"Roll up your window," my husband, Paul, muttered, easing his camera down.
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.
Social interaction 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.
The lodge has five spacious cottages perched atop a hill with views of the Sundays River Valley. As Donald, a young, enthusiastic staff member, opened the door to our accommodations, I saw a bed piled with luxe pillows and draped in gauzy mosquito netting, cool slate floors and antique chairs reupholstered in ostrich leather. Sliding doors opened on a panorama of orchards far below. The bathroom, larger than most hotel rooms, looked out over the hills and featured a second, outdoor shower. A soaring thatched roof scented the room with sweet, grassy perfume.
Archie had invited us to join him in the boma, combination guest lounge/porch, for drinks and snacks before dinner, and after washing away Addo's dust, we headed there.
"Come on down to the wine cellar and pick out what you want," Archie said. Paul followed him and surfaced with a pleasing Pinotage red for $12.
The lost "Germans" had been retrieved — but they were actually French, from Réunion Island. We chatted until Donald led us to dinner. In a candlelighted, antique-filled dining room, we sampled cold carrot and ginger soup, salad with smoked kudu (antelope), lamb shanks and a dense, buttery cake-like "pudding" with whipped cream for dessert.
Archie was our shorts-wearing sommelier and said his college-age daughter was chef that night. "My wife usually does the cooking, but she's out of town until tomorrow morning," he said. Then he told us in a conspiratorial aside, "She hates it that I won't dress up."
"If you want to see the animals, you can go along on the truck when they feed them tomorrow," Archie said. We agreed, then retreated to our cottage as cracks of lightning danced in the gathering clouds.
Visiting the ostriches At 7:15 the next morning, in a misty drizzle, we met Lize de Jongh, who was in charge of feeding the ostriches and collecting their eggs. We bounced along in her truck to visit breeding ostriches and flocks of offspring.
At the hatchery, Lize made us remove our shoes before entering to avoid spreading germs. We peered into a sealed incubator, which held slowly rotating racks of 8-inch, ivory-colored eggs. In an adjacent hatching room, we peeked through a window to see babies busting their way out of the thick shells. "They use their legs more than their beaks," Lize said, adding that a kick from a grown ostrich can kill a human.
I'd been wondering if it was possible to eat ostrich eggs, and on our return to the lodge Archie offered the proof — scrambled. "You chip a little hole in the bottom of the shell, then shake it," he said. "One ostrich egg equals 24 regular eggs." I'd envisioned a Fred Flintstone-size fried egg overflowing my plate, but that would have meant cracking the shell, which alone sells for $6.
The taste? Not that different from chicken eggs.
By midday, the sun started to break through, and we left for Addo.
"Nobody's seen anything today," the ranger said. "It's too cool and wet."
So we checked into our park cottage, basic but pleasantly decorated with animal prints and outfitted with a thatched roof, bathroom with shower, a kitchenette and an outdoor brai (rhymes with "try"), the beloved South African barbecue.
We went searching for elephants, but because of the dampness, the only wildlife we spotted were shiny, 2 1/2-inch, black dung beetles swarming over piles of elephant dung like a miner who has hit gold. Then, mounting a crest, we were astonished to see the brown, mud-caked backs of at least 20 elephants feeding in the brush below. Near the road, a youngster trumpeted to get the attention of an older elephant.
Rounding a corner, we were surprised by a bull elephant as he sauntered down the road. We could only creep behind him until he headed toward a tasty-looking bush. Coming upon a small waterhole, we watched "teenage" elephants pile one on top of the other on a mound of dirt, wiggling, shoving and playing.
But Addo has plenty of other animals, and we hoped to find them on the "sundowner" organized game drive. ("Sundowners" is the South African term for evening cocktails, and after the drive we received drinks and snacks.) At 6 p.m., we set out in trucks fitted with nine comfortable, tiered bucket seats.
Along the way, Ilsa, our guide, pointed out warthogs, kudu and white storks, which migrate from Europe. And she regaled us with elephant facts.
"I'm going to take you up to where we last saw two" lions, Ilsa announced. After traveling cross-country for a couple of minutes, we spotted a tawny shape in the grass. A young male lion raised his head and gave us a sleepy glance. We could barely discern his buddy snoozing about 20 feet away.
On the way back to Rest Camp, Ilsa sent a spotlight spiking into the darkness, revealing antelope and the elusive African buffalo, with antlers that perfectly mimic a flip-style '60s hairdo. Another of nature's surprises at Addo.
Sizing them up
Teeth: Elephants have six sets of teeth in a lifetime, with molars the size of bricks. At Addo, elephants live to be about 65.
Ears: Their huge ears are filled with blood vessels. When an elephant flaps its ears, the blood is cooled and circulates to the rest of the body.
Trunks: Elephants have 60,000 muscles in their trunks. Calves don't master the full use of this amazing appendage until they are 6 years old.
Pregnancy: The gestation period of an elephant is up to 22 months. Calves weigh about 260 pounds at birth and drink about 2.6 gallons of milk a day.
Weight: An adult African elephant can weigh up to 13,000 pounds and reach about 11 feet at the shoulder. It is the biggest mammal on land.
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Elephant-watching in South Africa
From LAX, British, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and Malaysian Airways offer connecting service (change of planes) to Cape Town, South Africa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,142. Flights are available to Port Elizabeth.
Port Elizabeth has the nearest airport to Addo Elephant National Park, about 45 miles away. From Port Elizabeth, take the N2 highway toward Grahamstown, then take the Motherwell turnoff onto the R335 and follow signs to the park.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 27 (country code for South Africa) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Rest Camp, Addo Elephant National Park, 42-233-0556, http://www.addoelephantpark.com . Has a variety of tents, cabins, cottages and chalets, many with kitchenettes. Prices range from $54 double for a safari tent (with communal bathrooms) to $180 for a luxury guest house that sleeps six; I stayed in a cottage priced at $74 double. The complex includes a shop with basic groceries, a restaurant and a swimming pool (for guests only).
Hitgeheim Country Lodge, off Route R336; 42-234-0778, http://www.hitgeheimaddo.co.za . Half an hour outside of the park, the stylish, luxurious lodge has five spacious cottages perched on a hill with spectacular views; $68 to $143 per person, including full breakfast. Amenities include robes in the rooms, a small swimming pool and a wine cellar. We returned from our farm tour and discovered two staff members washing our car for free.
Gorah Elephant Camp, Hunter Hotels, entrance on Route N10 and Addo Heights Road, 44-532-7818, http://www.gorah.com . A privately operated high-end lodging inside the park featuring a 19th century Colonial main house, with accommodations in luxury tents with bathroom and period furnishings; $580 per person, double occupancy, including three meals and game drives.
WHERE TO EAT:
Plan on dining at your place of lodging or cooking at a kitchenette-equipped park accommodation.
Jabulani at the Rest Camp has a casual restaurant with indoor and outdoor tables, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fare is basic — salads, meat, potatoes and pasta — plus ostrich and a fish of the day. Dinner for two with a shared salad and dessert was about $32. Reservations required.
Hitgeheim Country Lodge serves a fixed-menu, four-course dinner to guests for $26.75 a person; specialties include ostrich and lamb. Our food was delicious, and we were served by a charming, eager-to-please staff.
WHEN TO GO:
The park is open year-round, with high season from Christmastime to the third week of January. The end of January and February has similar weather and fewer visitors.
Addo Elephant National Park is malaria-free; tap water in South Africa is generally safe to drink.
TO LEARN MORE:
South African Tourism, (800) 593-1318, http://www.southafrica.net .
— Gayle Keck