Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Awesome Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park

HelpX volunteer Tom Amey had been working hard with us for nearly three weeks, getting up early to help me ring birds through the morning, and then varnishing and painting through the afternoons. On his gap-year African adventure, his next destination was northern KwaZulu Natal on a bus ride that would depart from Port Elizabeth (PE). And with the opening of the southern gate to Addo Elephant National Park located only twenty minutes from PE it seemed like a worthy reward to take Tom to PE via Addo. It had been 7 years since my last visit, and I was keen to see what had changed, and introduce my daughter (2) to what she endearingly calls “Groesse”, being short for “Big Elephants” from her favourite German nursery rhyme.
At 180 000 hectares, Addo is South Africa’s fastest growing National Park in terms of land acquisition, and the 3rd largest after Kruger and the Kalahari. It stretches from the sea, to the Zuurberg mountains and beyond – although the later sections can only be accessed on pay-extra 4x4 routes. But most of the animals can be seen in the central section, although one does have to get a little lucky in order to spot lion or other top predators in the impenetrable Albany thicket. 
While to the purist, Addo may be viewed as a tourist trap, this in fact works to the visitors benefit as the wildlife is so habituated to the presence of vehicles, that you are guaranteed close encounters with wildlife of the kind that won’t have the family car insurer chewing his knuckles.

While the leopard may still be my technical answer to the question: “what is your favourite animal?”, the animals I most enjoy watching are the world’s biggest land mammal – African Elephants (Loxodonta africana).
One of the standard interesting facts about elephants you will hear from game guides is that they spend up to 18 hours a day eating. But just like people around a dinner table, eating is only half the game. We could just as easily say that Elephants spend 18 hours a day socialising. That means they are even more socially networked than a modern day teenager with iPhone, Facebook and unlimited broadband. They are constantly rumbling, nudging, caressing, bumping, squealing, trumpeting, scenting and batting their eyelids – and that is just the adults! The list of verbs that could be used to describe the activities of youngsters would roll over to several pages.
What can be more awesome than viewing wild elephants on foot? There are two places in the park where one can do this: the Spekboom Hide (albeit screened behind electric fences and wooden wall), and the Domkrag Dam in the main game viewing area in the northern section of the park. At both locations we were treated to a range of social interactions, from child care, to adolescent insolence, to public displays of affection, personal hygiene (how to have your own shower) and various forms of exercise from running to weight-lifting. By the end of our full day in the park, my camera was over heating, and I’ve had immense difficulty in choosing my favourite photos for this blog article. 

Elephants Kiss


Elephant shower

Greeting the dawn

Tourists get excited by the presence of a wild elephant at the Domkrag Dam lookout point

A breeding herd of elephant raise clouds of dust on their approach to a drinking hole
Baby elephants are just too cute
The early morning riser is sure to catch glimpses of Black-backed Jackal heading home after a night out
Kudu seem to be the most common antelope in the park

Although I hate to end this article on a gripe – I do have to warn prospective overnighters to the Park that the campsite is one of the worst of any – SANParks or otherwise – I have visited. Ablution facilities are fine, but the 10 campsites are at the back end of the otherwise spacious caravan area in what can only be described as a cul-de-sac alleyway. Camp spots are tiny – no more than 4x4 meters, have no view, and subject to noise pollution from the nearby trainline, passing vehicles and other park residents – the tented camp on the one side hosting drunken Germans singing ‘Buffalo Soldier’ all night, and I was kept awake by snoring residents of the camp itself on the second night. To round it all off, on attempting to check out the conversation with the receptionist when something like this:

Receptionist “All I need is your key”
AL: “I was camping”
Receptionist “Ah the tented camp…”
AL “No, in my own tent”
Receptionist: Pause to register that they have a campsite. “O, you can just go.”
AL: Thinks “What did I do wrong?!”

There is a lot of secondary tourism that has grown up around the park, and there are accommodation options between Addo and Kirkwood to suit all tastes, as well as a variety of other entertainment and eating options. The only benefit of staying in the park is one is given a 30 minute head start on the opening times at the gate. When the target animals are elephants, this is meaningless, but it does enhance the feeling of being in the wild a bit more in the early morning compared to later on when one has to deal with increasing volumes of vehicle traffic.

After all that you may be tempted to ask if I’ll be going again. The answer is a whole-hearted YES. Watching elephants is exciting, mesmerising, and tonic for the soul. They are the epitomy of the magnificence of the African megafauna.  The tuskless females are a reminder of human ruthlessness as we continue to exterminate hundreds for ivory, and at the same time the elephant’s continued presence is a symbol of hope of how humans also care and desire to save and protect the victims of our conquest of the planet. Long may the Elephants of Addo send their rumbles across the plains of Africa.

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