It’s a bumpy one hour drive on a sandy road to Addo Elephant National Park. Due to hunting, disease and colonisation, by 1931 only eleven elephants remained in this area. Although local farmers wanted to exterminate them, the South African government established the park at Addo to protect these endangered animals. Conflicts between the farmers and the park continued until finally the park was fenced. Now the park keeps around six hundred elephants safe, in addition to lions, buffalos, black rhinos, hyenas, leopards, antelopes and zebras.
We transfer into a safari truck at the main camp and begin our game drive. Pumba and Timon, wart hog and mere cat respectively, are our first sights on the flat savanna fields. At the first water hole, zebras congregate at the edge along with a few of the braver wart hogs. We’re here to see elephants, but it is zebra, kudu and other antelopes that we spot. We drive deeper and deeper into the park but there are no signs of the great beasts. Our ranger often stops and scans the plains with his binoculars. Sometimes he will then swing the truck down a dirt road with a burst of speed, but with nothing to show for it, only more antelope or a flipped tortoise. Meanly, many of the animals toss these small creatures on to their hard shells knowing they cannot turn back over without intervention.
After more driving, we strike lucky. Our ranger stops the engine and we hear the quiet sounds of foliage being torn. Like an auditorium curtain opening, the bush is thrown aside and the rear of a large elephant is exhibited. The ranger rolls the truck silently and slowly along the dirt track a short distance and stops again. A family of the big grey animals walks slowly towards us, so close to the truck that they are almost at touching distance. We are silent, all in awe of the amazing creatures. The elephants too are quiet for such large animals.
The ranger explains in a low voice that most elephants here in Addo do not have tusks. One argument is that this is the effect of natural selection afters years of being hunted for their ivory, but there is also an alternate view that suggests it stems from the necessary inbreeding required to increase the numbers of elephants in the park. The ranger adds that a family group will consist of females and calves as the males will usually walk alone. With perfect timing, a large male ambles across the road; noticeably bigger, it has long, bright white tusks. The ranger suggests this male may be only somewhere between seventeen and twenty years old and should grow to be twice the weight of the females.
The large ears of the elephants flap to cool their bodies down in the heat. The ranger also points out that the ears are in the shape of the continent of Africa and that Indian elephants have much smaller ears. I didn’t expect to be, but I am moved by the majesty and grace of these animals.
On our way back to the park entrance, a few smaller jeeps have stopped. An animal must have been spotted. A lion lazes peacefully under a tree. We can just about see the thick mane as bushes block our view. The ranger then spots another one stretched out in the shade under another small tree. The park has only eight lions left and so we are content with our morning viewing as we finish our game drive.
My cycling guide is keen that we move on from Addo in order to get our day’s cycling underway. Ready to go, we assemble but the bus and bike trailer have gone. She explains that our driver has gone to clean the bikes as they are covered with dust from this morning’s drive. Why didn’t he do this during the last two hours whilst we were on safari?
Whilst the others buy more coffee, I take a walk to the watering hole here at the park entrance. I look on in astonishment. It’s an incredible sight. There must be almost a hundred elephants around the lake. More of the beasts are bounding down the hillside towards the pack and to their morning refreshment. I am surprised at how fast they can run. I laugh as we’ve been on a two hour drive when we could have just walked here and, of course, we didn’t see many elephants because they are all here. My guide comes to call me back, but then quickly goes back for the others to witness this extraordinary sight too.