The searing dry hot wind washed over open African veldt turning the waist-high grass into undulating yellow waves. Thick clumps of umbrella shaped acacia trees dotted the yellow sea of grass seeming to hover over the heat mirages. The thorny acacias offered the only opportunity for shade. Five soldiers emerged slowly from the thicket, one at a time, several feet apart. Then they were standing in a small grassy depression surrounded by a dense wall of low shrubs and acacia trees. Pale faces and lack of focus revealed early warning signs of dehydration and possibly the edge of heat stroke. The weary travelers urgently wanted only rest, water, and shade. Hours of trudging through thick grass and unfamiliar territory under the baking sun can make an exhausted man disoriented. As the brain loses focus, they may see things that are not there.
As I stepped fully into the clearing, my bewildered vision convinced me that a huge grey tree on the far side had just moved. I blinked hard twice, shook my head, and ventured further into the opening. Then, as the realization hit us, all five men gasped as we saw that the moving object was not a tree at all. In fact, standing in our path and looking directly at us was a huge bull elephant. The lone rogue male had his trunk raised to sample the air for a better whiff of the strange scent that approached. Huge ears flapped slowly. With its raised trunk and eight foot long curved tusks, the bull elephant looked as large as a two-storey house. Air rumbled through its chest. Its breathing was the only sound I could hear, aside from my own heartbeat. The low, rumbling vibration of his heavy breathing seemed to travel through the earth. I was sure I could feel it through my boots.
This massive animal could charge and cover the short distance between us in an instant if agitated for any reason. The heat from the overhead sun baked the red earth of the clearing. The constant chirp of cicadas in nearby trees seemed to vibrate in harmony with the heat waves. They were a shrill alarm to the danger we were facing. All eyes focused on the huge gray mass in front of us. Nobody dared move an inch in case the bull noticed and did not like it. Out of habit, I slowly raised my hand in a clenched fist to signal the team to come to a stop. Nobody seemed to notice. Giving them any direction at that point would have been useless. At that moment, any other order, like "Charge!" or "Run!" would have produced the same result - no one would have budged, not even an inch. We froze in our tracks. Was it the vibration that was causing my boots to shake-or was that fear? The assault rifles that normally made us feel invincible now seemed rather like peashooters. If the bull decided to charge, raising our weapons would probably only make him angrier and we would never stop his charge at this short range.
Not one of our five-man team thought to lift a rifle. There we stood, five soldiers dressed in full combat camouflage gear, frozen in fear. Opposite us was the largest pile of flesh, bones, andtusks any of us had ever seen. The bull seemed to ponder whether we were a problem. Frozen in place, I prayed we avoided being trampled into fare for the hungry vultures and hyenas. The standoff continued for fifteen long minutes. Finally, with a loudblast of his trumpet, the elephan turned its head and ambled offthrough the trees without turning another glance in our direction. Lucky for us, the huge bull had determined we were not a threat and returned to its normal foraging and roaming activities.
A full-grown African elephant can weigh up to seven or eight thousand pounds. Its legs are taller than a six-foot man. On soft, moist earth, its feet leave huge pizza plate size