It’s impossible to say how many rusa deer we saw that first morning, several hundred at least I’d say. Some stood with their heads up like periscopes above the long grass, focused on the approaching ATV. A few remained where they lay. There were individual animals, lone hinds with single calves and mother groups with crèches of striplings. There were small stags with simple spikes, larger animals with velvet-covered racks and every other size in between.
Mid-April in Central Queensland and I’d booked a two-day hunt with Broadsound Safaris, a hunting outfit with an international reputation for producing the largest free-range Javan rusa deer in the world. Owned and operated by Greg and Colleen Coyne, the 4000-acre property is home to six species of deer as well as banteng cattle, some large horned goats and the occasional pig. It also serves as the base for their crab fishing operations.
Habitats on the land vary from mangrove forest along the St Lawrence Creek to dry forest hill country. In between there are mud flats and grasslands and thick patches of sub-tropical forest where even bantengs can disappear in the blink of an eye.
Scattered throughout are lagoons and water-holes, some natural others man-made, which provide deer with the mud and water they love as well as feeding and breeding zones for the huge number of waterfowl and other birds.
Javan rusa are the predominant deer species having been around for several decades. The antlers some of the stags produce are amazing and not surprisingly the current world record bow-shot rusa was taken on this property. Red deer have also lived in the vicinity for many years, their numbers fluctuating according to the season with travelling stags attracted by a resident herd of red hinds. Also present are small herds of Moluccan rusa, chital, hog and Mesopotamian fallow deer which Greg introduced himself.
All the hunting is done from a small ATV. The acreage has a grid of trails used according to the weather or the time of day and once a suitable animal is spotted it’s then stalked on foot. Given the number of animals, walkabout hunting isn’t feasible or practical as the chances of accidentally bumping into something you’re not looking for is high and if one deer takes off in a hurry so will all the others.
While most hunters go to Broadsound for a big Javan rusa, I was looking for a Moluccan. Smaller than the Javan, Moluccan rusa stags differ in appearance with a lower, stouter build and a thicker head and lack the mane present on the Javan and the distinct throat patch. Additionally, their antlers don’t grow as large with around 76cm suggested as the maximum length.
During the first day we appreciated all the different deer on the property, saw some wonderful Javan stags and a classy hog deer that crept away through the grass as well as a couple of small herds of chital. Moluccan stags were a bit thin on the ground. We only saw one animal of any size and he wasn’t what I was looking for. Fortunately he was feeding alongside a nice Javan and the differences between the two species were obvious, especially their size, shape and colouration. The Moluccan’s antlers were rubbed clean of velvet while those of the Javan were still growing.
Day two dawned with us travelling around in the vehicle. As it had been the day before, there were deer everywhere and once again I was enthralled by what we were seeing. In a back corner of the block we bumped into the main herd of bantengs, the bulls resplendent with their dark coats, cows and calves brighter in caramel coloured hides. As we approached they disappeared into a patch of jungle-like subtropical forest, leaving a thin cloud of fine dust hanging in the still autumn air.
Further on a couple of red stags were racing around in a shallow gully, each trying to steal the other’s hinds and literally roaring up a storm. In a patch of scrub behind us a fallow buck fired up, possibly inspired by the antics of the reds.
We kept dawdling and looking and eventually, on top of a low hill, found a group of deer with prospects ‑ half a dozen rusa hinds with calves, the same number of rusa spikers, a lone red hind and two big-bodied stags. One of the stags was a typical Javan with a wonderful set of velvet antlers most hunters would be happy to collect. Here he was just another contender for the better-head-in-a-few-years-time stakes and consequently of little interest.
The other was a smaller, blockier animal about two-thirds the size of his companion, his velvet antlers shorter and heavier, grey and frosted towards the tops with pointed rather than dome-shaped tips, a sure sign he’d reached peak growth and was ready to rub out. When Greg said he thought the stag was as good a Moluccan as he’d seen for some time, the job was on.
We drove away from the knoll going across the wind until we were out of sight then came around in an arc until the breeze was in our faces, climbed out and began a stalk back towards the deer. The rifle I carried was borrowed from Greg, a Model 70 Winchester fitted with Leupold scope and chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum. With one round up the spout and two spare in the well it was more gun than I’d handled for many years. I’d test fired it the previous morning and knew it would shoot exactly where I aimed.
We were closing in on the deer when the red hind hove into view, feeding towards us and away from the others on a tangent of her own. Moving from tree to tree we eased closer, stopping each time she raised her head to look around.
When we were about 40m away Greg gave her a friendly little wave, the slight movement catching her eye and stopping her in her tracks. She raised her head, cocked her ears and stared. He waved again with the other hand and snapped a few small branches off the tree we were standing behind. The hind raised her head a little higher, had a think about what she thought she was seeing then turned and trotted away, leaving the others undisturbed.
We moved up 30m or so and stopped behind another tree to look ahead. The other deer were still feeding slowly across the wind no more than 80m away. The Moluccan stag was out in front but his all-important shoulder area was shielded by a couple of small trees. We shifted sideways and stopped again, the rifle cushioned on my hand against the tree trunk as I watched him through the scope. With the cross-hairs settled on his shoulder I waited until he stepped clear of the other deer then stroked the trigger.
He disappeared at the sound of the shot, most of the noise whipped away by the breeze. Out of long habit I reloaded the rifle, watching the spot where he’d stood and didn’t expect he’d need a second shot but it pays to be prepared.
Unnerved by the sound of the shot but uncertain of where it had come from, the other deer milled about for 30 seconds then headed off down the other side of the hill in a tight bunch. Only then did we walk down to where my stag lay on his side in the weeds with those wonderful antlers thrown back.
Greg stuck out a hand and I accepted his congratulations. As always there was a sense of achievement in having taken what I’d come for, tempered by a touch of sadness at the stag’s demise - a slightly weird admixture of feelings all hunters experience at different times.
I unloaded the rifle and lay it against his haunch then walked around him, taking in his size and smell and shape. Then I knelt in front of him and held his antlers for the first time and silently thanked him for the hunt he’d given me and the personal goal he helped me realise.
Greg went off to collect the vehicle and I sat with my deer, slowly winding down after months of planning. When he came back there were photos to be taken and an animal to be dressed and broken down and made ready for the cool room. As responsible hunters that was the least we could do.
Back at the house with all the knifework and lifting completed Greg ran a tape over the antlers, both coming in at just under 75cm. With the last of the formal proceedings completed, my Broadsound Moluccan hunt was over.