Addo: Bigger than elephants

Quick: name one thing you know about Addo. Elephants? Sure, there are plenty of those. But the park and its surrounds are also home to an astonishing variety of wildlife, eco-systems and adventures. 

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Mutiny was a distinct possibility. As I hauled on the half-submerged rope, sweat streaming down my face, my friend collapsed behind me. ‘I can’t do this!’ Nozuko Basson declared.

‘Just take a short break,’ I pleaded, ‘then try again.’ I carried on dragging myself up the endless dune of slippery sand, hoping she would follow. At the top was a sight that will haunt Nozuko’s dreams for decades: a soft-serve landscape of dune upon giant dune.

‘It’s probably not as big as it looks,’ I said hopefully as we trudged towards a distant marker pole. Turned out I was sort of right: it was much bigger.

We had just started the second day of the Alexandria Trail in Addo Elephant National Park. You won’t find any elephants in the Woody Cape section of the park, but you will find an unspoilt indigenous forest, full of shy birds and extrovert spiders, and the biggest coastal dune field in South Africa, three kilometres wide with dunes that tower up to 140 metres above sea level.

The previous evening, as Nozuko lay comatose on her bunk, I had sat drinking in the view from the deck of a wooden hut above green-swathed cliffs that dropped into a deserted stretch of foaming coastline. On the horizon, I could make out Bird Island, home to the world’s largest gannetry. The island of St Croix to the west has South Africa’s most sizeable parcel of African penguins. Both were made part of the park in 2005.

Farmers’ nuisance to mega-reserve

Addo is probably South Africa’s fastest growing national park. What began as a 2,000-hectare reserve in 1931 is now a patchwork of protected areas that add up to 168,000 hectares stretching from Bushman’s River mouth to Darlington Dam, and includes five of South Africa’s seven biomes. It’s the only park in the world that has the Big Seven of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo, the great white shark and southern right whale.

The Greater Addo Project proposes its expansion into a mega-reserve of 360,000 hectares as well as a marine protected area of 120,000 hectares. This will make Addo South Africa’s third-largest conservation area after Kruger and the Kgalagadi. There’s already an impressive network of roads, camps and private concessions within the park, as well as an extensive tourism route surrounding it – and it all started with 11 elephants.

There were more before, of course, but they were shot – at first for ivory and later because they were a nuisance to farmers. Between 1700 and 1900, they were hunted down to just a few herds. Then, in 1919, Major PJ Pretorius was asked to exterminate the lot. With the help of a ladder to see over the thick bush, he had killed 114 by 1920 when, suddenly, people felt sorry for the animals.

In 1925, a now-sympathetic government set aside a temporary reserve for Addo’s remaining elephants and six years later they were chased into the newly proclaimed Addo Elephant National Park with fires, firecrackers and shotguns. It was poorly fenced, so elephants once again clashed with farmers and passing trains.

An elephant-proof fence

To keep his charges safely within its boundaries, the park’s manager started supplying oranges, hay, pumpkins and pineapples. Visitors were invited to come and watch at feeding times and a viewing ramp and floodlights were erected.

Then, in 1954, park manager Graham Armstrong developed an elephant-proof fence. Four-metre tram rails that took eight people to carry were planted underground, and five thick strands of lift cable stretched horizontally above. The Armstrong fence, still used in some sections of the park, cost R100,000 a kilometre and only one elephant has ever been known to break out of it: the famous people-hater Hapoor, who had to be shot as a result.

Despite the new fence, feeding continued for the sake of visitors and, by 1976, about 30 tonnes of oranges were being brought in each winter. It was chaos. As a truck entered the game area, elephants ran behind it roaring and grabbing oranges. When it left, they had to be scared away from the gate with whips, bricks and shouting. Some animals became aggressive and many were injured competing for fruit.

The last oranges were dished out in 1979, but there are still signs at park entrances warning visitors not to bring citrus fruit in with them. Chances are, the elephants haven’t forgotten.

Watch where you drive

From those original 11, Addo’s elephant population has rebounded to more than 500 individuals, one of the densest populations in Africa. The success of the park’s largest animal is good news for one of its smallest. Flightless dung beetles were once widespread throughout Southern Africa, but are now limited to a few pockets in the Eastern Cape.

If you’ve got keen eyes, you may spot them near fresh elephant droppings, teetering and tottering around their dung balls as though they’ve been at the brandy. (Their scientific name, Circellium bacchus, refers to this.)

Born into dung and with nothing to look forward to but dung for breakfast, lunch and supper, these beetles have a tough enough life without being broiled to death in the midday sun (they’re cold-blooded and need shade) or run over by passing cars. Yet they’re the unsung heroes of eco-systems.

Without them, Rod Van Heerden informed me, we’d be in the same situation as the Aussies, wearing corks around our caps to keep the flies off. Rod’s the manager of Addo Dung Beetle Guest Farm and he runs his own flightless dung beetle breeding project.

According to him, Australia’s beetles couldn’t roll with gooey cow patties which, left above ground, bred enough flies for a biblical plague. He says they improved the situation by importing ours, particularly Circellium bacchus.

Unfortunately, Circellium are fussy. In spite of Rod’s best efforts – a honeymoon suite for beetle threesomes and regular fresh rhino manure – his original 11 dung beetles have dwindled to three.

Too much to do

Next day, we visited another breeding project where, once again, Nozuko threatened mutiny. ‘I’ll be waiting for you in the car,’ she said, as our guide held open the gate to a cheetah’s enclosure. I couldn’t blame her. Daniell Cheetah Breeding Farm was the last of a long list of activities that had stretched this Joburg girl’s limits to breaking point.

Not only had I dragged her up dunes and down dales for two days and 36 kays in her best Billabong boots, but I’d forced her to eat river crab (freshly boiled) and take the Sundays River Ferry to see more dunes (on condition that she didn’t have to climb them).

She was made to ride a horse in the Suurberg and later an elephant, both of which smelt funny and made rude noises. She had to be polite about dung beetles and not fidget too much while I inspected Enon’s old mission station near Kirkwood, Percy Fitzpatrick’s grave and a citrus packing plant. She sat very still – and only snored a little – while I photographed elephants, more elephants, kudus, red haartebeest, tortoises, spekboom bushes and, repeatedly, dung beetles.

‘Still,’ I thought, as I stroked the cheetah, which purred like an expensive off-road motorcycle, ‘Nozuko hasn’t had it too rough. Even a snooty city girl would appreciate the accommodation around Addo. And she’s been able to order steak for almost every meal,’ I reminded myself, as I was shown into the lion cub enclosure. ‘That should have cheered her up.’

Behind me, the largest lion cub launched itself from a pounce position and chomped needle-sharp teeth into my bottom. Pity Nozuko wasn’t there. That would have cheered her up.

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