Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park

At the eastern end of South Africa’s Cape, just an hour's drive from Port Elizabeth, the extensive Addo Elephant National Park sits just beyond the eastern end of the Garden Route. Currently it’s the third largest park in South Africa, spreading for about 1,800km² and including a marine section with a few offshore islands; there are plans for it to expand further. Addo encompasses five of South Africa’s nine terrestrial biomes and thus a very wide variety of vegetation, geology and even weather patterns.

Having said all this, the experience of Addo for the vast majority of visitors is somewhat more limited. Practically, the area which is easily accessible is only a relatively small section of the park: the area around Addo Main Camp and Colchester section – which is relatively homogenous in its vegetation and its wildlife.

In this area, African elephants are the big attraction. They occur in high densities here, and are generally very relaxed around vehicles – making it a great first safari experience for a few days.

It wasn’t always like this though… after centuries of hunting, only 11 elephants were left in area when the park opened in 1931. Gradually numbers have built up and today Addo is home to more than 500 elephants – albeit there aren’t really any big tuskers, and a study in 2001 noted that 98% of the females were tuskless.

Addo Elephant Park’s sections: where to go

Addo Elephant National Park is divided into seven sections with a real choice of activities and types of accommodation on offer, ranging from luxurious safari camps to basic campsites – hence the wider park is sometimes called “Greater Addo". Looking from north-west to south-east:
  • Darlington section in the far northwest, with the vast Darlington Lake and its Dam, which is very nice for fishing, some private 4x4 trails and Darlington Lake Lodge as accommodation.
  • East of Darlington is the private Kuzuko Contractual Area where you can find the five-star luxury Kuzuko Lodge.
  • South of Kuzuko, the Kabouga section offers 4x4 Trails and canoeing on the Sundays River from Kabouga Cottage and Mvubu Lodge.
  • The rugged, wooded Zuurberg Mountains section including the remote Narina Bush Camp in the centre of Addo Park; worth coming for hiking, abundant birdlife and smaller wildlife.
  • East of Zuurberg, the National Parks run their horse trails in the Nyati section. Here you’ll find the private concession of the luxurious River Bend Lodge and, just outside the park, Camp Fig Tree.
  • Addo’s main game area – the part visited by most travellers, is around Addo Main Camp, Spekboom Tented Camp and exclusive Gorah Elephant Camp. This is the main network of roads for self-drive visitors, and you’ll also find guided game drives, guided horse trails, birding and the PPC Discovery Trail.
  • South of the main area, and contiguous with it, is the Colchester section which includes Camp Matyholweni, where activities focus on game viewing from your own vehicle. On the nearby Sundays River, birding, fishing, paddling, canoeing and boat trips are possible.
  • Separated from the rest of the park, the Woody Cape section, whose hiking trails lead through various vegetation and stunning scenery along the Cape’s coastline, dune fields, fynbos and forests.
  • Finally Addo Park’s marine section consists of the Bird and St Croix Island groups, which are only rarely accessible to the public.
Furthermore, there are several private lodges around the park, many of which cater to self-driving visitors, including the private lodge Elephant House just outside Addo Park, only 8km from the main entrance gate.

Vegetation in Addo Elephant National Park

Most of Addo Park is covered with the tough and drought-resistant plants of Albany thicket, spreading over the Darlington, Kabouga, Nyati, Addo Main Camp and Colchester sections. In the Zuurberg section you can find fynbos, mainly consisting of fine-leafed, low shrubs and grass species, and forests, which also occur in the Woody Cape. Coastal dunes and grassy plans dominate the landscape in the Indian Coastal Belt. About half of the Kuzuko Contractual Area is vegetated with nama karoo, a biome that hosts different grass- and shrub-dominated vegetation types.

Terrestrial wildlife in Addo National Park

Addo Elephant National Park does have the ‘big five’ – elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard – but is definitely most famous for its elephants. Their conservation and growth in numbers in the park is a great success story, and it is usually possible for self-driving visitors to get good sightings of elephants which, for the most part, are very relaxed.

However, in our experience the park doesn’t offer reliable sightings of many of its resident species, even the larger mammals. Although present, many species are rarely seen. Apart from the elephant, you will almost certainly see good numbers of kudu, warthog, Burchell’s zebra and eland; in fact, we don’t know of any park where either kudu or warthog seem to be more common – they seem to be everywhere in Addo’s main area!

Amongst Addo’s other notable residents are black rhino; endemic flightless dung-beetles, which is almost exclusively found in Addo Elephant Park; and a herd of disease-free Cape buffalo.

Other antelope found here include red hartebeest, common duiker, bushbuck and Cape grysbok, whilst the main predators are lion, leopard and spotted hyena – with elusive caracals and small-spotted genets occasionally appearing at night.

We were lucky enough to see a mob of meerkats on our last visit, as well as many of the much more common and usually-solitary yellow mongooses. Aardwolfs, aardvarks and bat-eared foxes compete for the many termites – whilst the park’s honey badgers, porcupines and vervet monkeys are usually much less choosy about their food.

Birdlife in Addo

For the technically-minded, the five biomes found here are: forests, Albany thicket, fynbos, nama karoo and Indian Ocean Coastal Belt. But for everyone, this means that Addo Park has rich birdlife because of its wide range of vegetation.

Some of Addo Elephant Park’s specials, and more interesting birds, include karoo and Cape robins, bokmakierie, southern boubou, southern tchagra, Cape bunting, brown-hooded kingfisher, fiscal flycatcher, fork-tailed drongo, malachite and greater double-collared sunbird olive bush shrike, Cape batis, Knysna turaco, black cuckoo, grey cuckoo-shrike, chorister robin-chat, Cape parrot, Denham’s bustard, black-winged plover, pririt batis, rufous-eared warbler and karoo chat.

Of course one of the most visible bird species in many areas of Addo is the ostrich, which is fairly common and frequently sighted in the main game area.

Crowned eagles breed in the wood-covered kloofs of the Zuurberg mountains, whilst on the coast African black oyster-catchers are really special birds to watch.

Famous individual animals

Addo Elephant Park once had two prominent inhabitants, after which several places in the park were named: a big leopard tortoise called Domkrag (‘car jack’ in English) and Hapoor, the legendary leader of the Addo elephants for 24 years.

Domkrag used to lift cars up at the back, just like male tortoises do to prove dominant over another. Its shell is now displayed at Addo Main Camp, together with the head of Hapoor – the only elephant to have ever escaped the park’s ‘elephant-proof’ fence. Unfortunately Hapoor had to be shot shortly after this, due to its aggression towards humans (which many speculate may have been due to an early experience with a hunter).

Marine wildlife in Addo Elephant Park

Offshore, the marine section of the park consists of the Bird and St. Croix Island groups and here pods of bottlenose dolphins, great white sharks and, seasonally, southern right wales can be seen. Although more rarely seen, it’s also occasionally possible to see humpbacks and Bryde’s whales here.

With 2,500 breeding pairs of endangered African penguins, St. Croix Island is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of those. On Black Rocks, within the Bird Island Group, there is a breeding colony of Cape fur seals, and Bird Island itself hosts the world’s largest colony of Cape gannets.

However, please note that there is only rarely public access to Bird Island because of the ecological sensitivity of the island. Whale watching can be arranged with private operators in Port Elizabeth.

Activities in Addo Elephant Park

There is a variety of activities on offer in Addo Elephant National Park, depending largely on where you are based.

Only a relatively small section of the park is used for self-drive wildlife safaris: the area around Addo Main Camp and Colchester section. There you can drive with your own vehicle, at your own schedule, during the day. Alternatively, it’s also possible to pick up organised game drives in open-topped land rovers and trucks with knowledgeable guides from Addo Main Camp.

On game drives in Addo National Park you can expect high counts of elephants, kudu and warthog, secondarily zebra and eland. On our most recent visit in 2013 we also spotted some red hartebeest and, two or three times, individual yellow mongooses which all had the habit of standing up and looking around almost like a meerkat. For some travellers the flightless dung beetle might be of special interest, as it is almost only found in Addo Elephant Park.

For a nice combination, riding safaris are available as well.

Other activities in the area include horse riding and (guided) walking, mainly in the park sections further north, 4WD trails, picnics and canoeing. There’s also an operation offering elephant-back safaris near to the park.
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