Moses in the Wilderness

A bluff overlooking the Mole River.

We stand on a bluff overlooking the largest wildlife refuge in the country of Ghana. Mole (MOH-Lay) National Park unrolls under our feet, soft and green in the rainy season. Life abounds in this savanna wilderness: baboons, warthogs, birds, crocodiles, antelope, and snakes await the curious traveler, as do lions. But we have driven a long and difficult road looking for an even more majestic beast: the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana).

The African bush elephant is the largest living land animal. Bulls are known to stand up to 13 feet at the shoulder and weigh more than 8 tons (more than a Land Rover!). What makes this mass even more amazing is that it is rigged for speed. The fastest human cannot outrun an elephant.

I ride in the back of our truck with Austin, a dear friend and former student. We look for elephants, try to hang on, and clown just a little. James, Amanda and Isaac ride in the cab. Moses rides shotgun in the truest sense.

After more cruising through muddy roads for an hour or so, we abandon the four-wheeler and follow Moses on foot. Like his namesake, he lays down the law while walking.

“If we are charged,” he cautions soberly in clipped English, “run in a circle. I will shoot the gun.”

Following Moses into the wilderness. Our Moses has dispensed with the wooden staff. He packs a bolt-action antique (.357 caliber?).

I find Moses’s torah ambiguous. If the five of us go running willy-nilly in circles, beseeching divinity in all different manners and means, where will he shoot the gun?  Into the air? Into the elephant? Or into the berserking humans? Maybe all three?

Austin mulls the same problem. He chuckles, “Run in figure eights!”

I suppose the end might appear more elegant that way.

Greek combatants in an armored turret on an Indian war elephant. A phalera of the 3rd-2nd century BC. Hermitage Museum, Russia. From

No one knows for sure when elephantry was first used in battle. The smaller Asian elephant made its debut in the West during the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The larger African elephant proved much more difficult to tame. The Carthaginians likely used the smaller (and now extinct) African forest elephant in their struggles with Rome. Crowned with a mounted turret and archers, the war elephant was certainly the ancient version of heavy armor!

Military history is replete with stories of charging lines of these beasts (sometimes numbering more than 100!). The accounts are terrifying. Tusks and feet would maim and trample fleeing infantrymen. If enraged or wounded, handlers could lose control and the war elephants flattened friend and foe alike.

Isaac and elephant bones on display at the Visitor’s Center. Note the nasal cavity in the center of the “forehead.”

Earlier that morning, we stopped at the park center to examine elephant bones on display. Isaac and James together managed to hoist a skull. A skull of this size is not light! Neither is it familiar. In fact, some have surmised that the Greek legends of the Cyclops, a rock-hurling one-eyed giant, grew out of an early encounter with an elephant skull. The nasal cavity dominates the center of elephant’s forehead, while the smallish eye sockets are less obvious. An imaginative traveler may have seen such a skull and terrified children with his rude tales. You can blame either Homer or Hesiod for that one.

Our own odyssey continues. We wade through a creek wearing rubber boots. A deer bolts across the trail. A lazy crocodile eyeballs us from a muddy pond to our left.

Ahead, Moses finds what he is looking for, and calls us over. It is a small area littered with clods, some old, some new. It is a savanna-sized litter box.

“Elephant?” we chime in unison.

“Yes,” sober Moses answers. “Feces.”

The evacuation of an African bush elephant. Black boot, size 8 (for scale).

I remember something I must have read in a Louis L’Amour novel about sticking a finger in such matter to see how warm it is. I consider throwing the question to our own Moses to get a sense of African tactics, but in the end, decide against it; the humor might not make the cultural leap. Besides, our wilderness guide is already moving on. He is following tracks in the grass. They are the size of large frisbees.