In the 19th century, due to sport hunting, expansion of local farms, and a growing brickmaking industry, the population of elephants in and around Addo, South Africa dwindled from a peak in the many thousands to just a few hundred, and lions and rhinos were killed off completely. Under the pressure of agricultural interests, in 1919, the South African government hired a hunter to exterminate the remaining elephant "pests". He killed 114 of the animals in a little over a year, leaving only 16, which took refuge on a sympathetic farmer's land. Due to popular pressure, the hunt was called off and Addo Elephant National Park was created. In the rest of the 20th century, the herd regained much of its former size, and lions and rhinos were even reintroduced.
If you've never been on a safari, and you're from the US, the idea of going to a park to see what we think of as 'exotic' animals can be a bit mystifying. I had no idea what to expect from one of these parks. The thought of elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, rhino, zebra, and countless other mammals just roaming around a park and humans driving through it to see them was incredibly foreign to me. It's one of those things that doesn't really make sense until you experience it for the first time.
On the way to Addo, we witnessed two baboons fornicating on the side of the highway; I suppose that was a little introduction for us. (Sidenote: baboons are everywhere in South Africa: they are like deer in the US, but much more common. You can see them from the road, in parks, in people's backyards, etc. It still makes me giggle every time I see them.) We got to the park in mid-afternoon and only had three hours until the gates closed, so we grabbed a map and started driving around. Less than one kilometer into the park, a zebra dashed across the street in front of our car, and I just started laughing. Okay, so I guess you really do just drive around and spot animals (and try not to hit them!). Then we went to a watering hole where the elephants often are, but we ended up finding them a bit further up--and far away from--the road. We quickly learned two things: 1) with a regular car, the only areas where you have a chance of spotting wildlife are the areas with shorter and less dense grass (Jeeps and trucks are higher up and therefore you're able to look down into the bushes and short trees and see any animals lurking in there); 2) spotting wildlife can be mostly luck. Yes, certain animals live in certain areas of the park, and are likely to be spotted in certain places depending on the time of day, but partly it is just pure right-place-right-time luck. We often found ourselves driving through loops where the vegetation made it impossible for us to see anything. However, in the plains we spotted tons of grass-feeding quadrupeds: kudu, duiker, eland, and zebra, some of which we recognized from the "game kebab" Nick ate at a nice restaurant we patronized in Cape Town.
After our afternoon warm-up "safari", we had an early night at the nearby Orange Elephant backpackers, where the owner told us where he thought some of the animals can generally be seen, so we returned the next morning, feeling a bit more confident with our plan to drive in ceratin places. We were almost immediately rewarded: when we arrived to the elephant watering hole, about a dozen elephants were drinking out of the water. Over the next 15 minutes, dozens more joined them, and at one point we counted about 50 total, a mix of males, females, and babies (so cute!). They seemed unphased by the cars parked merely 25 to 50 feet away from them.
The sight of such a huge group of elephants calmly drinking water and playing around so close to us was somewhat magical. Everyone sat completely silently in their cars and just took in the moment. I've always thought elephants are not so exotic to us Americans, perhaps thanks to the Barnum & Bailey circus, or the annual "elephant walk" through downtown DC, so admittedly, I wasn't as excited to see them as I was to see a lion or rhino. However, I was completely humbled by the experience. Throughout our morning drive in the park, we saw several more elephants, usually lone males eating on the side of the road. Several times we even had to turn around and go the other way to avoid driving past an elephant three times the size of our car and less than ten feet away!
We didn't end up seeing a lion or rhino, but we still left completely satisfied with our elephant experience, and excited for future wildlife park visits: Kruger and Serengeti!
Park info: Addo Elephant Park, Addo, South Africa. Entrance fees: 140R/person. Gate hours vary by season but are generally 6 am to 6 pm. There are several lodging options within the park as well as backpackers' down the road. Guided drives available a few times per day for 220R/person, or you can hire a guide who will join you in your car for two hours for 150R.
SAN Parks Wild Card: If you're planning on visiting several national parks while in South Africa, you may want to invest in the Wild Card, which allows you to enter any National Park for one year. The cards are available for one person, for a couple, or for a family. Do the math first and figure out whether it makes sense for you: park entry fees range from about 40R to 180R (Kruger). I highly recommend buying it online because not all parks sell them. If you buy online, parks will just ask to see a print out of the receipt or the card number.