Our first stop, after alighting in Port Elizabeth and picking up our rental car, was Avoca – an hour’s drive north into South Africa’s citrus-growing Sundays River Valley. S found a family-run farm that offered accommodation in modernized mud huts, cottages, and chalets scattered along the riverbank, which seemed like an excellent starting point for our journey.
Avoca’s scenic landscape notwithstanding, its main selling point – and the reason S booked our stay – is its proximity to Addo Elephant Park, the third-largest of South Africa’s 19 national parks. We spent two nights at Avoca, arriving from Kigali late the evening of December 30 and greeting the New Year at our riverside cabin before driving back south to begin the Garden Route. We split our only day between Addo and Avoca’s relaxing environs.
Our first outing, Addo also proved to be the only real safari of our three-week trip. Driving around its hilly expanse of scrubland for a couple of hours in the summer heat, we saw one kudu, a couple of warthogs, a handful of common birds, and a dozen or so zebras – pretty slim pickings, especially considering the multitude of safari game drives we’ve done in Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, and Tanzania. Even Rwanda’s Akagera National Park would fare better against such limited game…
…And then we arrived at the Hapoor Dam to find quite literally hundreds of elephants. A former Foreign Service colleague who has retired and opened a safari company once quipped that every time you think you’ve had the most unbelievable elephant experience, you need to go on another safari. We couldn’t agree more because these majestic animals always surprise us with their gentle beauty. From bottle-feeding baby elephants in Tsavo to suddenly coming upon a massive herd of bathing elephants in the wilds of Samburu, to chasing desert-adapted elephants in northern Namibia, we had already amassed some incredible elephant experiences, but we had never fathomed the sight that greeted us in Addo.
The park’s elephant population numbers approximately 600, and we must have seen at least a third of them, and possibly as many as half, most gathered around the mud pool of a watering hole at Hapoor. There were elephants frolicking in the mud and elephants tussling on the ground. There were babies hiding in their mamas’ shadows and big bulls proudly roaming the terrain. There were so many elephants that we didn’t know which way to look or point the camera. The hills were quite literally dotted with elephants. We sat and watched them for a long time, so transfixed by the sheer size of this herd that we hardly noticed the dozens of other safari vehicles and private cars lined up around the watering hole.
We drove around the park some more and then returned to Hapoor to eat our lunch and soak in this magnificent sight one last time before returning to Avoca to cool off by the pool. D took Munchkin kayaking on the river, and we went on a short and rather uneventful bird walk in the late afternoon, but the day clearly belonged to the elephants of Addo, who are worth a visit even if one does not encounter any other animals in the park’s vast expanse.