(Words & images by Claire Warneke)
South Africa boasts hundreds of exceptional wildlife viewing experiences – from luxury big-five lodges to national parks and everything in between …
But there are few very affordable places to take the whole family out for a wildlife experience of a lifetime – especially if you’re paying in rands and cents! Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape is one of those places.
Not only does it boast the Big 5 (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino), it has also incorporated a marine reserve and now features a world first: the Big 7 which includes the big five plus the Southern right whale and the great white shark.
You can see all of these and more for less than the price of the average movie ticket
Addo Elephant National Park – now the third largest national park in SA – is also a self-drive park which means you and the kids can pile into the kombi, pack some padkos, and tour the 686 000 hectares at your own pace. There are a number of look-out sites where you can stretch your legs and take a toilet break.
My family and I are lucky enough to live in Port Elizabeth, and we take regular trips to Addo throughout the year. It’s just a 40-minute drive away, but it is a world away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
A visit to Addo, and spending a day in nature is always good for the soul. Whether we see all of the Big 5, or we only see ostriches, warthogs and some of the other less-common species, we are guaranteed to be awed by all that nature has to offer.
Today, over 600 wild African elephants call Addo their home. But just over 80 years ago the gentle giants were on the verge of extinction due to hunting. In 1931, the park was established to protect the last 11 remaining elephants in the area. It is now an incredibly successful breeding ground for hundreds of species.
Addo also features some significant archaeological sites in the caves on the Zuurberg Mountains – middens of the nomadic ‘Strandloper’ or ‘beach walker’ people. Cave paintings and stone tools have been discovered here.
From birds to bugs, Addo is a thriving home to thousands of species of South African wildlife. It boasts over 600 elephants, 400 Cape buffaloes, over 48 endangered black rhinos as well as a variety of antelope species. Transvaal lion and spotted hyena have also recently been re-introduced to the area.
Be careful when driving around, and keep a lookout for rolling balls of dung! Addo is also home to the largest remaining population of the flightless dung beetle – an integral part of the local ecosystem.
When is the best time to visit?
In my experience, hot days are the best time to visit if you want to see the larger animals. Make sure you get there in the morning to see the elephants congregating at the water holes to splash around in the mud and cool down. During the heat of the day most animals find shelter in the dense bush, and it’s difficult to spot them.
On cooler days, the grazing animals like buffalo and zebra are out in force on the open fields, and you will often spot smaller species like jackals, mongoose, and duikers darting around near the edge of the roads.
You won’t fail to be delighted by the numerous families of grunting warthog with their tiny piglets trotting obediently behind ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ with their tails erect.
The bird life is also exceptional.
When you need to refuel and stretch your legs, head over to Jack’s Picnic site. The site was named after Jack – a black rhino that was one of the first to be brought to Addo. He was kept in a boma where the picnic site is now situated.
The well-equipped picnic area has ample seating, shade, and toilet facilities. Each demarcated picnic spot also has a built-in braai area so families can really settle in for a truly South African afternoon. The entire site is enclosed so kids can run free while mom and dad relax.
Throughout its long history, there have been some animals that have made in indelible mark on Addo – even though they have long since passed away. One of these was ‘Domkrag’ the giant mountain tortoise who roamed around the park and had a naughty habit of walking underneath cars and lifting them up with his massive strength! Sadly he fell down an aardvark hole and died. His shell is now on display in the Addo Interpretive Centre. One of the dams at Addo is named after Domkrag.
Another animal who went down in the Addo history books was Hapoor the bull elephant. This formidable pachyderm with a terrible temper roamed the park from 1944 to 1968. “Hap” in Afrikaans means a nick or a tear. Hapoor was said to have a nick in his ear which was caused by a hunter’s bullet earlier in his life. He never forgot his near-death experience with the hunter and often chased Addo park staff whenever he saw them. Eventually he escaped from the park’s “elephant-proof” fence (which had been impenetrable for 20 years!) and staff were forced to shoot him due to his increasingly aggressive nature. His head is mounted in the Interpretive Centre, and a water hole was named after him.
- Main camp reception is open from 07:00 to 19:00 daily
- Matyholweni reception is open from 07:00 to 17:00 daily, while the gate is open until 18:30.
- Visit https://www.sanparks.org/parks/addo/ for more info