Expert Reviews – Addo Elephant NP

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Addo – elephants, penguins and the flightless dung beetle?
Overall rating

It’s hard to keep up with Addo. I think it has secret plans for world domination. The first time I went there, it was this tiny, insignificant little park set up to protect the last surviving handful of elephants in the Eastern Cape. Now it’s ballooned out into one of South Africa’s largest national parks, covering 1,800 sq kms (695 sq miles). And there are further plans to increase the size to 2,640 sq kms (1,019 sq miles) as well as taking in 1,200 sq kms (463 sq miles) offshore as a marine park.

What I find fascinating about this growing patchwork is not only the huge variety of landscape which stretches from mountain to Kalahari desert to fynbos and coastal sand dunes but the fact that the park authorities are equally enthusiastic about the elephants (there are now about 550) and the park’s unique flightless dung beetle. It must surely also be the only park in the world where you can find both the Big Five and thriving colonies of African penguins and Cape gannets (on the offshore islands).

The Eastern Cape vegetation tends to be scrubby and you don’t get the giant herds of plains animals so gameviewing can be frustrating for those spoiled by the Serengeti or Kruger, but there is a good variety of species here and the scenery is gorgeous. It’s also malaria-free. My recommendation would probably be that it’s a wonderful area to explore, but possibly not as your first safari experience.

Elephants up close and personal
Overall rating

This is a difficult park to rate fairly because it can come across as a bit of a one-trick pony. Along with Amboseli in Kenya, I would rank it the best place anywhere in Africa for exciting close-up encounters with elephants – which are wild, but so habituated that they frequently walk within touching distance of cars. Since the park was expanded a few years back, elephants are less densely clustered and conspicuous than they used to be, but on a good day you still might see several herds comprising a total of 100 or more individuals on the reliably rewarding Gorah Loop. The rest of the Big Five either occurs naturally (buffalo, leopard) or has been reintroduced (lion, black rhino), but sightings are far from guaranteed, That said, on our most recent (two-day) visit we had excellent views of buffalo and lion (including a pair of black-maned males feeding on a kill next to Domkrag Dam), and also saw a distant black rhino. Unsurprisingly, we dipped on leopard. I was impressed by the large number of greater kudus, many of which possessed truly spectacular spiraled horns. We also had a few sightings of spotted hyena and back-backed jackal in the vicinity if Domkrag Dam. Conspicuous birds included Denham’s bustard, black-headed heron, pied starling, southern boubou and Cape longclaw. If one bird species is emblematic of Addo, though, it would be the bokmakierie, an endemic, atypically non-secretive and pretty bush-shrike with mostly yellow feathering and a habit of calling loudly from open perches.

South Africa’s premier park for elephant-watching
Overall rating

Thanks to rapid expansion in recent years, Addo is South Africa’s third largest park after Kruger and the Kgalagadi. The total 1640-sq-kms encompass large bush areas as well as fragmented pockets of varied habitats, from woodlands in the Little Karoo to sand dunes along the Indian Ocean. Like most visitors to Addo, I’ve always seen elephants in the principle game-viewing area around Main Camp thanks to flat bush, waterholes and pans—one time a magnificent herd of more than 100-strong splashing around in their morning bath. Main Camp’s underground hide overlooking a waterhole is another great vantage-point too. Cape buffalo, zebra, and antelope are common, lion and spotted hyenas are occasionally seen, and look out for the curious flightless dung beetle. Also explore the other distinct regions for their different habitats and animals – for example black rhino are present in the Darlington area, while the Sundays River in the Zuurberg section is home to hippo. An all-year-round park, Addo is ideal for novice game-watchers and children, and of course all elephant-lovers.

Huge herds of elephants and much, much more
Overall rating

It’s about time that Addo changed its name, not for any lack of elephants (the park started out as an elephant sanctuary, their numbers now exceed 550, and I’d be amazed if you didn’t see several herds during your visit), but because there are so many other species here, too, from endemic flightless beetles to hyenas, black rhinos and leopards.

I love the great variety of habitats and activities on offer here, including wildlife-watching on horseback, and there’s even more more in the pipeline. Already a Big Five park and the third largest protected area in South Africa, Addo is growing – there are plans to expand its coastal section into a marine reserve. That will, of course, make it a Big Seven park, six and seven in this instance being great white sharks and whales.

The fact that Addo lies within a malaria-fee region is a tremendous bonus. If your stay in South Africa includes the Garden Route or Port Elizabeth, you’d be crazy to miss out on Addo, even if you only have time for a quick day-trip.

Elephants, elephants & more elephants
Overall rating

If you have a serious fetish for elephants, look no further than Addo. Close encounters of the elephant kind are an everyday experience here – so much so that you can almost become blasé about it. While parks such as Zimbabwe’s Hwange may boast greater numbers of the lumbering giants, in my experience I’ve spied more elephants in Addo than anywhere else in Africa. In fact, each time I’ve visited I’ve found it near impossible to count the numbers I’ve seen. Beyond elephants, the park is also home to Cape buffalo, lion, black rhino, various antelope species, warthogs and the flightless dungbeetle (which is exclusively found at Addo). However, Addo’s dense bush veld means that you will struggle to see much more than antelope. The elephants though more than make up for this. Each time I’ve visited, I’ve found it practically impossible to count the number of elephants I’ve spied. For anyone interested in the park’s smaller creatures such as insects and birds, a walk along the Spekboom Trail is well-recommended. The trail is set within a fenced-off botanical reserve, meaning you can roam through it freely without fear of being charged by an elephant or rhino or ending up the main meal of a hungry lion.

Elephants Galore
Overall rating

Addo is South Africa's third-largest national park, covering 1800 sq km, and a popular stop for both self-drive and guided safaris, situated near Port Elizabeth and the Garden Route. While it can get busy (book well ahead to stay here over Christmas), the park certainly lives up to its name, with over 600 elephants comprising Africa's most concentrated pachyderm population. I experienced my most memorable elephant sightings here: thirsty herds hurrying to waterholes, trunks swinging and cute calves scurrying; and the surly adolescent male who passed our vehicle, his glaring eye sizing up our camera lenses. The sprawling park covers numerous environments, from the Zuurberg Mountains to the coastline; the main section is pleasingly hilly, with viewpoints and ridges to drive along. My hottest tip, for small groups, is the Narina Bush Camp. It's a blissful, electricity-free getaway with a gas-powered fridge, donkey-boiler shower, and an inviting waterhole and terrace.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.5/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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