A Walk in the Light Brown
By Roger Marsh
It was about 3:00 PM on a late summer's afternoon. The day was not as oppressively hot as it had been in the preceding week, but the sun still let you know it was around. We were climbing one of the many hills on the farm, the four-wheel-drive ute bouncing unevenly over the access track. My task as hunter was to try and track down any wild dogs that might be around, as well as shooting any other feral animals I saw on the farm.
Peter, the farmer, works a full-time job in addition to his cattle property, and often needs help with fences and other things. Shooting is one way I can make his life easier. He enjoys shooting, but rarely has the time to do it.
So that is where I come in. I was dropped off from the ute a few kilometers from the farmhouse, and started to make my way, patrolling just below a ridgeline, and then heading down a gully. The foliage was light scrub, waist high grass, with the inevitable clumps of lantana scattered here and there. I moved quite slowly, checking every step, and looking for signs of game.
Not looking where one's feet are going can be a recipe for death in the Australian bush, such is the potency of the local snakes. Mind you, I don't care where I am in the world, I will still watch where I am walking. Australia's snakes are the most dangerous when evaluated in terms of toxicity, but there are very few snakebites, even less per capita than in the U.S. Whether it is the Inland Taipan or Eastern diamondback, dead is dead.
The risk of being bitten for hunters is increased in some ways, because the snakes have less warning of your approach than with hikers who charge along making heaps of noise. I gave thanks for the fact my parents drummed into me the importance of watching every step as I was growing up, and not only in the bush!
Even though the grass was high, it was not especially thick, so I was able to check each step without much trouble. Hunting really makes me feel alive, as every sense is keen and alert, and the problems of day to day life are driven far away through having to focus one's every sensory resource on the task at hand.
As I was working my way between two patches of scrub I detected movement ahead, the telltale flick of an animal's ear sticking up through the grass. It was about fifty meters ahead of me. This could be a wild dog, lying down with the rest of its pack out of the sun.
I froze, thumbed off the safety, and raised the rifle to my shoulder. I didn't yet have my finger on the trigger, as I wanted to check what kind of animal it was through the riflescope. As I found the sight picture, I saw the distinctive ears and facial features of one of the types of wallaby that are found in the area. I lowered the rifle, as I had no interest in shooting these creatures. (They can be shot under a permit when they are competing for stock feed in a serious way.)
Smiling to myself, I decided to see how close I could get before he spooked. I managed to get within five meters before he decided to hop off. The long grass and wind direction aided my stalk considerably, as did taking my time and watching carefully for dry twigs in my path.
As he went hopping away a mob of wallabies exploded out of the grass another twenty meters distant, and followed their startled mate before turning around and looking at me, still well within range of the Remington .243 I was carrying. I think they realized that I was not after them, particularly as I hadn't shot the first guy.
One might think that a .243 is a bit heavy for hunting wild dogs, but with feral pigs also present in the area, it is best to be prepared for the largest possible target. Generally, hunters are advised to use a .243 and upwards on Australian feral pigs. A 30-30 is about the most popular caliber as pigs are generally hunted at close range, and sometimes require rapid follow up shots. I carry a 30-30 most times these days, for that reason.
I continued my way down hill, giving a mob of the farm's Fleckvieh cattle a bit of fright as I materialized out of a patch of scrub. Often when hunting dogs I take some time to use a predator call that imitates a wounded hare or rabbit. If I do so, I set myself up in a concealed position that gives me a good field of view. In some ways I prefer using game calls when I have another hunter with me, as I don't like having to watch my six o'clock for cunning dogs who want to sneak in the back way. I find it easier to watch all directions when I am on the move.
I came on a dry watercourse, and noted game trails going up through a kind of tunnel in the scrub. I thought briefly about crawling up that little tunnel, but decided that a shotgun would be better medicine if I were to try anything like that.
I kept moving, stopping every five paces or so to check wind direction. In these hills and gullies, wind direction can be very unpredictable. I took a bit of a break at this point, crouching down, having a drink (and a bite out of my wife's excellent shooter's sandwich, a rare delicacy), and generally planning my next moves.
I worked my way around the base of a hill, and then headed toward a water hole, with the wind in my face. Water holes late in the day often yield excellent results in terms of game. Not this day however. There was not an animal to be seen.
Many times that afternoon I had wished I had brought a camera with me, such was the profusion of native bird-life I had seen. Yet another benefit of not charging around in a hurry, and frightening all the animals away. It was getting dark by now and I decided to head back toward the farmhouse. I got onto a vehicle track and moved more rapidly than I had all afternoon.
Perhaps too rapidly, because in the failing light a fox went scurrying away before I was able get him in my sights. Kicking myself I kept going, and it was completely dark by the time I approached the house. Pete was out in his ute looking for me, shining the spotlight all around. It is testimony to the effectiveness of my camouflage clothing (on humans anyway) that he failed to see me, even when the light was trained right on me and I was waving an arm. I made a mental note to wear something red as well, though other hunters are never a factor on this property.
Having told Pete about the fox, he told me to get into the back of the ute and we would go spotlighting, as fair-dinkum an Aussie hunting method as there is. It is a particularly effective means of dealing with rabbits, hares, feral cats, foxes, and other introduced species.
Over the next hour or so I discovered the effectiveness of the .243 as a long range varminting round, as the strong spotlight picked out the animals at ranges out to 300 meters or so. Alas we didn't find the fox.
At one point we took a break, stopping at the grave of an 8-year-old boy who had died on the property back in the early 1900s. We paused to think on our flimsy mortality, and then made our way back to the house.
When I arrived home my wife could see the look of reflective concentration on my face, and we talked of the beauty of our land, but also its terror, and sadness, as our three children slept peacefully in their beds. Hunting is a sport that makes you think of such things. The combination of sharpened concentration and proximity to nature provide rare opportunities to appreciate the world.
Copyright 2003 by Roger Marsh. All rights reserved.