For two hundred years hunters in the Eastern Cape had killed thousands of elephants. The most notorious was a rather unsavoury character – Major Philip Jacobus Pretorius – who was commissioned by the government in 1919 to kill any remaining elephants in the area. Fortunately, he failed in his quest. By 1931, when Addo Elephant National Park was proclaimed, there were just eleven elephants left in the Eastern Cape.
Today there are more than 600 of Earth’s biggest land mammals in the park, and Addo is undoutedbly one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories.
In the early days visitors were warned to stay well clear of the elephants, because the pachyderms had been so ruthlessly hunted and mercilessly slaughtered that the sight or smell of a man or woman would enrage them to destroy anything remotely resembling a human. Almost a century later, the elephants have forgiven us, and today the Addo herds are surely among the most relaxed and habituated to human presence.
I was invited to spend a night at River Bend Lodge, a luxury private concession just to the north of the main public camp. Although the main road and railway line divide the concession from the main section of the park where most of the elephants are, there are about a hundred elephants in the River Bend area. There are also three imperious-looking lions, the offspring of Kgalagadi lions that were transferred to Addo a few years ago.
Along with River Bend Guide Steve Meihuizen, I had two incredible experiences within 24 hours.
The first was in the late afternoon with the three lions; after about half an hour of driving we found them on top of a small hill as they snoozed in the warm sun, sometimes scanning the grass plains below for signs of food. We sat with them for an hour, and even though they seemed pretty lazy, there’s something about a lion that grips your imagination – and attention. When they look at you, eye-to-eye, you feel that their piercing feline gaze is sizing you up, deciding whether you are worthy of the effort of a hunt. If it wasn’t for the Land Cruiser we were sitting in, we’d be considered a tasty morsel.
The next morning, we drove into a wooded valley and found a large herd of elephants with several youngsters. We sat with them for probably an hour and a half as they mulled around the vehicle, the adults feeding (and farting!), and the youngsters playing games with each other. At times they were no more than a metre or two from the vehicle, and not once did we feel threatened in any way. They clearly know Steven’s voice, because they were so relaxed.
Unlike the main section of Addo, at River Bend Lodge you have the whole area to yourself, and the animal interactions are consequently more impressive. My guide Steve Meihuizen knows the animals well, and you get the sense that the animals know him and trust him. It’s a real privilege to be able to sit alone with a herd of elephants, when there are no other people or cars around. It’s addictive too…and something I know I will never get tired of. Hours fly by when you’re chilling with wild animals.
River Bend Lodge is most certainly luxurious (and the food is superb) but there’s a very relaxed, homely atmosphere, with a genuine “Eastern Cape” hospitality. I would have loved to stay longer – not only because of the lions and the elephants, but also because of the people at River Bend.
Here’s a video of getting close to the ellies…note how the two adult females go past our vehicle, but then the youngsters aren’t too confident, and stay put, waiting for one of the females to backtrack and look after them! If you can’t see the video, click here.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.