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The Allure of African Specialized Game: Part Two

On the mountain trail

Editor’s Note: We pick up the action in part two of this report on day seven. Watts and Team Roussos had spotted what seems to be a promising Mountain Nyala, high up in the hills, at the end of day six. They are hunting in the Damaro concession in Ethiopia

Day 7: The Grind | Best Day Ever

The self-induced pressure of my rookie safari days, ten years earlier, had been transformed into experience which now added up to hunting maturity. All safari hunters undergo a different learning curve. At this juncture, the doubt and skepticism I used to have had been replaced with calm and optimism. This was specialized game.

Every bit of this professionalism and confidence would be needed on this day, because two hours into the stalk my hamstring on my left leg popped. I had severely strained it three weeks earlier while training at my ranch in preparation for this hunt. My therapist had warned me against going to Ethiopia, climbing mountains and about the possible risk of a full tear, but I’m hardheaded.                                                                                                      

The most difficult part of the climb was still in front of us, maneuvering our way along the face of the mountain, curved like a banana, on nothing but a game trail, for about 600 yards. Slip and you're dead. It was that simple.

Jason offered to turn around and go back, but I told him, “No, I can handle it, as long as you take my rifle.” It was the first time I had ever been on active stalk without a rifle, but experience had taught me to not be so prideful that I don’t ever accept assistance. It’s not a sign of weakness. Somehow tracker Mohammed had found a small footpath pounded out by generations of mountain nyala before. There was nothing but open air and a drop of 5,000 feet on my right side. They handed me a thick, long stick that I used as a walking support.

Baby step by baby step, sometimes inching along, just to make sure my footing was solid, I made it to the other side. Mohammed had navigated across the trail first and judging by his hand signals, encouraging us to hurry, indications were that he had spotted something. I knew the shot was still at least fifteen minutes away, but it was now time to settle into a personal zone of silence. Time to file away the pain in a mental drawer and close it tightly. Put the fatigue away in a cabinet and become one with my rifle.

Recovery and therapy to repair the muscle tear would have to wait. Because at this moment about 400 yards ahead along the saddle and to the left back into the canyon was something rarely seen in the safari world. I knew it was extraordinary because the trackers were climbing to such great heights for me to get a shot.

Jason gave me back my Jarrett .338 rifle. I felt whole again. We crawled along a saddle, trying to stay as low as possible as wind rushed up the mountain. When the wind stopped, Jason, Kappie and I emerged up into the valley. We were at 9,300 feet elevation. Everyone else stayed behind.

Aided by low fog that concealed our movements, we settled in on final approach. I still could not see the nyala. We closed the distance to 125 yards, taking cover behind a tree, which conveniently curved left at my eye level. That’s where I placed my gun. I was good now.

I popped open the scope covers, calmly looked up and saw two nyalas browsing and then, as I glanced to their left, I saw a third set of horns. The horns were all I could see. And then he emerged from behind the vegetation. It was him. A 650-pound brute; tall, statuesque, brownish gray coat with eight dots, white stripes across the top and base of his front neck and I could see at least three stripes on his right side. No pressure, just the most regal animal I’d ever laid eyes on.

At a meandering pace the enormous mountain nyala came into view. I just stood there, patiently taking in the moment. Calm I was, but still in awe. The animals had no idea we were even in their presence. Complete element of surprise. Seven years earlier when I first started safari hunting, impatience would have pushed me to have already taken this shot. But I’d graduated. The PhD had been earned, with honors. The gun rest was solid. Breathing was steady. The crosshairs were not wiggling. No need to rush the conclusion. The trigger pull would be the easy part.

They had told me the average mountain nyala trophy they shoot is in the 34-inch range. Looking at him, we could tell this big guy was clearly 40-plus. There would only be one way to get a true measurement. I let Jason admire the majestic animal as long as he wanted to. “No, no, no, not yet Marc.”

Marc Watts with mountain nyala

Seconds more passed, waiting, waiting and the bull was actually quartering just a tad towards me to the right. After getting an extended viewing at him, Jason calmly said, “OK Marc,” and I knew it was time. On the third exhale I tightened the trigger, a mere 2.5 pounds of pressure, and the Jarrett banged.

The 225-grain Swift A-frame found its mark. The bull toppled and then slid about 100 feet down the mountain. Some thick vines and vegetation cushioned his fall, making the recovery fairly simple. It took us another twenty minutes to ease down the canyon, and then we finally got to see his majesty close-up.

I don't know how to say it except just to say it. It is the most honored that I've ever felt as a hunter. It was the entire set of circumstances in Ethiopia that prompted this feeling, not what had unfolded the last half-hour. I knew what I was laying my eyes on. The photos of him turned the heads of even the hunting purists, many of the men who have their trophy rooms featured in those hunting room books, who told me, “Marc, I never thought I'd see another mountain nyala this big.” It's that such pursuit that defines the challenge for me. That’s why I hunt.

That hunting day, that hike along cliffs and ledges, for that animal are my best ever. It is the most harrowing, but brilliantly executed stalk I have ever been part of. True to my wish the horns extended the measuring tape 42 inches and it entered the SCI record book as the largest mountain nyala ever taken by a hunting client.

The following year in 2009, the Carlo Caldesi Award committee honored this accomplishment with a Top Six Caldesi Award. It also took home the 1st Place trophy from Safari Club in the Major Awards/Africa category. My second book, “1 & Done,” features an extensive photo collection from this safari and numerous lessons I learned from Jason.

There is no other hunt in Africa like this. The hunt for mountain nyala is simply in a class all by itself. It is my greatest African trophy and it holds that top spot in my ranking slightly ahead of the hunt for giant (Lord Derby) eland.–Marc L. Watts


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