. It cooked to a crusty black and, although the meat was tough, it was juicy and pleasant-tasting.
Just as we finished dinner, the storm that had been building up since dark erupted in a torrential downpour. The Wet was evidently beginning early. We piled everything within reach on the fire to keep it burning, fashioning a pyre of logs, limbs, old tree trunks and branches that blazed a dozen feet into the sky. Surprisingly, it burned throughout the first hour-long storm and through several shorter ones. With the rain, the temperature dropped abruptly, and we were now shivering. We tried to sleep as we waited out the next tide, but only Yorky succeeded.
Just before midnight we heard what sounded like the splash of a fish. The tide was coming in. By 12:15 there was enough water in the creek to float us. The night was very dark. There was not a star or a familiar shape to guide us. What we could make out looked different than it had before. When we had come into the creek the tide was almost out. Now, at the beginning of our trip back, the river was rising to full flood. To the right and left there were broad arms of water that had not been there before. We mistook the junction of the creek and the main river twice before we actually reached it. With each mistake we lost valuable tide time.
Then, on the river itself, we lost our way and blundered off into a tributary. Yorky, who was rapidly proving more miscast than half-caste, insisted that camp was that way. To believe that a native could be less oriented than the dudes was inconceivable. So we believed him.
About 50 yards down the tributary Bert yelled from the bow: "Timber." His warning was one second too late. With a splintering of wood our boat rammed into a bush. All around us we began to make out the fuzzy shapes of more such bushes projecting from the water. We were definitely not on the main South Alligator. I remembered the compass. It showed that we were headed east, not south as we should have been. Yorky had struck out.
We backtracked to the junction and again began groping toward home. Once we hit a log dead on and for a horrible moment thought we had sheared a pin. As the log crunched beneath the bottom of the boat, the motor sputtered and died. Yorky, huddled in the darkness, mumbled, "Holy Mary and Joseph." He might have completed the litany had he not at that moment discovered water in the boat.
"There's a hole in the boat," Yorky shouted. "The water's coming in. We'll sink." The old fellow was terrified. For a moment I thought he would leap over the side. Only the thought of the crocodiles lurking there kept him from abandoning ship. The water in the boat turned out to be rainwater that had not been noticeable when the boat was planing.
We managed to restart the motor but were rapidly running out of water. At this point, we also ran out of gas. As the last of the river disappeared, the boat began to settle in the mud. Our outlook was far from pleasant. If we did not get to shore immediately we would be stranded in the middle of the riverbed for at least another 12 hours. With no water to drink and no cover from the scorching morning sun, we would be in serious trouble before the next tide.
We climbed over the side and promptly sank to our hips in mud. Using the boat for leverage, we somehow managed to drag ourselves and it to shore. We fell on the bank exhausted. It was still raining, the ground was sopping wet and we were covered with mud and slime. We turned the boat over and crawled under it, aching and chilled.
Ironically, first light revealed the outline of our truck on the horizon. We had come within a mile of it in the dark. Brian, who had stayed behind with the truck, had spent the night in the paperbarks. The storm and the rain had not improved his health.
We found the camp in shambles. The storm had lashed across our campsite with near-hurricane force. There was water everywhere. The contents of the galley were strewn from one end of camp to the other. There were ants in everything.
As I surveyed the wreckage, I reluctantly faced the fact that not just the camp but the entire safari was a washout. Brian was in no condition to guide us, even verbally, and he obviously needed a doctor. Yorky Billy had taken off for home the minute he reached dry ground, and Bert was about to take off for Darwin on his Suzuki in order to "guide" some American tourists on a one-day local outing—a fact nobody had bothered to mention before. The time had come to make some changes.
In Darwin I had heard of two professional guides who maintained permanent camps in this area. We reloaded the truck and returned to Jim Jim where Brian was left in the Opitzes' care until a plane could fly him back to Darwin. Vic and I then set out to find Don McGregor and his camp, which he called Patonga.
McGregor has not always been in the safari business. He used to be a loner—sailing around the Top End and putting his homemade canoe into bays and inlets unknown to white men. He lived on the fish he caught and the animals he killed and, in between, he hunted crocodiles for their skins. On one of his rare calls at a civilized port, he met a girl named Nola from the south and left the sea to marry her. For a while they were happy. Then the wild places he had known before began to call him and he went back, at first for weeks, then for months, leaving his wife alone in the lonely territory.
When he came home he drank, and as he drank he teased her with tales of his travels. She was drinking, too. One night she shot him through the stomach with a .22. McGregor was rushed to a hospital at Darwin, where he spent two weeks fighting for his life. His wife later did a year in a jail in Darwin. McGregor is now remarried and Nola is never mentioned at Patonga, but in the territory the men who knew McGregor then say that he has changed. He is no longer wild. The struggle to build and keep Patonga has been a sobering one, and it is by no means over. Financially, Don McGregor is still fighting for his life.
If a camp's setup alone determines the success of a safari business, Patonga's should be smashing. It has everything—superb accommodations, magnificent grounds, abundant game—but beyond the territory, where the clients are, few know that it exists. And McGregor, with typical territorial taciturnity, has made no particular effort to acquaint the world's sportsmen—both the shooting and nonshooting kind—with what Patonga and the territory have to offer them. It is considerable.
The bird life in the Top End is so remarkably diverse and unusual (more than 80% of Australia's 650 different species of birds do not occur outside the continent) that it warrants a safari all its own.
Besides birds there are numerous buffalo in the Patonga area, as well as wild pigs, a wide variety of marsupials, from the fat-tailed marsupial mouse to the brush-tailed phascogale to the inquisitive red Wallaroo, herds of brumbies and packs of dingos, the wild, wolflike dogs that are among the most ferocious of the territory's creatures. There are also geckos and skinks, lizards without legs that look like snakes, and goannas that grow over eight feet long. And there are crocodiles.
If there is anything that kindles excitement in McGregor, it is crocodiles. Some territorians hunt them for their meat, which has been alternately described as "good tucker" and as something akin to boiled rope, and some hunt them for their hides. McGregor hunts them for both reasons, but he hunts them, too, for the sheer euphoria of the experience. The hunting is done at night with head lamps, and the darkest nights are best.
"At first most people beam on sticks and rocks and all sorts of things," McGregor told me. "They think they see croc eyes everywhere. But once you see one, you know the difference. It's red. Bright red."
"What then?" I asked.
"Keep the light on the eye. No matter what happens, don't let the beam stray from the eye. And don't make a sound while we move in on him. Crocodiles hear real good."
"How close will we move in?" "Close," he said. "Five feet. Shoot behind the eye. Anyplace else the hide is too thick. After you shoot I'll harpoon him. Otherwise he'll sink to the bottom."
McGregor was right about the sticks and rocks and things. As we moved along the lagoon I found myself focusing on all kinds of inanimate objects. Outside the small circle of light it was so dark that I could not tell where the trees along shore ended and the sky began. The night sounds were strangely ominous. They suggested sinister shapes moving through the blackness. A mullet jumped from beneath the boat with a splash, and I almost went over the side.
The lagoon soon narrowed to a channel about 10 feet across. The foliage on either bank was so thick that it met and formed a leafy arch overhead. Then the water opened up again into what seemed to be another, smaller lagoon. Suddenly behind me McGregor hissed out the word: "Crocodile."
I swung around in the boat, and as my light swept the shore it picked up a single bright beacon. It was red—a brilliant red—and it glowed so vividly in the blackness that it seemed to give off its own light. McGregor had been right. I would never again mistake anything else for the eye of a crocodile.
The canoe started toward the red eye. All the noises of the night seemed to stop. I was moving as if in a great, silent void. The eye glowed brighter as we drew closer. I kept moving my head to keep the beam of light on the big eye. I raised my slug-loaded shotgun and tried to line it up on the eye. The light beam jumped to one side. I jerked my head back. The red eye was still there. I was having a terrible time trying to focus the gun and the beam at the same time. The canoe glided closer and closer. Then, without warning, the eye was gone. There was not a ripple on the water where it had been.
McGregor turned the canoe around and poled back toward the channel.
"What happened?" I whispered.
"Waited too long," he said.
"But we were at least 20 feet from him. You said we would be closer than five."
"Can't always get that close," McGregor said. "Too bad. No chance now."
"Let me try something," I said. I had with me a Burnham Brothers predator call, which had produced some remarkable results on past hunts.
We waited in darkness while the lagoon settled back to its normal night activity. Then, without flashing on the light, I began the call, screeching and screaming through the plastic mouthpiece for a full five minutes. We waited another five. Then I aimed the light toward the place where the crocodile had been and flicked on the switch. The red eye reappeared in the beam. I heard McGregor draw in his breath, as if not believing what he saw. He hesitated for a moment, then began to pole toward the crocodile. We were about 30 yards from it when the eye again vanished.
McGregor turned the canoe around and paddled back to the channel. Neither of us spoke. We sat unmoving for 10 minutes. Then I called again. This time I waited even longer to switch on the light. The eye was there. We moved toward it once more. Without taking my eyes from the glowing red beacon I raised the gun to my cheek. The barrel was a blur. I wondered which side of the eye was the crocodile's body and which side was its nose, and I knew if I wondered much longer the answer would be academic. We were within 30 feet of it now. I tried to keep my head and the light and the gun from quivering as I pulled the trigger.
There was a loud splash. Ahead of us rings spread upon the water. In the bush along the shore animals ran for cover. A bird squawked. McGregor said, "Missed." I looked at him foolishly. "Shot too soon," he added. "Fired ahead of him, too. Supposed to fire behind the eye." It was a clear case of batting zero. But for sheer suspense, the evening's hunt would be difficult to match.
From Patonga we moved north to Nourlangie, where Allan Stewart runs the other permanent hunting camp in the territory. Stewart is the antithesis of McGregor—voluble, gregarious and cavalier. His dress—boots and swagger stick, bush jacket and "digger" hat—gives him a theatrical look, and his history supports his appearance.
Stewart, who describes himself as "a kit-bag baby born on the Black Watch," was brought to Australia from Edinburgh at the age of 6 by his army father. When he was 13, he became a bugler with the Scottish regiment in New South Wales. Stewart left the army in 1945 with a distinguished war record as a commander of an infantry unit in the Middle East, Ceylon and New Guinea, the rank of lieutenant colonel and a permanent limp from a riding accident.
Of all the areas in the Northern Territory, Nourlangie probably comes closest to being the perfect safari spot. While the camp itself lacks the elegance and formality of Patonga's lodge and gardens, the physical setting is easily the most beautiful in the Top End. A government surveyor's error put Nourlangie's five square miles in the midst of the Woolwonga Reserve, surrounded on all sides by a vast game sanctuary.
Beyond a 30-mile-long series of lagoons is an enchanted forest carpeted in moss and painted in a hundred hues of green. In early morning mists rise in smoky swirls around the mangroves and the air is filled with perfume and the sound of waking birds. Wild pigs grunt and wallow in the swamps, brumbies gallop across the meadows and buffalo graze leisurely toward the marshes.
Buffalo are not native to Australia, but they have been on the continent almost as long as the white man. The first ones were brought to the territory from Timor by schooner in the early 1800s. From this handful, abandoned when the first settlements were abandoned, are descended Australia's present herds. They now number about a quarter-million head, and because they are true water buffalo they are restricted almost entirely to the tropical coastal belt of the Top End. They range over some 17,000 square miles of marsh and river flats, flood plains and tidal land, at home, writes Historian Ernestine Hill, "in a patch of Australia that nobody else wanted, a belt of swampy prairie unfit for the breeding of any other beast on earth but crocodiles."
In such wilderness the buffalo has thrived. Since the end of the 19th century more than a million animals have been killed for their hides and flesh. The early professional buffalo killer pursued his quarry as much for glory as for gold, taking wild chances for the thrill of the chase, firing over his horse's head as he galloped from beast to beast, bedding down in a bough shed before a different campfire every night, winding up if he were unlucky on the wrong end of a buffalo's horns with a ripped gut and a dead horse.
In contrast, the modern professional shooter is an efficient, mechanized dispatcher of death, a salaried employee who works with minimum risk and moderate reward for one of the several large buffalo works in the territory. But in spite of his more sophisticated methods of slaughter, he seems to pose no greater threat than his predecessors to the buffalo's survival in the territory. As long as professional shooting is limited to the Dry, and further restricted to the specific areas and to bulls only, the buffalo's natural increase seems able to keep pace with the meat industry. Of greater consequence is the damage the professional shooter has done to the buffalo's reputation as a sporting animal.
Because the professional finds the buffalo no match for his jeep, he assumes that it is no match for man. The error is understandable but, given the same circumstances, the lion, the leopard, the elephant and any number of other game animals are no match for man either. It is a well-known fact that most game species can be approached closely in a vehicle. But to approach an animal on foot is a different contest. It is what distinguishes hunting from shooting. And as a hunter's quarry, met on sporting terms, Australia's buffalo has every right to be ranked among the game animals of the world.
There are probably more and bigger buffalo at Nourlangie than anywhere else in the territory. But it was not until I had been there several days, and looked over at least 1,000-odd animals, that I spotted the trophy I had been searching for. It was late afternoon. I was hunting with Allan Stewart's head guide, Gordon Dunsmore. The buffalo came out of a wood at the edge of a large swamp about three-quarters of a mile away. We studied it through the glasses, and we both knew this was it.
To approach the bull upwind and under cover, we had to double back along our track about two miles. Once off the track, I led the way, sprinting at a crouch across low bush to the edge of a paperbark forest. The trees shed a long, narrow leaf that lay in a brittle carpet on the ground. It was like walking on Rice Krispies until we reached a game trail just inside the wood. We tiptoed along the trail moving about 10 paces at a time, then waiting 30 seconds or so for any sign of alarm. A bird or a wallaby, if startled, could give us away.
We were not long on the trail when a dark shape appeared about 50 yards to our right, moving parallel to us but in the opposite direction. There was evidently another game trail there, and a bull buffalo was using it to leave the swamp. We would have to pass in a line with each other.
The buffalo moved a few steps ahead and threw its head in a 180° arc, looking about the woods. We froze in mid-step. Then the buffalo started forward again, and so did we, trying with each move to keep a tree between us and it. Just when we thought we were clear, the animal stopped abruptly and sniffed the air. Ambling along the same trail, but headed toward the swamp, were a cow and two calves.
The buffalo met face to face, paused briefly, and then continued on. Now we were faced not only with the alarm from the bull, which would shortly be downwind of us, but from the cow and calves, with which we were traveling exactly parallel. We let them get ahead so that they were well upwind, and then again began inching forward.
My plan was to reach the edge of the swamp where there were several big trees to give me cover while I inspected the old bull. It seemed best to let the cow get there first. But she was not to be our only problem. Behind us there was another noise, and along the adjacent trail came a third bull. It was beginning to look like a buffalo traffic jam. This buffalo took an agonizing 10 minutes to pass us. I could now vaguely make out the form of the old bull—my bull—at the far edge of the swamp. The big trees were directly ahead, but to reach them meant crossing 100 yards of coverless clearing. With the cow, two calves and two bulls so near, we were certain to be detected. The only hope seemed to be a zigzag route, first to the left edge of the clearing where there was some cover and from there to the trees. I would still be exposed for more seconds than I liked, but it was the lesser of two risks. In slow motion, I gestured and mouthed the plot to Gordon. He nodded.
I took a deep breath and ran to the brush at the left. Just as I reached cover, the near bull raised its head. I had no idea whether it had seen me or not. I waited for what seemed an hour but was probably no more than three minutes. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Gordon. He was partway across the clearing, trapped without cover. His arms were outstretched, his body rigid. He might have been a statue. Finally he raised one eyebrow. He was signaling me to look the other way.
Off to the left stood an immature bull, obviously on sentry duty. Its nostrils were working the air with rhythmic vibrations. It was not yet alarmed but it was suspicious, and it was clearly communicating its qualms. The two big bulls stopped feeding. They seemed to be studying the young bull. The cow and her calves fed on, unconcerned. Had they looked up, they would have stared right at me.
After what seemed forever, the two bulls resumed feeding. I raised my rifle and studied the head of the old fellow through the scope. It looked even better than it had from a distance. I turned toward Gordon and nodded to indicate that I was going to try to take the bull. He winked. It was only the second movement he had made since being caught in the clearing.
To reach the trees at the edge of the swamp I would have to cross the other half of the clearing, directly in the line of sight of all six buffalo. To make it, I had to catch them in the brief instant when they were all looking elsewhere. If I made a sound or was spotted by even one of them, the stalk was over.
I waited out the minutes. Suddenly the moment was right. I dashed for the nearest tree in a crouch, throwing myself behind its trunk. I dared not look around it to see if I had been detected. Either I had made it, or the buffalo were already gone. I would have to wait until my heart, pulse and breathing returned to normal to find out.
Then, finally, I peered around the side of the tree. The buffalo were still there. The young bull had moved closer. It was fidgety, but it had not detected me. The old bull had its head low and was feeding as before. I raised my rifle and steadied it against the tree trunk. Through the scope I watched the big bull. Slowly it raised its head so that it was looking directly at me. I put the cross hairs on a spot midway between its horns and a fraction above its eyes. At this distance, if I managed to hold steady, the bullet should go about one inch above the point of aim.
I squeezed the trigger and, as always. I did not hear the shot or feel the recoil. The bull slowly sank to its knees, then dropped its head and went down. The other buffalo froze for an instant. Then they turned and galloped off in panic. At the far edge of the swamp the young bull stopped. It looked back for a moment, as if confirming to itself the danger it had suspected all along.
Gordon ran up and shook my hand. He said, "Good work, mate!" It had been a fine hunt for a fine trophy.
In camp we celebrated the buffalo for most of the night, and the next day the aborigines in the village near Nourlangie put on a special corroboree. They spent the morning painting themselves with ochre for the occasion. In the hut of Old Nem, the Magic Man, I sat on the ground with the children and watched him paint the bare breasts of his tiny wife Maria. She puffed on a corncob pipe as he dabbed white dots and designs on her black skin.
Besides being chief artist and Magic Man, Old Nem is also head of the tribe at Nourlangie and is the only member permitted to sing many of the special corroboree songs. The songs belong to him, and when he dies they will be buried with him. As he sang them in a whining, falsetto voice to the primitive beat of the didgeridoo and the rhythmic clanking of the singing sticks, the men stamped their feet and worked themselves into a frenzy. On the sidelines, the women clapped and swayed.
In their strange and garish paint, the aborigines looked like people of another planet—wild creatures performing a wild ritual in a wild place. The bush throbbed with their beat, and I found myself moving in time to it, unable to keep my feet still. The women danced toward me, waving and nodding and laughing as I tried to follow their steps. It was all vaguely familiar. I had done this dance before. At discoth√®ques.