May 28th: Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
I could hardly sleep with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve. I was up just past 6 a.m., had a quick breakfast and was off. I ended up arriving at the gates about 10 minutes early as I watched the groggy employees start their Monday morning. I am sure the last thing they wanted to deal with was a wide-eyed American guy raring to go at 7 a.m. There were hardly any other cars, which gave me the opportunity to better dictate my pace. There was a heavy fog that had settled in the low-lying areas, which kept my visibility to a minimum. This added to the experience, keeping me on the edge of my seat as I took each bend in the road hoping to see something pop out of the bushes. I was treated to the first sighting of the morning with a small group of Kudu grazing off in the shrubs, and I was hooked! The Kudu is one impressive ungulate, standing probably 5-6 ft. tall to the shoulder with distinct white stripes. The males are all the more impressive with their large twisted antlers adding another 2-3 ft. atop their head. As the morning continued, so too did the animals: Caracal, Ostrich, Zebra, Duiker, Buffalo, Warthog, and more. By about 10 a.m. I had covered only about a quarter of the small parks roads, and I needed a breather so I could take in all that I had seen already. It had been quite the introduction.
I was far from done for the day though. I still hadn’t seen any elephants, the namesake of the park. Fortunately I did not have to wait long, about an hour later I came upon a watering hole where they all seemed to be at. There were about 15-20 elephants all congregating around a small dirty pool of water. It was very surreal at first approaching the elephants in my car. They are so massive they often look out of place in the landscape; everything around them is dwarfed in comparison. As I inched my way closer the secure feeling of being in a car disappeared as the adult elephants were easily twice the size of my vehicle. The herd was made up of elephants of all sizes, with the smallest ones often getting lost in the tangle of legs they weaved through. I sat parked for a while enjoying the chaotic watering hole scene. Elephants jostled for position and warthogs with their little ones scurried around looking for any opening they could duck into before having to dodge a swinging trunk shooing them away. After everyone had their fill the group split in two, with half heading south into the thicker vegetation, and the other half crossing the very path in front of me, feet from my car. I at first sat clenching the steering wheel, foot on the clutch, ready to make a speedy exit lest one of the elephants decided my car would make a perfect toy. A couple passed so close I would look out the front window and only see legs and a hanging belly. I was soon at ease, as they seemed to fall into perfect formation. They proceeded in front of me, heading north, into a thicket for a feast of foliage. I was left quite stunned, unsure of what I should do, wondering if perhaps the whole scene in front of me had really just occurred. I double checked with my camera to verify, and then decided to plunge into new territory I had yet to explore.
The rest of the drive I passed more of the animals I had seen in the morning along with black-backed jackal, mongoose, red hartebeest, and a countless number of birds. Each time I passed an animal I was captivated by their presence, and with some of the looks I got in return it is quite possible the feeling was mutual. The ostrich is one animal that could make the hardest man smile. Its presence and everything is does seems unnatural and awkward but it’s a joy to watch. I spent 9 hours in the park and left satisfied, exhausted, and my battery drained on my camera. I retired to my room for a shower, and a dinner of bread, cheese, green olives, apples, oranges, and granola while preparing for my journey north to Craddock, home of Mountain Zebra National Park.