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.”