It is 5:15 a.m. when I get in my little grey Micra Nissan rental car. The pre-dawn sky is laced with clouds showing just a pale tinge of pink around the edges. The weather forecast said it will be 32 degrees today. I set off on the dusty dirt track from my guest house, direction Addo Elephant National Park, 15 km away. Breakfast has been promised upon my return. Not a soul in sight, let alone any other two or four legged specimen. I only get a racuous send-off from the top of the trees: the bird world is announcing a new day. When I am on the paved road, a little voice inside me asks timidly “what in this world’s name is a 50+, fairly civilized lady doing alone in the middle of the African nowhereland?” A pragmatic voice inside me answers: “going to see elephants, now keep driving”.
At 5:39 a.m. I come upon the entrance of the National Park and am greeted by a cheerful toll-taker: “where to, m”am?”, “to the 6 a.m. game drive, sir” says I. The red and white gate post opens. Indeed, we end up being 9 individuals who set off in an open converted jeep with raised seats and canopy. “Good morning, my name is Mpumi” our khaki uniformed guide is almost too jolly for such an early expedition. Mpumi goes on to explain that this part of the Park is about 13.500 ha (out of a total of 164.000 ha), established in the 1931. There are lots of animals, but there is absolutely no guarantee that we will see anything more exotic than Kudu antelope and Warthog (of the pig family), because there are over 2000 of each of these animals. And almost certainly we will not see elephants at this time of the morning because it is too cold and they like it to be toasty warm before they come down to any watering hole. Big disappointment all round. Mpumi consoles us by saying that we just may see lions, they are more apt to be out in the morning (or evening) because of the cooler temperatures. However, because there are no fences within the Park, the animals are free to roam around wherever they wish and it is not possible to cover 13.500 hectares in 2 hours, so he will do his best to find as much wildlife as possible.
Shortly after setting off, we do see both Kudu and Warthogs, calmly grazing in the bush, fairly close to the road, totally oblivious to the jeep. A bush hare is next, scampering off into the thorny undergrowth. The animals are getting smaller: next is a flightless dung beetle (this type only at home here in Addo, nowhere else in the world), working assiduosly on getting a nice fresh dung ball round and rolling. He and his mates remind me of Sisyphus forever trying to roll the world uphill. It is, indeed, astonishing to see this black beetle, about 5 cm long, work at getting a dung ball several times its size to be completely round and then pushing it uphill (couldn’t do it downhill, the ball would roll away from the little guy). By now at least an hour has gone by (of the two hour drive) and we are all wondering, is this it, no more wildlife?
But then, off onto a dirt track and around an umpteenth bend – I am glad Mpumi knows where he is going, it all looks the same to me – and there, in the distance, on a ridge above a watering hole, sits a regal young lion, flowing mane and hall, looking just like the MGM lion in the movies, about to roar. Only he doesn’t roar, just slowly gets up and strides – exactly on top of the ridge – to exit stage right into the bushes. Over and out goes Nomad, as we learn he is called. He is one of three male lions in the National Park, about 3 years old and has not mated yet, still living the solitary bachelor life.
I decide there is nothing else to do but to come back another time if I want to even have a chance to see any elephants. I book the 3 p.m. drive that same day. As it only costs 180 Rand (about 18 Euro) per game drive, I figure it is worth it, as I don’t necessarily see myself coming back to this neck of the woods – ooops, bush, anytime soon. Same procedure as in the morning, only this time there are a few more two-legged local and visitor specimen hanging around and the thermometer has definitely reached 32 degrees with a warm, not cool, nicely dry breeze. I am grateful for the jeep not having any windows.
We get to see even less than in the morning (other than Kudu and Warthogs): This time the smallest animal is a leopard-spotted tortoise wanting to make a getaway through the enclosure that surrounds all 13.500 hectares. The driver stops, picks up the tortoise to show us the spots better and sets it down in the bush, facing away from the fence. Again it is about an hour into the drive (maybe this is all part of a plan?), when we make out some large brown rocks in the distance. Upon getting closer, the rocks move and they turn out to be elephants who have already been to the watering hole, rolled in the mud and now have a perfect camouflage (as we say in theater, costume and make-up). All in all, there are about 50 (out of over 420 currently in the Park) of these kind pachyderms, going about their business of eating bush and rolling in mud. There are a large number of baby and teenage elephants and we learn that the youngest is one month old (he is not in this herd) and the oldest one in the Park is 63 years old. The babies drink about 10 liters of milk per day and are only weaned from their mother when they grow taller than being able to get under her belly.
Other than the lions and elephants, there are three black rhinoceros, buffalo, wildebeest and several kinds of antelopes. All on their day off, it seems, over the hills somewhere, roaming this endess land.
Fully satisfied, I return home to my spa guest house for another round of being pampered and dreaming of rolling around in mud, just like the elephants – that treatment is sadly not included in my wellness plan!