A bull elephant was sauntering toward our car. But he was more interested in a tempting tuft of grass than in charging our dusty Toyota, so we settled back to watch him scuff up the short grass with one of his front feet, then toss it in the air with his trunk to shake loose the dust before devouring his treat.
We were in Addo Elephant National Park on South Africa's Eastern Cape, home to more than 400 wild elephants. Unlike some game reserves, where visitors are admitted only on organized game drives, at Addo we could explore independently in our own car, visiting waterholes and feeding grounds. And so we found ourselves watching a family of 50 or more magnificent beasts spray water on their backs, play in the mud and rip up a shrub for a snack.
We had arrived at the park one afternoon in January, after a leisurely six-day vacation along the Garden Route, which unwinds eastward from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. As we headed inland, driving the 45 miles between Port Elizabeth and Addo, the lush, seaside landscapes gave way to arid vistas punctuated by cactus and scrub.
We pulled into the Rest Camp, park headquarters for food, lodging and activities. The heat — well over 90 degrees — smacked us the minute we stepped from the car. A ranger at headquarters told us elephants had been spotted at the Hapoor waterhole. "But they're probably heading off by now," she said.
"We should have gotten up earlier," I grumbled, as we jumped back in the car. We drove to the gated checkpoint, where every vehicle gets a number to track comings and goings, then entered the wildlife area. I peered into the spekboom, dense, gnarled shrubbery that stands about 6 feet high. It's thought these thorny, sharp-leaved plants deterred hunters and saved the area's elephants from extinction.
Following our park map, we left the blacktop for a gravel road. We knew from a stay in a private game park near Johannesburg that spotting wildlife can be tricky. In two days of professional game drives at Mabula Private Game Preserve, we had seen only a patch of an elephant's rear through the thick forest. I hoped we would have better luck here.
The road widened, and Hapoor spread out before us. We gasped as we saw a herd of female elephants and their offspring surrounding the waterhole, sucking muddy water into their trunks, spraying it over their backs and splashing it on their stomachs.
A youngster waded into the water, lay down and wallowed in the soothing, cooling mud. Others joined in. Then a baby, not much more than a year old, clambered down the bank.
"She'll never get back up," I said. But when it came time to leave, one of the older calves pushed from behind as an adult gripped her trunk, pulling her onto dry ground.
The complexities of elephants' social interaction make them fascinating to watch. I noticed two adult females greeting each other by entwining their trunks. An older elephant napped, standing up, with her relaxed trunk draped over a tusk.
The elephants went about their business, not seeming to care that five cars of spectators were snapping a flurry of photos only 50 feet away. A bus pulled up and disgorged a group of tourists, who — against park rules — got out to shoot one another's photos with the elephants in the background. The elephants' only reaction was to move away from the ruckus.
They are surprisingly nonchalant about the presence of humans because, a ranger told us, in the history of the park the herd has never been culled.
Ready for a snack, the elephants wandered from the waterhole, and we motored slowly alongside them, keeping a respectful distance. A tourist flouted park rules by edging his SUV off the road, closer to the moving herd. Before long, the vehicle was surrounded and a young bull was giving it a thorough examination with his extended trunk. The driver got the message and gingerly reversed back onto the road.
The elephants fanned out and dug for tender roots by ripping entire shrubs from the ground. One even wedged a branch behind his tusk to periodically munch on it in between other morsels.
Suddenly, a couple of elephants grazing near us decided to cross the road. Others followed, and we watched the procession until they disappeared.
After three hours of elephant-watching, we returned to Rest Camp and met Archie Hitge, owner of Hitgeheim Country Lodge. We had hoped to spend both nights inside the park, but because we visited in high season, we were able to book only one. Hitgeheim, a new accommodation not far from the park, was recommended by a travel agent, but we had few details.
Archie pulled up in a battered white pickup. "I have some lost Germans," he called out, holding up his cellphone, "but I'm going to take you back to the lodge first." We followed him over two-lane highways and onto a maze of gravel roads, passing citrus orchards, pastures with ostriches and, finally, a corral of African buffalo.