Addo Elephant National Park

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then you likely want to get comfortable for this post about our trip to Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape – if I’m doing the multiplication correctly, then it will take me over a million words to cover our 3-day visit.  The shorter (though perhaps still excessive – sorry, it was difficult to narrow!) photo-based version is available in the post below or here: Day One, Day Two, Day Three, Day Four.  Enjoy.

However, picture captions don’t quite capture some of the incredibleness of this experience.  To offer some perspective, when given the choice between Addo and DisneyWorld at the end of our trip, both Sadie and Ben opted for Addo.  Meggan too. I am pretty much there as well.

DSC_0898A bit of background – the Addo park was created in the 1920s at a moment when public opinion first turned against the practice of elephant hunting and when the once plentiful population of elephants in the cape region had dwindled to 15.  Yes, 15.  15 elephants survived hunting sprees hidden in the thickest portions of the African thicket.  The hunting was spurred mostly by farmers protecting their farms at the time.  The government set aside area as an elephant preserve, but had limited success at first – the problem was partially caused by the fact that the preserve sought to show off the elephants as a sort of super-sized zoo installation by luring herds toward fences with citrus fruits; the fences, however, were not sufficiently strong to hold back elephants and so there were frequent escapes to nearby farms and frequent kills by nearby farmers.  Then, in the 1950s, the preserve was enlarged substantially and the fences strengthened, and the elephant population began to recover.  Today, Addo is a 633 square mile preserve with multiple sections and is home to a huge variety of wildlife and plantlife, including the most eclectic range of biomes in South Africa.  Today, there are 450 elephants in the park and though the wildlife is monitored, it is authentically wild – the animals go where they please, eat what they can, and, other than the occasional encounter with automobiles or boundary fences, exist in their natural habitat.

We spent two days in the park, situated in a thatched-roof chalet overlooking the park grounds.  We took two guided tours through the park, including one at night when our vehicle was the only one in the park; we also spent 5-6 hours driving our own car, meandering through roads of varying quality.  On the third day, we were transported to another section of the park in the Zuurburg mountains.  This area, though only 15 kilometers away, had a topography that was quite different – mountainous and rocky rather than the bushy grasslands and hills of the nearby main camp.  At Zuurbug, we stayed in an isolated settlement in the mountains in what is best described as a first class treehouse tent.  On the fourth day, we moved on south to Port Elizabeth along the Indian Ocean coast where I had a conference to attend.  But the highlights of the three days were the encounters with the animals, many of which are portrayed if not fully captured by the pictures (hoping to upload some videos soon as well).  Here are a few notable moments:
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Casual Interactions, 2nd Edition – On Language

In the spirit of including some of the individuals we have been bumping into along this journey (an effort begun here), here are some additional casual interactions.  The first several are about language…

  • The check out person at Game (something like Target) who tried to get Meggan’s attention by speaking to her in Afrikaans to tell her the location of the baggage check (where we have to put bags we bring in while we are shopping) and realized once I got to the front of the line why Meggan didn’t heed her advice and had gone to the entire opposite end of the store; we don’t speak a lick of Afrikaans.
  • Another check-out person, maybe at Pick n’ Pay (grocery), who was stunned by our English. “You speak English so fluently,” she complimented us.  These two encounters are representative of a couple of things.  First, everybody speaks to us first in Afrikaans.  I suppose that means we look like we are local.  Second, although most people speak English, hardly anyone seems to speak English as a first language – as a result, most English speakers have heavy accents  Our English – our native language, fluent English – thus must sound a little different.  Accents differ depending on first language – those who speak one of the 9 African languages sound quite different from those whose first language is Afrikaans.  But English is the language most people have in common, a fact that has enabled us to get around fairly successfully.

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First Encounters

Having spent over a week in the country as an advance scout, I felt a certain degree of pressure to make the first few days in Bloemfontein go smoothly and remarkably and remarkably smoothly for the rest of the family.  After the first few days, I felt that Megg and I would be in it together to make things work.  But the first week, in my opinion, was on me.

There were the logistics – car, place to stay, getting around, knowing which shops to go to find what, etc. – and these were smooth enough.  Though not our first choice, my presence for some time before the rest of us arrived proved to be tremendously helpful here.  I felt a degree of comfort and familiarity upon our return that I surely didn’t feel upon my initial arrival nearly a month ago (wow!).

But there was more riding on the first couple of days than simply not having any of the basics go spectacularly wrong (on this point, look for a future post on load shedding and the general lack of central heat during the South African winter, small details in an otherwise warm welcome).  For Sadie, there was the promise of animals.  Upon initially hearing that we would be spending months in South Africa when we first told her, Sadie was surprisingly enthusiastic about it, and we quickly realized it was because she imagined that every day would be spent visiting wild animals.  She was stunned and almost confused when we explained that there would be some days where we simply went to the grocery or to get haircuts.  “They have grocery stores in Africa?” she exclaimed.  This, of course, is a common misconception about Africa.  In all honesty, the most surprising thing thus far has been just how similar life is here to life at home.  And while South Africa is perhaps more modernized than other parts of Africa, it will have been worth coming if only to make the point that those living in Africa do not lead lives too far different than lives we know.
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