The Elephants of Addo

“Roll up your window,” my husband muttered, easing his camera down.  A bull elephant was sauntering toward our car.  But it turned out he was more interested in a tempting tuft of grass than charging our dusty Toyota.  We settled back to watch him scuff up the short grass with his front foot, then toss it in the air with his trunk to shake loose the dust before devouring his treat.

Paul and I were visiting Addo Elephant National Park, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, home to over 400 elephants living naturally in the wild.  Unlike some game reserves, you can drive yourself on your own “safari” at Addo, visiting watering holes and feeding grounds, where it’s possible to watch families of 50 or more magnificent beasts as they spray water on their backs, play in the mud or rip up a shrub to have a little snack.

We’d arrived at the park that afternoon, following a leisurely 6-day expedition along the Garden Route that unwinds eastward from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.  As we headed inland, driving the 45 miles between Port Elizabeth and Addo, the lush, seaside landscapes gave way to arid vistas punctuated by cactus and scrub.

When we crossed the park boundary, a sign warned that citrus fruits are forbidden inside the grounds – a remnant of Addo’s past.  The park was created in 1931, when local elephants had been hunted almost to extinction; only 11 remained in the region.  They were lured to the park grounds with oranges, and though none of those original animals is still alive, park management still fears the elephants might get a little too enthusiastic if they catch a whiff of citrus.

We pulled into what’s known as Rest Camp, headquarters for food, lodging and activities, and the heat smacked us the minute we stepped from the car.  It was well over 90.  After stocking up on essential safari provisions – cold drinks, potato chips and ice cream bars – we were ready to head out.  A quick check with ranger headquarters told us elephants had been spotted at the Hapoor waterhole, “But they’re probably heading off by now,” the ranger cautioned.

“We should have gotten up earlier,” I grumbled, as we jumped back in the car.  We passed through a gated checkpoint into the wildlife area, where every vehicle gets a number to track their comings and goings.  A sign cautioned us not to run over dung beetles, the insects that collect neat little balls of elephant and buffalo dung, then lay their eggs inside.  The flightless dung beetle is found almost exclusively in Addo territory.

We were looking for larger creatures, though.  I peered into the dense, gnarled shrubbery known as spekboom, that stood about six feet high.  It’s said these thorny, sharp-leaved plants deterred hunters and saved the original elephants of Addo.

Following our park map, we left the blacktop and turned onto a gravel road.  We knew from an earlier experience at a private game park that spotting wildlife is a fickle proposition.  In two days of professional game drives, we’d seen only a patch of an elephant’s distant rear end through the thick forest.  Surely, I’d hoped, we’d have better luck here.

And then the road widened and we were at Hapoor.  We both gasped and Paul edged our car into a spot among four or five other vehicles to watch a herd of female elephants and their offspring.  They surrounded the waterhole, sucking the muddy water into their trunks, spraying it over their backs or splashing it onto their stomachs.

A youngster waded into the water, lay down and wallowed in the soothing mud.  Others joined in.  Then a baby, not much more than a year old clambered down the bank.  “She’ll never get back up,” I worried.  But when it came time, one of her larger pals pushed from behind as an adult gripped her trunk to get her safely on dry ground.

I noticed how an older elephant slept standing up with her relaxed trunk draped over a tusk, how two adult females greeted each other by entwining their trunks, and how a young male reached out with his trunk and tweaked another youngster’s penis (the elephant equivalent locker room high jinx?).

The elephants went about their business, not seeming to care that ecstatic tourists were  snapping a flurry of photos just 50 feet away.  A tour bus even pulled up and disgorged a group of Chinese who, against park rules, clambered out to snap each others’ portraits with elephants in the background.  The elephants moved a bit further away from the ruckus, but otherwise didn’t react.

The Addo elephants are surprisingly nonchalant about humans because, in the history of the park, the herd has never been culled.  At Kruger, South Africa’s larger and better-known reserve, elephants are killed to keep their numbers down, making them more wary and hostile.  Addo has plans in place to almost triple the park’s size – to 1.2 million acres – so their elephants have plenty of growing room.

Ready for a snack, the elephants wandered away from the waterhole, grazing on the nearby grass.  We motored slowly along with them, keeping a respectful distance.  Youngsters practiced at scuffing up grass, just as the adults did, but would also pause to nurse while their mothers ate.  Elephants have 60,000 muscles in their trunks, a ranger had told us, but calves don’t really master the full use of this amazing appendage until they are six years old.

A tourist flaunted the rules by edging his SUV off the road, closer to the moving herd.  Before long, the vehicle was surrounded and a young bull was giving it a thorough examination with his extended trunk.  The driver got the message and gingerly backed out onto the road.

We parked as the elephants fanned out and dug for tender roots ripping entire shrubs from the ground.  One even wedged a branch behind his tusk to periodically munch on it in between other morsels.

We later learned that elephants have six sets of teeth in a lifetime, with molars the size of bricks.  The longevity of their teeth determines their lifespan; once they’ve worn out their final set of teeth, they die.  Because of the tough vegetation in Addo, elephants there tend to have a slightly shorter life because it’s harder on their teeth.  They live to an average age of 65.

Suddenly, a couple of elephants grazing near us decided to cross the road.  Others followed, and we watched the entire procession file in front of us.  Reluctantly, after they passed, we headed back to Rest Camp, where we were set to meet up with our host for the night.

We’d originally hoped to spend both nights in park lodgings, but since we visited in January, the high season, we were only able to book our second night inside the park.  I was fighting off elephant separation anxiety when Archie Hitge pulled up in a battered white pick-up.  “I have some lost Germans,” he called out holding up his cell phone, “but I’m going to take you back to the lodge first.”

After following him for 20 minutes, we turned onto a maze of gravel roads, passing citrus orchards, then pastures filled with ostriches and finally a corral of African buffalo, at last arriving at Hitgeheim Lodge.  We’d booked on the recommendation of a travel agent, without knowing a lot of details.  Fortunately, we were in for a treat.

The lodge, only three months old, has five spacious cottages perched atop a hill looking out over the Sundays River Valley.  As Donald, one of the young, enthusiastic staff, opened the door to our accommodations, I saw a bed piled with luxe pillows and draped in a gauzy canopy of mosquito netting, cool slate floors and antique chairs re-upholstered in ostrich leather.  Sliding doors opened on a spectacular view of orchards far below.  The bathroom, alone larger than most hotel rooms, looked out over the hills and featured a second, outdoor shower for sudsing with scenery.   Overhead, a soaring African-style thatched roof scented the rooms with sweet, grassy perfume.

Archie had invited us to join him in the boma for “drinks and snacks” before dinner, so after washing away the Addo dust, we headed to the combination guest lounge/porch.  “Come on down to the wine cellar and pick out what you want,” Archie beckoned.  Paul complied and surfaced with a pleasing Pinotage priced at 80 rand; we’d generally found South African reds to be more interesting than the whites.

The lost “Germans” had been retrieved – and turned out to be French, from Reunion.  We chatted about elephant spotting until Donald arrived to recite the night’s menu and lead us to dinner.  In the candlelit, antique-filled dining room, we sampled cold carrot and ginger soup, salad with smoked kudu (a type of antelope), lamb shank and a dense, buttery cake-like “pudding” with whipped cream for dessert.

Archie served as shorts-wearing sommelier and revealed that his college-age daughter was in charge of the kitchen that night.  “My wife usually does the cooking, but she’s out of town until tomorrow morning,” he said.  Then a conspiratorial aside, “She hates it that I won’t dress up.”

While Paul sipped a super-sweet dessert wine, I asked Archie if the family had previous experience in the hotel business.  “No, he said, I’ve always been in the ostrich business,  but we have good friends who own lodges and they encouraged us.  We want to keep the place small and personal.”  He went on to tell me that he and his wife, Marietjie, designed and built the complex themselves, laying out the design with strings and pegs.

“If you want to see the animals, you can go along on the truck when they feed them,” Archie offered.  We agreed to meet up at 7:15 am, then retreated to our cottage, while cracks of lightening danced in the gathering clouds.

The next morning we bounced along in a land rover truck with Lize, the young woman in charge of feeding and egg collecting, visiting breeding ostriches and their offspring of various ages.  Some of the males greeted their meal with a crouching, flapping, neck-waggling mating dance.

Lize offered to show us the hatchery, but made us pause to remove our shoes before entering to avoid spreading germs.  We peered into the sealed incubator to see slowly rotating racks of 8-inch, ivory-colored eggs.  In the adjacent hatching room, we peeked through a tiny window to see babies busting their way out of the thick shells.  “They use their legs more than their beaks,” Lize said, noting that a kick from a grown ostrich can kill a human.

I’d been wondering if it was possible to eat ostrich eggs.  When we returned to the lodge for breakfast, Archie offered the proof – scrambled.  “You chip a little hole in the bottom of the shell, then shake it,” he explained, “One ostrich egg equals 24 regular eggs!”  Of course, I’d envisioned a Fred Flintstone-sized fried egg overflowing my plate, but that would have meant cracking a shell that alone sells for about $6.  And the taste?  Not that different from chicken eggs.

Due to the misty morning drizzle, we lazed around our room, though on nicer days, Archie offers guests the opportunity to hike in his own private game reserve, stocked with antelope and zebra.  By mid-day, the sun started to break through and we knew it was time to head for Addo.

“Nobody’s seen anything today,” the headquarters ranger sighed, “It’s too cool and wet.”  So we checked into our park cottage, basic but pleasantly decorated, with animal prints, a thatched roof, bathroom with shower, a kitchenette with cooking utensils and an outdoor brai (rhymes with “try”), the beloved South African barbeque.

When the clouds cleared, we decided to go searching for elephants.  Thanks to the damp conditions, the first wildlife we spotted were shiny, 2½-inch, black dung beetles.  They swarmed over piles of elephant dung in the middle of the road like a miner who has just hit gold.

Mounting a crest, we were astonished to see the brown, mud-caked backs of at least 20 elephants feeding in the brush below.  Near the road, a youngster trumpeted to get the attention of an older elephant.  I’d read that most elephant communications are in frequencies too low for the human ear to hear, and that herds can keep in touch over distances up to nine miles.

Rounding a corner, we were met with a bull elephant’s back, as he sauntered down the road.  We could only creep along behind him until he spied a tasty bush and headed into the underbrush.  Coming upon a small waterhole, we watched as teenaged elephants piled one on top of the other on a mound of dirt, wiggling, shoving and playing.

When the elephants moved on, we decided to look for the six lions that were recently re-introduced to Addo.  We flagged down a car headed the opposite direction.  “Anything down that way?” we asked.  “Lions at the game hide!” they cried.  We consulted our park map and headed onto the muddy gravel road toward the concealed viewing area.

“Beware of lions, alight from vehicle at own risk,” the signs warned.  With a furtive glance around, we jumped out and onto the stairs that enable humans (and not animals, I hoped) to enter the fenced area.  When we reached the portion of the fence facing a waterhole, we peeked through slots at various heights.  Nothing.  The lions had moved on.  Or maybe they’d realized that the really tasty morsels were the people jogging to and from their cars.

We made it safely back on the road, and turned back toward park headquarters.  We knew there were plenty more animals to see at Addo, and hoped to find them on the “sundowner” organized game drive (“sundowners” is the South African term for evening cocktails).  At 6 pm, the drive set out in trucks fitted with nine comfortable, tiered bucket seats.  After some game-spotting, we were to be rewarded with a sunset view, drinks and snacks.

Ilsa, our guide, pointed out warthogs, kudu and white storks, which migrate all the way from Europe.  She regaled us with elephant facts:  if a baby can stand under a mother’s stomach, it is less than a year old; 60% of what an elephant eats goes undigested – the reason they must consume such massive quantities of food; 20-25 elephant calves are born every year in Addo, and their mothers are pregnant for 22 months.

“I’m going to take you up to where we last saw two of the lions,” Ilsa announced.  After turning off the road and traveling cross-country for a couple of minutes, we spotted a tawny shape lying in the grass.  A young male lion raised his head and gave us a sleepy glance.  We could barely make out his buddy snoozing in the tall grass about 20 feet away.  It turns out that lions, just like our house cat, spend most of their time sleeping.

As twilight settled, we came upon a powerful male elephant, ripping branches from a low tree.  “This is where we usually stop for sundowners,” Ilsa said, “but he’s in musth, so we’ll just keep going.”  It turns out, several bull elephants have been brought in from Kruger National Park to enhance the Addo blood line.  We did get our cocktails – well, box wine and beer – plus assorted little pastry snacks, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.  On the way back to Rest Camp, Ilsa sent a spotlight spiking into the darkness, revealing antelope and the elusive African buffalo, with antlers that perfectly mimic a flip-style 60s hairdo.

From tiny creatures that treasure dung, to the great, grey elephants and their complex society, Addo was full of surprises.

[previous excerpt, but Bradley cut so would fit on home page:]

Paul and I were visiting Addo Elephant National Park, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, home to over 400 elephants living naturally in the wild. Unlike some game reserves, you can drive yourself on your own “safari” at Addo, visiting watering holes and feeding grounds, where it’s possible to watch families of 50 or more magnificent beasts as they spray water on their backs, play in the mud or rip up a shrub to have a little snack.