Addo Elephant National Park is the third largest national park in South Africa, after the Kruger and the Kgalagadi. How do you eat this particular elephant? One bite at a time, of course! Here’s your guide.
Addo Elephant National Park is a patchwork reserve split into five separate sections: Woody Cape, Colchester and Main Camp, Zuurberg, Kabouga and Darlington.
You can plan your trip around one or a combination of several sections. To experience the whole park, it makes the most sense to start in Woody Cape, the easternmost section, and drive in a north-westerly direction through Colchester and Main Camp, Zuurberg and Kabouga to Darlington, the northernmost section. From Darlington, you can continue north along the R75 to Graaff-Reinet, or south through Uitenhage to Port Elizabeth and the N2.
This is what you can expect…
Woody Cape Backpackers
There are dorms and self-catering units. The standard units sleep four and are equipped with a kitchenette and a bathroom. There are also caravan and camping facilities. The real draw card is the easy access to the Alexandria duneveld (free for guests).
Where? Midfor farm, Alexandria
GPS: S33.75591 E26.38920
Rates: Camping R80 per person; dorm R130 per person; double room R320; self-catering unit R500 – 800.
Day visitors: R30 per person.
Contact: woodycape.co.za; Ph: 086 111 4646; 1 073 865 3621
Alexandria Hiking Trail
This 36 km circular hiking trail takes two days to complete. You can stay at the Woody Cape Guesthouse the night before, and at the Woody Cape Hut on the trail.
The start is in an indigenous forest and runs along a pristine beach to the Alexandria dunes.
Hikers must carry their own gear. Leave the swimwear at home – the water is wild, in terms of currents and sharks… Rates: R140 per person per night, plus a conservation fee of R54 per person per day. Make a booking: 046 653 0601 (trail office)
WOODY CAPE SECTION
Get lost in the dunes
I’m on a lonely gravel road at five minutes to midnight. The murky blur of milkwoods is pooling into a deeper dark. I pass a lonely farm and a stationary police car. Uh-oh…
There are two ways to experience the Woody Cape section of Addo – a coastal region between the Sundays and Bushman’s rivers. For the fit and fearless there’s a 36 km two-day hike through the forests and along the beach, with all your gear on your back. I’m not very fit, nor am I fearless, so I’ve decided to stay at Woody Cape Backpackers instead: the only accommodation that allows a casual traveller to access the 50 km stretch of pristine Alexandria duneveld.
But right now I wish I’d chosen the hike. The road seems to go on forever. How long could it possibly continue? (Never ask this question. The answer is always “a lot longer”.) Finally there’s a turn-off. And a light. And a small face-brick bungalow with a rickety bunk and polyester sheets that are as welcome as the inn at the end of the world.
The next morning is clear as glass and the milkwoods have given way to pastures spotted with sheep. The backpacker lodge is slotted between these green hills and the high dunes at the coast.
In the communal kitchen I meet up with an old friend. Nico Lascar is one of those perennial travellers who wears a woollen hat from Romania, knows an assortment of languages and always comes prepared with a Swiss Army knife, a small gas cooker, a tiny kettle and tea. We decide to pool our resources and continue the journey together.
A short walk through indigenous forest and up a wooden walkway brings us to the crest of a giant dune. There are more than 1 800 such dunes in the duneveld, some as tall as 140 m. We sink and slide our way down to the beach, our footprints blown away almost before we’ve made them, our bodies shrinking to specks on the edge of a sky smudged with a giant, ashy finger. Down near the sea is a whale skeleton, nibbled clean by a scavenging wind. It seems like a miniature version of itself, considering the size of the surrounding environment.
Addo brands itself as the only park where you can see the Big Seven – the Big Five plus
the great white shark and southern right whale. It also encompasses St Croix and Bird islands, which support breeding colonies of Cape gannet, African penguin and Cape fur seal.
Today, however, there’s not so much as a wind-battered seagull to be seen. And it’s starting to rain, so we race up the dune again, shoes filling with sand, making it back just before a thunderstorm hits the beach.
MAIN CAMP & COLCHESTER SECTIONS
Etosha has its “great white ghosts” – elephants stained white with clay and calcite. Addo’s elephants should be called “big red rock spirits”. Ochre-coloured from red clay, these pachyderms look just like boulders from a distance, until they start ambling around…
I’d been told that there’s more to Addo than elephants. Woody Cape has already proved that. But elephants are still the reason most people come to Addo and, like most people, I’m on a mission to see one.
In 1931 when the park was proclaimed, there were only 11 elephants in the whole reserve. That number has swelled to 600-odd, but they’re still tricksy and enjoy playing hide- and-seek with tourists.
After crawling round the Colchester section of the park behind a Landy intent on stopping for everything, Nico and I take the Harvey’s Loop turn-off. In your own car, you can explore at your leisure (and delude yourself that you saw a caracal when it was in fact a warthog), but there are also “hop-on guides” and scheduled game drives if you’re after more structured elephant viewing.
Harvey’s Loop unspools for about 15 km into hilly, shrubby terrain. The verges are messy with broken branches and dung. Then suddenly we’re surrounded. Silent, reddish and small for their kind, nearly 30 elephants pad past on both sides of the car, making no more noise than the steam rising from the spekboom thickets. One passes so close I see its eyelashes blink over a large, amber eye.
Game viewing is like gambling. Despite the bumper sighting on Harvey’s Loop, we decide to raise the stakes on a guided sunrise game drive, which departs from Main Camp at 5.15 am.
When we arrive the next morning, the vehicle is already filled with expectant tourists.
A middle-aged Frenchman cradles a camera with a massive zoom lens; a Russian is prepared with binoculars and a high-powered torch and some Aussies have commandeered the front seats. Pia Meier and Max Koch, a young German couple, are sitting in front of me. They did a night drive and saw buffalo. Now they’re after elephants and the elusive big cats.
“Why not Kruger?” I ask.
“Here it’s not so busy,” says Max, who visited the Kruger a few years ago.
“We really want to see the elephants,”
Pia chips in. “And there are so many nice camping spots in the Eastern Cape.”
“Righty-ho,” says Ryan Mew, senior guide, with the enthusiasm of a game-show host. Max and Pia stop talking immediately and snap to attention. We roll into the park. Ryan keeps a running commentary: “There are the dagha boys,” he says as we pull up alongside a herd of buffalo. (Oohs and ahs.) A zebra bucks its way over the road. “That’s what we call a zebra crossing!” chortles Ryan. “Or, as I call them, barcoded horses.” (Appreciative laughter from the tourists.) We see a black-backed jackal and a scrub hare within metres of each other. “That’s a jackal,” says Ryan. “And that’s its breakfast!”
The sky begins to lighten and Ryan voices his concern that we haven’t seen elephant or lion, despite fresh lion tracks near the Rooidam lookout. Gwarrie Pan is empty, too. Everyone in the vehicle is on the lookout, scanning the shrubbery. I’m caught up in the anticipation, already considering forking out more cash for another drive, another chance to see something I haven’t seen.
We idle past a stationary car and suddenly there’s chaos – cameras on action mode, tourists rushing to the side of the vehicle. We’ve hit the big time: two male lions sharing a freshly killed kudu.
Go for a game drive
There are 120 km of tourist roads to explore in the Main Camp and Colchester sections, and most can be driven in a normal sedan. Gates open at sunrise and close at sunset: The times vary slightly according to season.
Rates: Conservation fee R54 per person; free with a Wild card.
Go with a guide. If you’d like the expertise of a guide in the comfort of your own vehicle, you can book a “hop-on guide” (R180 – R360 per vehicle). Enquire at Main Camp or Matyholweni reception. Or you can go on a guided game drive from Main Camp. Sunrise, sunset and night drives are recommended. Enquire at reception about times. R280 per person for a standard drive and R395 per person for a sun-downer drive.
Book in advance: 042 233 8657; Email : email@example.com
Matyholweni rest camp
Unlike Addo’s Main Camp, the Colchester section of the park isn’t crammed full of tourists. Matyholweni (Xhosa for “in the bush”) lives up to its name. With just the hint of a thatched roof showing above the surrounding thicket, you’d never know that the self-catering cottages are there. A two-minute drive takes you to the Colchester gate, from where you can access the park, driving right up to Main Camp.
Rates: From R1 300 per night for two adults.
Various accommodation options, including cabins that sleep four to six people, chalets that sleep two to four, rondavels that sleep two, guesthouses that sleep six and tent and caravan sites. All the accommodation provides easy access to the restaurant, museum and activities like game drives and horse safaris.
Rates: From R260 to R3 700 for two adults.
Spekboom Tented Camp
This camp is in a fenced section inside the park’s game-viewing area, near a waterhole. Each safari tent has two single beds and there’s a communal ablution block and braai area with a gas fridge. There’s no access to the Main Camp restaurant and there are no night drives on offer.
Rates: From R800 per tent for two adults.
Make a booking: 012 4289111; Email : firstname.lastname@example.org;
History in the hills
It’s time to explore the “more to Addo” part of Addo that I’d been told about. Narina Bush Camp is deep in the Zuurberg, along 15 km of dirt road, through three gates and on foot for 200 m into the forest. There’s no big game in this section of the park.
Luando Pikoli, a SANParks official who lives near the camp, gives Nico and I a heartening greeting: “Watch out for night adders,” he says.
“They’re lazy like puff adders.” He shows us how to operate the paraffin-heated shower and disappears.
With the Wit River rushing past nearby, all that’s missing is the faint jangle of a banjo. I’d forgotten that “secluded” is advertising speak for “isolated as the deepest Amazon”. But isolation quickly becomes peaceful once you shake off the city and slip into nature’s specific calm.
A hiking trail snakes into the forest near the camp. Nico and I pack some gear and head out. At some point we leave the trail and follow an old 4×4 track. We find what I imagine to be a Boer War-era stockade looking out over the Zuurberg. Somewhere in these mountains, long ago, General Jan Smuts fell into a coma after eating cycad fruit (the seeds are poisonous), confused by the local name broodboom.
Also around here, more than 200 English¬men and about 700 horses were ambushed and driven to their death by Boer soldiers.
I remember Deneys Reitz’s description of the Zuurberg in Commando: “From the point where we reached the top, we looked on a world of more mountains, line upon line of high ranges, each separated from the next by deep wooded gorges, and the prospect of being driven into these fastnesses was not inviting.”
With the sun sinking and the light receding from each mountaintop like water pulled back over rocks, we leave some dried tea leaves for any wandering ghosts and turn back to camp.
Narina Bush Camp
This camp is remote. It’ll take you at least an hour to get to Addo Main Camp. The dirt road that leads to the bush camp will also take a toll on most sedans. But that’s what makes Narina such a great place to stay. With the sound of the Wit River lulling you to sleep, a huge boma under which you can prepare meals and a rustic paraffin-heated shower, this is what getting away from the city is all about. Plus, roomy safari tents with proper beds (goodbye, roll-up mat!) mean you’ll get a camping experience without the grind of sleeping rough.
Rates: R1 150 per night for two adults; R210 per additional adult; R105 per additional child. When you book Narina, you book out the whole camp, which sleeps eight in total. It’s worth bringing a friend or seven.
Make a booking: 012 428 9111; Email : email@example.com
Explore on horseback: Another way to get to Narina is to saddle up on a guided overnight trail from Main Camp. R515 per person per day, two people minimum. More info : 042 233 8600; Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Go for a stroll
One- and three-hour trails into the Zuurberg, beginning at the Zuurberg office 16 km from the main park gate, are popular with day visitors. But if you’re overnighting at Narina, there are various paths that start on the doorstep of your safari tent. The views are spectacular and it’s worth reading up on the local Anglo-Boer War history before you set off. Commando by Deneys Reitz is a good place to start.
Rates: Conservation fee R54 per person per day; free with a Wild card.
DARLINGTON & KABOUGA SECTIONS
“Do you have a 4×4? No? Then you can’t access the Darlington section of the park.” For the SANParks receptionist, the conversation is over. She seems surprised when I don’t just walk away. “Is there no other route?” I ask. The receptionist sighs. “Well, you could go the long way around.”
It’s a very long way round. Almost 200 km from Addo Main Camp, along the R75 towards Jansenville then via gravel roads towards Waterkloof into the arid Nama Karoo. At the end is a dam.
It’s a strange, remote place with an equally strange history. The original Khoisan inhabitants were wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. By the 1800s the land had been divided up into farms. Darlington farm became a trading post and later, a small town. It was here that a certain Dr Reginald Koettlitz, physician on Captain Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic trip, fled after the controversy over his medical advice.
Many years later, the area was proposed as the site for a new dam. Sir Percy FitzPatrick of Jock of the Bushveld fame was on the board that decided to go ahead with the construction of the dam, then known as Lake Mentz.
By 1918, the dam wall had been built. And six years later, the town of Darlington had disappeared completely beneath the water. When the dam level drops to below 30 %, an island is revealed with relics like crumbling building foundations and broken teacups.
We drive past fisherman’s cottages, an ostrich farm, angora goats. The landscape is the colour of lion skin and mountains tear across the blue sky. Down at the dam, there are fishermen on the edge of a spit of land that pierces deep into the body of water like a giant hook. The sun lights up the water intermittently from behind bruised clouds. And it’s quiet. Almost creepily quiet. Every now and then you’ll see birds just above the water. But they don’t make a sound. The rumble of the sluices, hidden behind bald hills to the right, are felt rather than heard.
After a picnic at the water’s edge, we scramble to higher ground and find a perch with a view of the Zuurberg and beyond. A gull swoops up, a white scribble against the sky.
I imagine it soaring over the valleys where the Boer commandos chased the British troops more than 100 years ago, and where the British and the Xhosa armies clashed 100 years before that. I imagine it flying further, over the Hapoor Dam at Addo Main Camp for a drink, then continuing south, across the Alexandria duneveld to its nest on St Croix Island.
I envy the gull. It can see all of Addo in one go. But is that the best way to experience the park? Each section has its own particular flavour. Combining more that one section in a day feels like overindulgence. Yes, if you want to make the most of the park as a whole, it’s best to eat this elephant one bite at a time…
Mvubu & Kabouga
The accommodation in the Darlington section pales in comparison with the other parts of Addo. It might be good for a no-frills fishing weekend, but there are better family options elsewhere.
In the Kabouga section, though, there’s decent accom¬modation. Pitch your tent in the Mvubu campsite on the banks of the Sundays River, or sleep surrounded by mountains in the Kabouga Cottage. Both places are only accessible in a high- clearance vehicle.
Rates: Mvubu R120 for the first two people, plus R172 per additional adult; R33 per additional child. Or book the whole camp for R630 per night (max 12 people), plus R33 per additional person. Kabouga Cottage (sleeps six) R480 for the first two people, plus R172 per additional adult; R95 per additional child.
Make a booking: 042 233 8619; Email : email@example.com
Drive a 4×4 trail
If your vehicle is capable, the 45 km Bedrogfontein Trail through the Kabouga and Darlington sections of Addo is a favourite. This self-drive route takes about six hours to complete.
Rates: R375 per vehicle per day, plus R48 conservation fee per person. Book in advance and pay at either Main Camp or Matyholweni. The Kabouga and Darlington entrances don’t have credit card facilities.
Contact: 042 233 8619; Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Or take the long way around. You can also get to the Darlington Dam via the R75 or R400. It’s a long haul from Addo Main Camp, but if you’re coming to the park from the Karoo side, it’s worth a detour. Conservation fee: R54 per person; free with a Wild card.