My Nyala – the sustaining memory
By William Archibald
This time last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There was surgery. Clean margins, they said. Great News.
I’m riding a commuter train into Philadelphia to Jefferson Hospital. It’s a routine follow-up, and I’m hoping for a zero PSA reading. I shouldn’t, but I have more apprehension now than when we were looking for my friend’s wounded buffalo. Cancer scares me a lot.
The train is full. It’s raining and everyone is a little wet. The windows are dirty. We’re passing through Camden. Not exactly a garden spot.
I close my eyes and I’m following PH Roche du Preez through high bushveld, a mixture of thornbush, high yellow grass, and a scattering of trees. The sun is bright and warm on my face.
Roche’s instructions are straightforward and uncomplicated.
“Stay behind me. Get your rifle on the sticks as soon as I put them up. Don’t shoot until I tell you.”
I know the drill. I’ve hunted with Roche before. Up ahead somewhere is a nyala bull. He was a breeder, but you know nyala – they fight and he lost. He has a broken ankle, and now he must be removed.
We move slowly, heads swiveling, eyes searching. Every shadow, every dark spot. Roche moves easily and quietly, but then he’s half my age – same age as my daughter, in fact. I move with him, although not quite as easily nor as quietly. I’m more accustomed to oak leaves and huckleberry brush in New Jersey. He was born to this.
I strive to stay within 2 feet of the shooting sticks – they are presently carried at trail arms. I can look around and ahead for the nyala. I have a pretty good eye for game. I also work on moving quietly. Watching where I walk. Trying not to crunch on sticks, trip over rocks, or walk into a thornbush. We have hunted together enough so that I can read Roche’s body language. His head goes slightly forwards, his shoulders droop, and he crouches a little. He’s on to something.
Now, the sticks are carried at high port. It’s time to really pay attention. I close the distance to within 2 feet of his back. I focus all my attention on staying close and moving quietly. Roche is my eyes and ears now. No need for me to look around – just stay close and stay ready. He moves, I move; he stops, I stop.
The sticks are up. I move, using his body to shield my movement. The .270 goes onto the sticks. The safety comes off as soon as the forearm touches down. I see the nyala for the first time through the scope.
Roche’s left shoulder is behind my right. His head is next to, but a little behind, mine. His binos are parallel to my scope. I know this, but I am unaware of it now.
All my focus, all my concentration is on that little circle of light. I pour myself through the scope. Just me, the crosshairs, and the nyala.
He is standing in the shade of a big tree. Practically invisible, his coat blending in perfectly. Motionless. The light breeze is on my cheek, just to the left of my nose – good. He is slightly left of broadside, excellent position for a shot. About 100 yards – no problem there. But… there is a lot of tall grass between him and me.
I want to hold, just above the joint where his shoulder and body come together, but I can’t. There’s just too much grass in the way. This 130-grain bullet isn’t going to buck much brush.
The crosshairs settle higher on his shoulder. I should catch lungs and spine. That should do it. I’m steady. I check the scope for parallax. The bull stands motionless. I’m waiting for the word from Roche. It seems like a long time, but it isn’t really. I hear him say, “Take him.”
I begin to squeeze. I’m totally unaware of the sound of the shot. I’m barely aware of the recoil, but as the image through the scope begins to distort, several things happen in the blink of an eye.
Halfway to the nyala, I see a grass-top flick sideways. I hear the bullet strike with a flat slap. I see the bull drop like a cinderblock.
Habit takes over. As I lift the rifle off the sticks I bolt a fresh round. The safety comes on without conscious effort. I stoop and retrieve the spent brass and shove it into my back pocket.
We are moving. The sticks are back to trail arms. The grass is chest-deep in places. We move at an oblique angle to approach the nyala from a safe direction – my rifle is at high port in case another shot is necessary. But it isn’t.
I look down at the magnificent nyala bull. Life has left him. There are no high fives, no hooting, no hollering, no laughter. This is a solemn occasion. I have killed this beautiful animal. I console myself with the knowledge that his memory will live with me for the rest of my life. His glorious shoulder mount will hold a place of honor in my home. I will look at him every day and remember him. A fitting epitaph for this magnificent nyala bull. Far better than a banquet for hyenas and buzzards.
It’s a two-week safari and there are other memories to be made. For now, I am content. If I had to fly home tomorrow, it would be enough. Thankfully, I don’t. There will be a red hartebeest, a blue wildebeest, a springbok, and a kudu. Each has his own story. Each will make his own memories for me. Each will hold a place in my heart.
The train jolts to a stop. Market Street. Next stop is mine. A two-block walk, and I’ll get the word. Good or bad. Africa, South Africa, Roche, and the nyala have filled my mind and my time. The memory has eased the difficult trip. That alone is a fitting memorial to that fine bull.
There are some very dark places in my life. Yours, too, I’ll bet. At my age, there are bound to be many more. That’s life. That’s getting old. I accept that.
I’ll always have that high yellow grass, the thorn bush, a scattering of trees, the sun on my face, and that big beautiful nyala bull.
I don’t even have to close my eyes to see it all. You see, there’s more to a safari than just a dead animal. His life and death have added so much to my life. So much more.
There is a lesson here for all. Don’t wait. If you want to do something – anything, DO IT. Age, illness, or luck may intervene at any time. Take the first step. The second step will follow, then the third, and others. You don’t want to be lying there, looking up, breathing your last and thinking, “Damn! I wish I had ________!”
I’m going back. Sooner than anyone expected, myself included. Life is too short. Don’t deny yourself your passion. Besides, there is a big, old eland with a bad attitude making trouble on Roche’s ranch, and I mean to put a stop to that.
I hunt with Roche Safaris of Swartruggens, South Africa. My rifle is a Remington 700 in .270 Win. I use Barnes VOR-TX ammunition 130 grains. My rifle scope is a Leupold VX3 3.5x10x40mm. My binos are Bushnell NatureView 10×42.
Oh, yes. My PSA was 0.
William has been hunting for 56 years – moose in Maine, caribou in Quebec, mule deer and antelope in Montana, and whitetails from Maine to North Carolina and most states in between.
His first safari was a retirement gift from his wife in 2011, a second in 2015, a third in 2016.
Next safari is scheduled for April 2017 and he will be taking his daughter and seven-year-old granddaughter.
My magnificent nyala bull scored 74 on Safari Club International scale. Note his left hind leg broken at the ankle.