A South African safari is not complete without a drive up the Garden Route. The climax of this drive is a visit to Addo Elephant National Park; here, in South Africa’s third largest national park, an unforgettable meeting with gentle grey giants is guaranteed. It’s one of South Africa’s best safari experiences.
My partner and I had come to Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, at the end of our Garden Route tour, intent on seeing its famous pachyderms. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip.
Our private lodge was a luxurious colonial homestead set in wild surroundings in the heart of Addo. The wide verandah had gorgeous views of a waterhole, a cosy lounge with fireplace, a swimming pool and boma area for night-time feasts under the stars. The manor house harked back to a colonial era when the elite indulged in the extravagance of cut crystal, polished silver, white linen and G&Ts. Happily things haven’t changed much!
Our luxurious, safari-style tent was sheltered under a thatch canopy and had all the mod cons. There were stylishly decorated furnishings in muted colours and a king-size bed beneath a billowing mosquito net. The tent had its own private deck offering a panoramic view of the endless plains, often dotted with antelope.
On our first afternoon, we gathered on the stoep for high tea, where we met our guide, James. Then it was time to head out on a game drive in an open Land Cruiser. It wasn’t long before we came upon a substantial herd of buffalo, quietly grazing on either side of the road.
As we drove on, James told us about the park. ‘Addo is the third largest national park in South Africa and is continually being expanded to conserve a wide range of landscapes, fauna and flora. There are many habitats, ranging from spekboom thickets to wooded kloofs and the vast Alexandria dune field, home to many archaeological sites. The middens of nomadic Strandloper (or ‘beach walker’) people found there contain shells and bones of animals eaten by these ancient clans, as well as fragments of pottery and stone implements.’
The afternoon wore on and our drive yielded a variety of plains game. The birdlife was also very good. James pointed out bokmakierie, martial eagle, southern black korhaan and the marvellous, eccentric secretary bird, which strutted along beside our vehicle as though late for an appointment.
The sun was about to set when James drew the vehicle to a halt and pointed to a shady area in a dense thicket. A pride of lion was fast asleep. Only the occasional flick of a tail proved that the cats weren’t completely out for the count. A handsome male raised his lazy head and stared at us with piercing, golden eyes. My camera kept snapping until his head lolled back into slumber.
On we drove. Rounding a bend, James drew stopped again. Just then, a herd of elephant swaggered out of the thicket and into view. James told us to sit still and wait … and they came to us! We spent a long time with the herd, which was completely relaxed in our presence. At first, I kept taking photos, hardly able to contain my excitement. But after a while, I put the camera away and simply soaked up the scene. I listened to the low rumble coming from the elephants’ stomachs, the gentle flapping of their enormous, bat’s wing ears. Such blissful, intoxicating peace.
‘Our elephant were brought back from the brink of extinction,’ whispered James. ‘They were saved from relentless persecution by big-game hunters in the previous two centuries. In the late 1800s, farmers began colonising the area around Addo, which also took its toll on the elephant population due to competition for water and crops.’
‘This conflict reached a head in 1919 when farmers called on the government to exterminate all the elephant. The authorities even appointed a certain Major Pretorius to shoot the remaining elephant. He managed to kill 114 of them between 1919 and 1920.’
‘Then public opinion changed. Conservation was in the air. The original section of Addo was proclaimed a park in 1931, when only 11 elephant remained in this area. Thank goodness, the great grey giants of the bush now roam in peace. Today, there are more than 600 of them…’
My partner and I could easily have sat there all evening, but it was time to head for home, where fires were being lit and a feast under the stars awaited us. We drove back to the homestead, nosing through spekboom thickets alive with night sounds.
Dinner was in the outdoor boma, the perfect gathering place under the stars. We relaxed with a long drink as meat sizzled on the grill. I must say, the lodge chefs had perfected the art of the gourmet barbeque – or ‘braai’ as they call it – with an array of dishes reflecting different aspects of African cuisine. We shared our story of our elephant encounter as the stars sizzled quietly on their own celestial grill. Somewhere in the darkness, a black-backed jackal began to yelp. What a way to end our elephant day!