Close Encounters in Addo Elephant Park
Until we came to South Africa, Adam and I thought of safaris as expensive guided tours taking guests to remote camps in the wilderness over the course of several days. Our first safari experience, at Addo National Park in South Africa, completely changed this notion.
Without any form of preparation other than renting a car (we had quickly realised our own car is a must to get around southern Africa), we drove along the coast to reach the park. When we reached the outside fence, we excitedly caught glimpses of the first animals of our trip- a herd of zebra, an ostrich, and the distant outline of an elephant. We also came across a few monkeys, and a leopard tortoise who was making a brave attempt to cross the road (I hopped out and carried him to the verge in an attempt to prevent him becoming an ex-tortoise).
After spending the night at a campsite/hostel just across the road from the park (and realising our new tent was in no way waterproof), we woke up early and drove into the park. The entry fee was way lower than we expected, at just over R200 per person (£10/$14) per day. We also received a free map of the park and a checklist with all of the animals we would see (if we were very lucky).
And so our first South African safari began. No guided tours, no massive vehicles, just the two of us in our teeny Chevy Spark Lite. We had the option of joining a guided drive, or of picking up a guide in our car, but decided to just make a go of it ourselves. We checked the map by the giftshop, where visitors stick coloured magnets to indicate where they’ve spotted animals, but there was nothing on it yet.
Picking a random direction, we set off, with our eyes peeled.
There were animals everywhere. To begin with, Adam could barely drive for more than a few seconds without me yelling “Stop!” and snapping photos from the window. Zebras, ostriches, warthogs, and an array of antelopes, whose names (Kudo, Red Hartebeest, Springbok) we had to scan the checklist to discover. There was also an array of colourful and massive birds, who disappeared faster than we could look them up.
The main roads were smooth tarmac, and the minor roads were unpaved, but smooth enough even for our miniature vehicle. The park was wonderfully uncrowded, with small gatherings of cars at the waterholes, where the animals were concentrated. At one point, we joined a group who were convinced they had spotted a rhino in the distance, but he had since disappeared. We did find one buffalo, who glared at us with that hilariously grumpy buffalo expression.
We drove through the northern section of the park, seeing the same collection of animals, and also a range of beautifully coloured birds, but by now we were wondering why we were yet to come across the elephants for which Addo is famous.
Then, as we pulled our car up to yet another waterhole, there they were. A whole family bathing in the water under the hot sun. Deciding they’d had enough, they began to plod directly towards us, passing right by our car and even having an inquisitive glance through the windows. I was in awe. These massive beasts, moving so silently but powerfully around us, was an incredible sight.
After a drive around the southern section of the park (which had far fewer animals), we returned to the north and bid farewell to Addo National Park. We may not have managed to see the lions and leopards that were no doubt hiding in the shade somewhere, but, for our first South African safari, a close encounter with elephants was an experience to remember.