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.
A 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:
— The drive down from the Free State to Addo was an adventure unto itself. Along the way, we saw thousands of sheep, hundreds of cows, and plenty of goats and horses. At our lunch stop, there was a pond of ducks and a birdhouse with a dozen parakeets. As we exited the rest stop, I almost hit a goat crossing the highway. I later almost hit an orange mongoose doing the same thing. We also saw our first Springboks, a national symbol and an elegant and small deer-like creature with beautiful black and white markings upon its brown coat. As we got further south into the Eastern Cape province, we caught sight of our first vervet monkeys. The first we saw was sitting on the side of the road as we were stopped for construction work, but Meggan and Sadie subsequently spotted a group of them hanging and jumping on a nearby irrigation system – we stopped quickly and they rushed back to try to get a better view only to find them scatter away. I waited with the car and assured the highway assistance truck that stopped that all was fine, just a little excitement about wildlife. “Monkeys?” he asked, knowingly. Just a side note- by the end of the week, vervet monkeys had about the same level of charm as a raccoon might back home. But the kicker was a herd of elephants in a distant field as we neared Addo. This was what we had come for and here they were welcoming us from a distance. We had no idea then what we had in store.
— After we finished our first guided drive, we asked our driver Cya where we might spot elephants and were directed to park at Hapoor Dam and be patient. When we entered the park, a friendly passerby informed us that there were elephants near another watering area, Gwarrie Pan. It took us some time to get to these locations and it was nearly 3:00 o’clock when we got to Hapoor to park. We emerged from a dirt road into a wide clearing, the dam to our right and a flat field unrolling to our left. There were many kudu and warthogs munching on grass. At this point, we had become accustomed to these two as they were the most common we saw in the park. Ben’s attention waned at times and he sometimes devolved into potty words and songs, the go-to sibling bonding activity of the moment. He had also taken to falsely claiming to see animals, so none of us turned when he transitioned mid-sentence from “Poo-poo head Dandy” to “There’s an elephant.” But after he insisted that there really was an elephant, we looked more closely and indeed, there was an elephant making its way fairly quickly through the field and toward the dam. We followed the elephant there and waited. The elephant drank and yanked enormous reeds from the middle of the water to eat. After ten minutes or so, a herd of zebra emerged from the trees into the clearing, making their way to the watering hole as well to join the kudu and warthogs and elephant. We joked that there must be some sort of 3:15 meeting that we had happened upon. Among the zebras was one that we called Ronnie. Ronnie was extra wide and we suspect now that Ronnie might have been pregnant. We will always remember Ronnie because Ronnie (she?) was the zebra that tentatively walked up to the smaller pond near the dam to have some water only to be startled silly by the movement of 5 turtles who had been sitting still near the water. As Ronnie approached, the turtles moved, and Ronnie jumped back in fright, apparently thinking, “Holy moly! Did you guys see those rocks move? What the….?!” Ronnie stared at the water for ten minutes, but never made another attempt to get a drink. We left shortly after only to come upon a herd of Cape Buffalo just on the other side of the dam, apparently running a little late for the 3:15 meeting.
— There is a fear when you visit a park or preserve that you will not see anything or you will not see as much as you hope. We deliberately did not show the Addo promotional video to the kids before we went so as not to raise unrealistic expectations. The guides on our drives were sure to be cautious: “I can guarantee you that there are animals here in the park. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that we will see any of them.” For us, the greatest hope was to see elephants, baby elephants in particular. The Addo web page and the South Africa National Parks facebook page inflated expectations; we had already stumbled upon a herd alongside the road that we pulled over and watched from a distance. So despite the disclaimers of our guides, we felt hopeful that we would see elephants. We saw elephants. The first we encountered up close was on our morning game drive and it walked alongside our truck without acknowledging our presence. This was a “bachelor” who had been kicked out of his herd by the females (Ben later wept about this elephant’s loneliness – he’s a sensitive soul, though he seems thick-skinned). On our own drive through the park, we came across a couple elephants at a distance, several younger elephants tromping near Gwarrie Pan, and the bachelor described above at Hapoor. But the jackpot came as we were exiting the park and saw a herd moving near the road from a distance away. We navigated to their location to find an enormous herd moving in and out of the roadway, complete with babies. This was something. It is difficult to explain the sensation of driving alongside elephants so close they could be touched or watching elephants cross the road six feet in front of your car. At one point, we were literally stuck where we were, elephants in the road in both directions. The highlight, though, was watching one particular family within the herd making its way.
This group included 3-4 adult elephants and 3-4 children of various ages/sizes. The smallest of the group Sadie named Matilda (still on the Roald Dahl train). Watching Matilda for some time, we got a real sense of the social dynamics of this group and the whole thing was incredibly familiar. Matilda would come to the tree to eat and a larger sibling (Michael?) would nudge her away. Matilda would push back, scrapping with her sibling, trying to assert her own place in the herd. At times, another even larger sibling would push Michael out of the way in seeming response to Michael’s picking on Matilda. At other times, an adult would intervene and restore order in the way adults tend to do with unruly children. Even once the road cleared, it was difficult to know how we would ever leave.
— Speaking of herds of elephants… we had arranged a night drive through the park on our second night and had gathered all the things one needs for a night drive – blankets, flashlights, secret stashes of chocolate. Well, we had gathered almost all the things one needs. I had forgotten Meggan’s jacket. I hustled back to our chalet to grab it, but when I reached the chalet, my heart went to my throat. The construction workers who had been (somewhat annoyingly) working on the neighboring chalet’s bathroom were rushing to the fence with their cell phones. I looked up to see an enormous herd of elephants, probably 40 of them, walking just beyond the fence directly in front of our chalet.
I could have thrown a football to them (perhaps a rugby ball is the more appropriate descriptor, though I have no idea how far I could throw one). There were elephants of all sizes walking peacefully through the field. Less than a half hour before, we had been eating dinner in our chalet. The evening before at the same very time, we had been relaxing on the porch. I was sick that we had missed this spectacle just beyond our porch – the feeling was worsened when I heard lion roars and hyena screeches echoing in the distance. It was all surreal. When I got back to the truck and was asked why it took so long, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Had trouble finding the jacket.”
— Remember how I mentioned that vervet monkeys had lost their charm. Here’s why. Midway through our second full day here, I was trying to steal a few minutes to write. I got in six wonderful minutes on the porch overlooking the park; then, after Sadie came out playing camp (this week is Elephant Camp) and Ben followed her trying desperately and unsuccessfully to play with her and not simply around her, I came into our room and sat on the bed to continue. Almost immediately, I was interrupted by the sound of Meggan shouting “Monkey! Monkey!” This was a different version of “Monkey!” then I had exclaimed the day before to get everyone’s attention to tell of a vervet monkey sitting on the fence post twenty feet from our porch. This “Monkey!” was not excitement, or at least not the good kind of excitement. I looked up to see a vervet monkey sitting on our kitchen counter, having climbed in through the window Meggan had opened to enjoy the lovely weather. I slammed the computer shut and made my way in the direction of the monkey. I don’t actually recall slamming the computer shut or much of anything about those first couple seconds – I simply found the computer having been closed once everything returned to normal. I do recall thinking to myself as I moved toward the monkey, “I do not have any plan for how to get this monkey out of our place.” Fortunately, I didn’t need any plan – by the time I arrived (amidst Meggan’s cries of “Get the camera!” and Ben’s just plain cries), the monkey had scampered back out the window, but not without his loot – a banana that he ate while standing in the middle of the road behind our place, starting at us, gloating among a half dozen other friends who had been casing our place apparently and were all ready to grab some bounty. Looking out the kitchen window (while closing them quickly) and seeing the troop of monkeys out there, all obviously focused on our food, was remarkable. Who knows how long they had been there? We didn’t notice them until one was in the kitchen! And it must have moved quickly – Meggan was at the nearby stove stirring our gnocchi for only a few moments before the monkey pounced. And how cliché of it to take the banana.
— We did not tell the kids why we were moving camps on the third day. They simply followed us into the car and through the rocky road to the Zuurbug Mountain Village where we were pickedup and transported along an even rockier road to another camp. Although the clues were plentiful, they did not pick up on them until our driver asked directly, “Are you riding the elephants today or tomorrow?” Sadie finally caught on. “What?” she asked, looking at us, confused. As we answered her series of questions, her face broke into a wide smile and her body convulsed in a little shimmy shake she does when she gets excited. She had wished aloud only a day before that she could pat one of the elephants in the park. Over the next two hours, we rode the elephants through the nearby hills, hopped off, walked behind them for a spell, and watched them mud themselves in a creek. Next, we fed them directly, either dropping a mixture of fruit and molasses into their trunks or, trunk up, tossing it directly into their mouths. It was a terrific capstone to our visit, though I must admit that I am partial to the animals in the wild.
— There is too much more to share. We learned incredible things from our guides about kudu horns and warthog tails and zebra stripes, and we became quite the experts at spotting and even identifying animals in the park. In addition to what I’ve mentioned, we saw sleeping lions, jackals, eland, a fresh kudu skeleton, a caracal, cranes and herons and lots of interesting birds, a chameleon crossing the road that our guide was particularly excited about, red hartebeests, and many dung beetles. As we left the main park and headed to the Zuurburg section, we saw impala and baboons and giraffes. And this doesn’t even address what we did when we got to Port Elizabeth, which included some neat sightings as well (Dolphins in the Indian Ocean! Baby rhinoceros at a private game reserve!), but about which I am too exhausted to write and I assume everyone is too exhausted to read. Not quite a million words, but nearly a thousand for each day of our Addo visit should do just fine.