Thirty-odd years ago I took my mother and 12-year-old son to Addo for the day. We lived in Port Elizabeth, so the drive was not onerous and the excitement was great. What did we see? Nary an elephant, and in fact very little else of interest besides a couple of dung beetles, which we were very careful not to drive over. The mood in the car on the trip home was decidedly downcast.
This year we needed a stopover on the long trip between Mpumalanga and Jeffreys Bay, and thought we’d give Addo another try. Wise decision; the park is now the third biggest in South Africa and houses the Big Five. No, in fact the Big Seven – great white sharks and the southern right whale are also part of the park’s conservation mandate. And – the elephant population is one of the densest in Africa.
We found rooms for the Saturday night at the Elephant House lodge just outside the southern gate, a find indeed. A fire and a large glass of good sherry welcomed us on a freezing and wet night, and it kept on getting better from there, including a Scrabble set in the common room, which game we played with verve according to new rules devised by a young member of our party.
The manager, who doubles as a volunteer in the park itself and who glows with pride over “her” elephants, told us that these are much more laid back than their cousins in the KNP – they’ve never had an incident here, and one could almost get out of the car at a waterhole where the big guys are playing. Not that I would try this, and it’s certainly not allowed.
Her theory was put to the test right after we entered the gate. A group of jumbos at the side of the road caused maximum thrill in the car as they munched quietly on spekboom – what we used to call elephant ear bush. Not an ear twitched towards us, not a trunk was raised in warning, even though there were a couple of babies in the crowd. However, when a big daddy walked enigmatically up a hill towards us, not threatening in any way but simply huge, there was fairly fast reversing up the same hill until he wandered off to the side.
We left them to their breakfast and headed for our own at the main camp, stopping along the way to watch warthogs kneeling and grubbing for whatever takes their fancy, antelope, zebra, and splendid bird life to cause extreme twitching and ticking off on lists.
The landscape here is so different from the Kruger – as you head north towards the main camp, the Zuurberg mountains materialise blue and gorgeous in the distance under a bowl of sky. Unless you’re surrounded by the spekboom, the plains are wider, broader, and animals of all species are much easier to see than those up north. And they appear not one whit worried about a car that stops right next to them. Insects buzz, shrill, click, sing, birds are colourful and plentiful, our Aussie visitors are entranced.
Addo main camp is delightful, although pretty crowded over a weekend. The floodlit water hole and the below-ground hide provide some pretty special viewing. I still dream about the almost spiritual sight of a kudu family silently floating past in the dusk, unaware of me a couple of metres away at hoof level, watching breathless. What a time for my camera battery to flatten itself. But in fact that scene was infinitely more moving viewed through eyes and mind rather than through a lens.
As hard as it is to rise at dawn when on holiday, I was back in the hide the next morning, to be confronted with a rose and purple sky, quite different to the red Mpumalanga sunrise that is almost a cliche photograph of an African dawn, but equally stunning. Not an animal at the waterhole, though, so after freezing my fingers off for an hour, back to the chalet for coffee.
Sanparks has done a great job in the museum type Interpretive Centre; one could spend a good few hours finding out about the history of the park and its inhabitants. Unfortunately we had only the one evening, so a return trip is a must, for many reasons. Poor old Hapoor’s head is mounted on the wall there – he’s probably the most famous elephant at Addo, the dominant bull for 24 years. He apparently hated humans for all that time, and became belligerent and aggressive after he was deposed from the herd by younger males. Not sure about how this fits with the story that Addo elephants are calm and polite, but hey, there’s always a reb in any group.
One thing that saddens me – the preponderance of chain restaurants and souvenir shops in all the national parks. Where have the old thatched roofed African stop off points gone? Do we need American-style chains and glitz and bling in what should be an enthralling bush experience? For me, definitely not.
The history of Addo is a tale for another time. But why oh why are our lives governed by the excuse “We didn’t have enough time …” Perhaps to have an excuse to return as soon as possible?