At Addo you can see the largest terrestrial animal (the elephant), the most ancient land mammal (the black rhino), one of the largest marine mammals (the southern-right whale), Africa’s iconic predator (the lion) and two of the rarest marine birds, the Cape gannet and African penguin, so it is certainly a park worth visiting. Nevertheless, Addo is not as “wild” as some of southern Africa’s other national parks. Much of it is fragmented, surrounded by extensive urban and agricultural areas.
But herein lies part of Addo’s appeal. Because it is situated just off the N2 road, an hour’s drive north-east of Port Elizabeth, it is probably the most accessible authentic Big 5 destination in the country. And with its variety of accommodation and scenery, the park makes a rewarding visit, especially to the repeat visitor who gets to know it well.
1. From spekboom to sea, mountains to marine
Addo has several different sections, each offering something unique. If you were to fly 150km in a direct line from the north-west of the park to the south-east, you’d encounter a fantastic array of landscapes.
First up is the semi-desert Karoo of the northern Darlington section, where black rhino browse on the spiky euphorbia “noors” plant. Just to the south are the Zuurberg, with aromatic mountain fynbos, and the forested kloofs of the Kabouga section, which echo with calls of Knysna turacos.
Then you’ll come across the low-lying hills of the Main and Colchester sections, where elephants browse on spekboom thicket.
Along the coast, the Woody Cape section boasts emerald temperate forest, as well as the largest mobile dune field in the southern hemisphere, 57km long and up to 2km wide.
And finally there are several offshore islands surrounded by the surging surf of the Indian Ocean, all critical to the conservation of several marine bird species.
2. Viewing Addo’s elephants
Elephants may never forget, but they clearly forgive. The revival of Addo’s pachyderms is one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories, and today the park is probably the best place in SA to view them up close. With the arrival of the 1820 settlers in the Eastern Cape, hunters killed thousands of elephants, the most southerly in Africa (along with the Knysna elephants).
In 1919, one particularly unsavoury character – Major JP Pretorius – shot 114 elephants in 11 months. During one hunt, according to the archives, he was “forced to lame an elephant by shooting it through the vertebral column. Then like lightning he jumped on the beast’s back, ran to its head and killed it with a shot through the neck.” In another incident, Pretorius shot 16 elephants within 30 seconds – or so his journal records.
Elephants in the region would probably have been wiped out but for the public outcry and the actions of a sympathetic farmer, a Mr Harvey, who allowed the elephants to use the dense spekboom on his land as a refuge from the hunting.
In 1931, when the park was proclaimed, just 11 elephants remained. Today, the population has grown to more than 700.
In the early days, visitors were kept out of certain areas because the elephants were understandably aggressive towards humans.
But today Addo has some of the most relaxed wild elephants in southern Africa, largely because of the patient work of Dr Anthony Hall-Martin, who faced down numerous charges during his research and earned the trust of the aggressive females.
Because of the excessive hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s, when hunters targeted elephants with large tusks, Addo’s elephant cows became “tuskless” and the bulls had comparative toothpicks for ivory. In 2003 several elephant bulls with sizable tusks were introduced from the Kruger National Park, and today youngsters are showing signs of producing larger tusks.
3. Addo’s other mammals
Despite the park’s name, Addo is definitely not just about elephants.
Although there are only 20-odd herbivore species in the park – a diversity lower than savannah areas – the rich browsing value of the subtropical thicket can sustain a high density of wildlife. In one study, Addo’s average biomass of animals was 6700kg per square kilometre – the fourth highest in Africa!
But there’s a catch. The dense spekboom can make it tricky to see the animals, so head for the open patches of grassland and the waterholes. The best places are Hapoor Dam, Gwarrie Pan or Rooidam, all just a short drive from the main rest camp. The open grasslands of the Gorah Loop drive in the north-east also make game viewing more rewarding.
The park conserves the region’s only indigenous buffalo populations, which are disease-free, making this group of around 400 increasingly valuable in an African context.
Lions were reintroduced into the park from Kgalagadi, and the black-maned males are as photogenic as their desert ancestors. Cheetah, spotted hyena and black rhino have also been reintroduced into the park.
Cape Mountain zebra can be seen in the Zuurberg section, while marine mammals include southern-right whales, several species of dolphin and the most easterly breeding colony of Cape fur seals in SA.
4. Addo’s diverse accommodation
Like the diverse habitats, Addo’s accommodation has something for everyone. The main rest camp offers the usual chalets and cabins, while a flood-lit waterhole with an underground hide gives visitors an opportunity to see animals coming to drink. However, trains can sometimes be heard on the nearby railway line, spoiling the wild sounds. Matyholweni camp in the south is much smaller than the main camp, and not as busy, with only 15 self-catering chalets but no shop or restaurant.
I prefer the more adventurous options, including the small, fenced Spekboom Tented Camp in the middle of the main game viewing area. This is probably the wildest experience you can have in Addo.
Also recommended is the remote Narina Bush Camp next to the Wit River on the southern slopes of the Zuurberg mountains. It’s a basic camp with a few small safari tents, cooking and braai area, and basic ablutions.
But there is no one else for miles around, and there’s a fantastic wilderness atmosphere. Also recommended for forest lovers are the simple Langebos hiking huts in the Woody Cape section in the far south, set in indigenous forest. This is the start of the Alexandria hiking trail, but the huts are open to anyone.
A variety of private luxury lodges have exclusive concessions in the park, including Gorah Elephant Camp, River Bend Lodge and Kuzuko Lodge. Rates are far higher than the SANParks accommodation, but guests have the advantage of exclusive use of the concessions, and guides are allowed to drive off-road on occasion, getting closer to animals.
Gorah’s luxurious tents are suited to couples, while River Bend’s manor house and cottages are homely, best suited to families with young children. River Bend’s three beautiful lions are accustomed to the lodge’s game drive vehicles, so it’s probably the best place in Addo to see the predators.
5. Alexandria Hiking Trail
No guided walking is offered in the main game viewing area of Addo. The dense thicket makes it difficult to see more than a few metres ahead, and it is considered too dangerous to risk encounters with animals like elephant, black rhino and lion. However, the beautiful 36km Alexandria hiking trail in the south of the park is one of the best in the country. The first night is spent at the Langebos huts in the forest. Hikers then emerge onto the beaches and spend the second night at the Woody Cape hut, spectacularly positioned on the edge of the ocean. Then there’s the walk through the dune field, back to Langebos.
6. Bedrogfontein 4×4 Trail
For 4x4ers, this pretty half-day 4×4 trail gives access to the most remote areas of the park, including the northern Darlington section, where black rhino browse among euphorbia, and the mountainous Kabouga section, where you can spot Knysna loeries and Narina trogons in forested kloofs. Also look out for hundreds of cycads growing on the northern slopes. You can start the trail either in the north at Darlington or in the south near the town of Kirkwood. The trail is not particularly challenging in dry conditions, but if it rains you must have a high-clearance 4×4 with low-range gearbox.
7. Addo’s important bird areas
According to Birdlife SA, Addo’s diverse habitats are home to more than 400 bird species. But most important are the two offshore islands that protect critical populations of Cape gannet (more than 150 000 of them live on Bird Island) and African penguin (7000 pairs on St Croix Island). These are the world’s largest breeding colonies of both species. The islands were included in the park in 2005, but unfortunately there are currently no public tours.
Also impressive are the Alexandria dunefields and coastal areas of Woody Cape, which hold about 17% of SA’s breeding Damara tern population, and the only known Damara terns in the Eastern Cape. This area is also home to about 2% of the global breeding population of African black oystercatchers, and is the eastern limit of its breeding range. For more about Addo’s birds, go to www.birdlife.org.za.