This national park doesn’t have the word elephant in its name for nothing. My first visit to Hapoor Dam at Addo Elephant National Park presented too many elephants to count – although my mom did try – and definitely more than I have ever seen, or will undoubtedly ever see, in one place.
It was a gathering of elephantine proportions with different groups tentatively greeting one another while a warthog tried desperately to blend in. There were new mommies cautiously hanging around the edges with their tiny ones hiding under their bellies, and naughty ones getting it on in the muddy pond. At the same time, bulls stood ousted and alone on the edges – their testosterone filling the empty spaces that the others had left around them. Meanwhile, lazy older elephants lay spread-eagled in the mud like spatchcock chickens. Naturally, there were the boisterous ones starting arguments with each other – as is what can be expected when multiple families gather in one place.
I was also enjoying a family trip – camping with both my parents and my newly acquired in-laws could be called an adventure in itself. And while the elephants of Addo always remained the stars of the show, South Africa’s third-largest national park had so much more to offer our little family than just happy hour at Hapoor.
We had started our Addo adventure at the lesser-known Mvubu campsite in the northern section of the park. On the banks of the Sundays River, this back-to-basics site offered no electricity, one paraffin shower, and a deck overlooking the river – it was absolute bliss. From here we tested out our new Landy on the Bredrogfontein 4×4 trail, which is a stunning four-hour route that winds its way over rocky hills and kudu-filled forests before touching down at the arid Darlington Dam section of the park, where a gemsbok ran alongside the car with her calf.
More elephants than anyone could count
Once we had our fill of dust and dirt, we were off to the main camp at Addo. Here we got our kicks with a Big Five horse safari where we spotted eland, zebra and even a buffalo. The next three days were filled with gentle loops around the park with sightings of black-backed jackal, buffalo, meerkat, jackal buzzard, lion, hyena, hartebeest, zebra and, of course, more elephant than anyone could count! What a way to welcome in 2016.
A brief history of Addo
By the 1800s the elephant herds that were once in abundance in this area had been decimated by hunters. But with farmers beginning to colonise South Africa, a battle of wills was still to be fought between man and beast over water and food sources. The elephants were on the losing side of this battle, as is so often the case, and 114 of them were killed in the space of one year, on order of the government as part of a plan to exterminate them.
With just 11 elephants remaining, the park was declared in 1931, but the elephants were far from friendly to their human foes. In an attempt to stop the elephants from raiding crops in neighbouring farms, and to encourage tourism, the elephants were kept well fed with oranges at what is now the watering hole in front of the main camp. The plan worked well, and in 1945 the park manager added an elephant-proof fence to his genius solution to the human-wildlife conflict at Addo. The feeding of oranges to the elephants was eventually stopped. Until recently, a sign at the gate forbade tourists from bringing citrus fruits into the park because, as we all know, elephants never forget!
Lions and spotted hyena were introduced into the park in 2003, and today Addo is also home to one of the largest disease-free buffalo herds in South Africa. Along with over 600 elephants that call the park home, black rhinos, caracals, meerkats, zebras and a variety of antelope are also frequently seen.
The Zuurberg Mountains are home to aardwolf and mountain reedbuck, while the Darlington Dam area of the park offers arid habitat species such as gemsbok and black wildebeest. And then, of course, there is the unique Addo flightless dung beetle that we eventually spotted after duly slowing down and examining every piece of ‘ellie-poo’ that we came across (yes, that is a lot of slowing down).
The park is also unique in that it covers an immense array of vegetation, which stretches from the semi-arid karoo to rugged mountains, through river valleys and down to a wild coastline with the longest dunes in the southern hemisphere. This also means that it can lay claim to being home to the Big Seven, with great white sharks and southern right whales included in the ultimate line-up.
What to do
Driving around Addo is comfortable in any vehicle thanks to the 120km of tar and gravel roads for tourists. With day visitors allowed, Addo is the perfect outing for anyone staying in Port Elizabeth (as my colleague who was down from Johannesburg will attest). Jack’s Picnic Site is a stunning place to stop and relax after you have had your fill of ellies at Hapoor. This unique spot offers private braais with tables tucked in between the trees, and the fences mean you can walk around freely without a care in the world.
While self-driving is the big appeal of South Africa’s national parks, a variety of guided drives are available. Private guiding services from the comfort of your own vehicle are also possible. One of my must-do activities when in one of our stunning national parks is a night drive, as this gives me a chance to sit back and relax while the guides point out the otherwise unseen critters of the night. Our guide, Siya, was exceptional and full of fun facts that kept us entertained. He told us about the leopard tortoise that has a fetish for hyena poo due to the high calcium they ingest by crunching bones. He taught us about eland communications via the clicking sound that their legs make, which unfortunately means that at night they might as well be wearing a cattle bell. We learnt about the porcupines with their defence mechanism of seemingly built-in ABS brakes, and did you know that a spring hare is not even really a hare? According to Siya, it should be instead be named the spring rat.
For the more adventurous, horse rides are offered in the botanical reserve, through the Zuuberg Mountains of the park or the Nyathi Big Five area. And the guides were ever professional, keeping me calm even when my horse’s ears pricked up and became very alert when a buffalo ambled past, less than five metres away.
Then, of course, the Bredrogfontein 4×4 Trail offers a different perspective of the area from amidst the picturesque mountainous section of the national park. The trail took us four hours to complete, followed by a two-hour drive back to camp – during which a light on our dashboard kept whining that it couldn’t select our terrain settings. Clearly, the car was upset that it was back on tar and not still bouncing and bumping down the rocky hillside.
The park also offers a variety of hiking trails through the Zuurberg Mountains or along the coastline, while ocean eco-tours are available for those who want to round off that Big Seven list with some sightings of the marine kind.
Where to stay
One thing I must say is that the quality of the offerings at SANParks camps never fails to amaze me. The restaurants and shops have been outsourced and, despite running low on several supplies (thankfully we snatched up the last bottle of gin), they were managed impeccably. The camps are utterly spotless, and the staff will go out of their way to accommodate you. We visited Addo over what must be the busiest time of year – the New Year period – and I must confess that we were a bit worried that it would be crowded and awful. However, much to our surprise, we were the noisiest ones in the campsite with a whispered “Happy New Year” and a hushed pop of the champagne bottle, to not wake our neighbours who all seemed to have gone to bed at the specified time of 10 pm.
Addo’s main rest camp has several accommodation options to suit any taste and budget, and with a waterhole located just outside the camp, one doesn’t even have to leave to see some of the park’s elephants. An underground hide gives a unique perspective as these grey beasts come for a drink right under your nose. The amazing Addo Interpretive Centre, which I can proudly boast was designed by my aunt, gives a glimpse into the history of the area, and offers the chance to gain a better understanding of how ellies hear, as well as to see a real-life ellie skellie and identify some tracks in the sand, while the kids play on a jungle gym shaped like an elephant.
Several other accommodation options are also available in the main section of Addo, from Spekboom Tented Camp, which is situated in the middle of the bush, to Matyholweni, which can be found 3km off the N2 in the stunning forested section down south.
Other accommodation options are available in the lesser-known northern sections of the park, from several quaint cottages to the rustic Mvubu campsite, which I would recommend for anyone just wanting to get away from it all. While on the other hand many luxury lodges can be found both within and outside the park for those who want a bit of bush pampering to round off a Garden Route getaway.