Buffalo Thompson

| April 07, 2005

Monte Thompson and his Browning with super guide David Gold and their trophy. Run a tape measure along those horns and it will read 1011/2 inches.

In a famous scene in the movie “Crocodile Dundee,” our laid-back hero ambles up to a huge and potentially lethal water buffalo in remote, wild, way-out-of-nowhere northern Australia.
Casually he comes face to face with the great beast, touches his finger to its forehead and gently draws his fingertip down the length of its nose. The bamboozled buffalo slumps comfortably to sleep at his feet.

Monty Thompson didn’t do that. He used a .375 H & H Browning at 110 yards. And that’s only because he left his .416 Winchester back at camp.

“I hit him with a shoulder shot, maybe a lung shot I thought,” says Thompson of the 2,400-pound wild bull. “He moved, then he turned and came at us. I was ready to shoot again. You don’t want to give them a second chance; they’re dangerous when they’re mad at you.”

Thompson, 65, who pilots a new Pete 379 long nose with a reefer for Jim Palmer Trucking out of Missoula, Mont., made Australia the first step in his plan to hunt some of the world’s biggest, meanest game. “I like the idea of one big deal every year or so instead of a lot of little weekend hunts.”

Except for those once-a-year journeys, Thompson doesn’t hunt much. He hauls beer and groceries, and sometimes frozen loads, across the north and west of the lower 48. Thompson has been driving since he left the service in 1972. It was in the Army and Air Force that Thompson started driving and working with trucks and diesels.

“I was in the infantry in the army, then I went into the air force, and I was a heavy equipment operator. We had to haul our own dozers on a flatbed, and mostly I drove the flatbed,” says the Wisconsin native who called Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., home for 30 years before moving to Missoula four years ago. It became home when he was stationed there after a hitch in Vietnam. He was posted to Alaska but came back to Michigan when he cashed out of the Air Force. For the past four years at Palmer, he has called Big Sky country home.

“I love it here. I love the scenery, and I like what I do,” Thompson says. “These Jim Palmer folks are good people. I’d say they’re one of the two best outfits I ever worked for; I haven’t work for better. I don’t want to change. It’d take a crowbar to pry me out of here.”
But before Thompson could begin his odyssey down under, he had to face a fear that had a firm grip on his throat. He had to fly half way around the world.

“I did one tour in Vietnam, one year and one day. It was supposed to be only 365 days, but somebody goofed off,” Thompson says. “I was just a heavy equipment operator, but I volunteered to go up on flights that dropped flares. I was supposed to go up one flight, but I had a bad feeling about it and so I got somebody else to take my place, and he got someone to take his place. That sort of thing happened all the time. But that plane had only dropped one or two of the 360 flares it had on board when it got hit and went down. I’ve been terrified of flying ever since.

“When it came time to go to Australia and live out a dream, I said ‘It’s time to get over this.’ I took a couple of Valium and headed for the airport. I wasn’t sure what would happen.”
Thompson slept most of the way to Sydney, Australia, and never needed another Valium, despite several more flights. But he was tested again after he flew into Darwin in the remote far north of Australia – Crocodile Dundee country – on a big commercial jet.

At Darwin airport he saw a lot of big U.S. Air Force planes on the ground and felt a tug of his Air Force years. But he still had to fly half an hour to Melville Island, a barely-inhabited jewel, 65 miles long and 45 miles wide, 16 miles off the north coast of the Australian mainland in the Timor Sea.

“I was packed into a little six seater. We got to the runway and sat there ready to take off, and a little red light comes up on the dashboard,” Thompson says. “We started to roll, and I was thinking he was going to go for it and he’s going to ignore that little light, and that didn’t feel too good. But he took the plane back to the terminal. Then we got on another one. It was smaller, and one of the passengers was in the co-pilot’s seat. I figured if I wasn’t scared on that flight, I’d be over my fear of flying.”

The flight was “easy,” he recalls now.

Thompson had been forced to leave his big Winchester’s gun case back in Darwin when it wouldn’t fit into the little backup plane, but a substitute was found in the local fishing camp, and Thompson and his guides drove out in the Aussie bush to the hunting camp, a journey Thompson says “seemed to take hours.” In the back of the Toyota, Thompson sat with Lawrence, a 72-year-old Aborigine guide who would amaze the American with his litheness and uncanny ability in the bush, and his habit of going “walkabout” every couple of weeks, trudging about 20 miles through the bush, a practice many Aborigines use to get back closer to their historic, primitive roots.

Before they left camp, the man in charge, David Gold, had Thompson take his two rifles out and fire at a horned buffalo skull target 100 yards away. “He wanted to see if I could really shoot, and that was fair enough. The Winchester I shoot a little low and left. I did better with the Browning. I hit it four times out of four, all within 3/4 inch of each other right below the center of the horns.”

His biggest problem as the buffalo hunt started out was not which rifle to use, says Thompson, “it was understanding the Aussies. I hadn’t been around them since Vietnam when we had some of their planes at the base I was stationed at, Na Trang, and it took a while to understand them again.”

He also had to get used to hunting again and wondered how he would adjust. “I’d grown up on a farm, and we’d hunted in the hard times, squirrels, rabbits, birds and deer. After ‘Nam I’d hunted some with my parents, and I enjoyed the stalk, but I couldn’t do the killing or the cleaning any more.”

On their first day after a buffalo, Thompson set out with Lawrence and the hunt leader, David Gold, the man from Australian Safaris who Thompson had chosen to be his outfitter. “We saw a really big buffalo that first day, but David said, ‘Don’t even bother to open the door, I can get you a bigger one than that. Anyway, he’s going to start moving.’ And soon as he said that the buffalo started moving. He knew his stuff inside and out, but I was going to be surprised if he could find a bigger one because that first one we saw was huge.”

The next day began uneventfully. They tracked down a number of ordinary bulls in the sparse bush but nothing special until Gold stopped the Toyota. “I only saw two of them at first. But there were three – two back a ways from us, one up closer. Dave looked at the two at the back and judged that one had a set of horns 90 inches long, tip to tip. But then he pointed to another one. ‘That’s the one,’ he said, ‘should be about 100 inches, maybe an inch more. Follow me.’”

The hunting party moved up through some medium density tropical rainforest, and Thompson moved out front.

“At something a bit more than 110 yards I got him with a shoulder shot, and he turned,” Thompson says. “He started to move away, then turned back and came at us. I got another shot at about the same range, hit him no more than five inches from the first shot. We started moving in. He was dead, but he didn’t quite know it, and I put a finishing shot into him from about 70 yards.”

David Gold estimated the bull at 15 years old, but it was Gold’s stunningly accurate long-distance assessment of the length of the horns that amazed Thompson. They measured 1011/2 inches. The horns were shipped back to the U.S. Thompson’s not quite sure what he’ll do with them. They are so big and wide, he says, laughing, that mounting them on the front of the Pete, Texas-style, might make him run illegal.

Thompson had taken the biggest set of horns on the island so far that year by four inches. According to Gold there were only two bigger bulls on the island, one with 106-inch horns and the other with 110-inch horns. Several days later, when he was on a boat fishing, the unarmed Thompson would see one of those bulls, belly-deep in water at the shore, tantalizingly close but hopelessly out of reach.

Thompson’s next stop on his down-under safari was at a fishing camp on the island run by Les and Annette Woodbridge, sharing an air-conditioned tent and “whatever you wanted” to eat or drink with two other adventurers. The first day in camp Thompson went wing shooting.

“There are a lot of geese coming in low over the water, and we went out on to a river to shoot,” he says. “One flock did come over, but I didn’t get anything. Matter of fact, only the guide’s son got one. The bird came down in the scrub on the other bank of the river, and we went to get it. When we got close, they stopped the boat and someone started bashing away at the bush on the bank with a big pole. I had no idea what they were doing; I thought maybe these geese are pretty tough, and they thought maybe it was still alive and might move. I’m wondering why I don’t just go in and look for it. But then this big salt-water crocodile comes sliding out of the scrub and down the bank and into the water. That’s when they tell me the big crocs go in after birds that come down like that.”

Good thing Thompson stayed in the boat. Those crocs are some of the biggest, most dangerous animals in the world, responsible for killing a number of unwary humans over the years.
Thompson went back to the river again to do some sport fishing, catching fighting fish he describes as “nothing like I’d ever seen before.” The waters around Melville boast 27 different species of game fish, including barramundi, mangrove jack, jew fish, golden snapper, threadfin salmon, trevally, turrum, mackerel, northern longtail tuna, cobia, giant herring, queenfish, coral trout, barracouta, macktuna, tarpon and cod.

The last quarry Thompson would go after was a Tiger shark, and some huge ones lurk in the warm tropical waters off Melville Island. These dangerous, solo hunters can grow to more than 15 feet in length and weigh in at over 1,500 pounds.

“I had my heart set on a really big shark,” says Thompson. “All I really wanted was to get my picture taken with it and pull some of its teeth to bring home. I told the guide this when we started out into open water, and he looked at me and said, real slowly, ‘If you’re dumb enough to do that, here are some pliers, go ahead, because none of my boys or me are gonna do it.’ I dropped the idea.”

The shark hunt, in a 24-foot outboard-powered open fishing boat, began in calm, crystal-clear water with no wind but headed into choppy water as the winds kicked up around noon. The best fishing round was well offshore in open ocean. It was another ordeal Thompson had been waiting to face, wondering how he’d handle it.

When he was eight, Thompson watched his brother, six years older than him, drown in lake waters near their Michigan farm. It was Memorial Day, and the older boy had waded into the water when he dropped off a shelf and into a hole and went under the water. For years Thompson had lived with a terror of deep water, even suffering through bouts of nightmares about it. And Monte Thompson “can’t swim a stroke.” Even as Thompson had planned the trip, and knew where he had to go, he was unsure how he would feel in the boat. But once again, Thompson, wearing a tightly cinched lifejacket, overcame his fears as he fished for shark. He was fine, except for some queasiness when the wind brought chops and swells.

“I got a shark, but it was no man-eating giant. They say there are some huge Tigers out there that’ll take hours to land. Mine must have been about 40 pounds,” he says, laughing.

Thompson says his former fear of flying was not a factor on his trip back to Montana, and he has no qualms about setting up his next adventures.

“Just planning these trips is exciting. It builds and builds until you can feel the adrenaline even before you go,” he says. “I’m going to go to Africa with David Gold; he knows buffalo, I know that, and he works South Africa and Zimbabwe. But I think for the Cape Buffalo, one of Africa’s most dangerous species, I’ll take my biggest rifle. You never know with buffalo. After that I’m thinking about hunting bear in Siberia.”

If hunting buffalo, geese, sports fish or shark on Melville Island appeals to you, Monte Thompson recommends both of the guides who helped him: David Gold for the buffs (www.ausafari.com.au/) and Les and Annette Woodbridge for the fish and fowl (www.topendsportfishing.com.au/).


Chris Carpenter didn’t have to look far for meat to fill his freezer – this buck was waiting for him in is driveway.

Rods & Barrels
A Home Where the Deer Roam

When he picks up his gun, Chris Carpenter hunts for meat, not trophies. Once his freezer is full, his deer season is over. Sometimes the seasons lasts longer than others.

Carpenter, who drives team (with wife Karen) in a new Freightliner Columbia as a senior driver for Covenant Transport of Chattanooga, lives in a new home set on 81/2 acres in Gilbertsville, off I-24 in western Kentucky. From his front porch he can see his large front yard and trees, no other houses, no other people. He has 177,000 acres of public land to hunt plus access to private farm hunting nearby, and he can fish Kentucky Lake or the Tennessee River. He’s allowed one buck and one doe, but he can buy more doe tags for $10 because the area has a doe overpopulation. His deer are processed locally into a variety of meals for his table, and the table of friends and people at Covenant who get occasional care packages. “I get it made into roasts, steaks, hamburger, summer sausage, jerky, breakfast sausage, even kielbasa with jalapenos and cheese,” he says.

So why is this one of his favorite outdoors photos?

“We’d just bought the house, and a buddy was driving me home. I remember saying, ‘Hey it’s gun season again, I’ve got to get out there and fill the freezer.’ I like to make people laugh so I told him, straight-faced, ‘There’s probably one waiting for me now on my front lawn.’ Well, when we got to the house there was this six-point standing in the driveway just looking at me. I jumped out and ran to get my gun, and the buck ran down the hill in our front yard and turned to look back. I came out with my seven millimeter Remington, still in my shorts and T-shirt, and he’s looking at me from 150 yards away. My buddy thought I’d missed him, but he’d just dropped out of our sight. I’d hit him in the heart. Now that’s my kind of hunting. I didn’t have to get dressed or travel anywhere or sit up in a tree stand in the freezing cold and rain to fill up my freezer.”

Carpenter has some competition in the woods now. Karen learned to hunt because both her husband and her father seemed to enjoy themselves so much, and she was left hearing their stories when they came home. She’s good at it, too. We may call her Karen “Two Shots Two Deer” Carpenter because indeed her first two shots each bagged a deer, one of them the biggest doe taken in the county.

But Karen Carpenter hasn’t shot a deer in her in her front yard, and she never will. And neither will her husband any more. “She’s put it off limits now. She says the ones in the yard are pets. Once they’re there they’re safe. So now we have does and new baby deer running and playing in the yard.”


Off-Duty Destinations
Follow the Leaders
When you think about it, St. Louis to Portland, Ore., and back again is not such a difficult OTR route. But 200 years ago when OTR meant over-the-river, it was.

A wide range of destinations along the 3,700-mile Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail can leave you in awe at what two heroic American explorers and their party achieved. The extraordinary Meriwether Lewis, 28, and William Clark, 32, with 45 men and a dog left St. Louis in the spring of 1804 in a 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller boats called pirogues. They would spend almost three years opening the new nation of the United States to the West. Their epic journey took them up the Missouri River, over the Rockies and down the Columbia River to the Pacific. The explorers had been charged by President Jefferson to map a new route to the Pacific Ocean, make contact with the American Indian tribes, obtain specimens for further study and keep a full record of activities during their expedition.

Lewis had left Washington, D.C., in 1803 and went to Philadelphia and on to Pittsburgh to oversee boat building. Then he went down the Ohio River to meet Clark and camp at Wood River, Ill., near St. Louis, on the Mississippi River opposite the entrance to the Missouri, until winter was over. After they left St. Louis, the explorers traveled through what are today parts of Kansas, Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. They spent the winter of 1805 at the mouth of the Columbia River and headed back, landing triumphantly in St. Louis.

As drivers who know the modern-day difficulties of hauling supplies half way across the continent in all weathers, you may have one of the best appreciations of the hardships and courage of the exploration party. Today you can pull your tractor into some of the places they went and stand where they stood, see sites in some cases unchanged from what they saw, and meet peoples descended from the American Indians they met. As a bonus, a lot of these places are near an interstate and usually aren’t crowded enough to make parking a hassle.

There are memorials, parks, replicas, trails, interpretative centers, historic sites, visitor centers, recreation areas and overlooks all along their route and the official Trail, which is kept by the National Park Service. Websites can pinpoint the expedition’s historic locations, access, cost (if any) and detail for you what you can expect to see and experience.

Go to www.lewisandclarktrail.com or the National Park Service sites www.lewisandclark.org or www.nps.gov/lecl to find all of the possible places you can go to get better acquainted with the Trail. If you want to get better educated on Lewis and Clark, try www.pbs.org/lewisandclark or www.lewis-clark.org. Of course, in the cold months, do your checking before you decide to park the rig; not all of the Trail’s sites are open year round.

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