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Where giants walk the earth

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What do Stone Age humans dating back 125 000 years, the Khoekhoen people, the Xhosa people, the Boers, British forts, Percy Fitzpatrick (the writer of Jock of the Bushveld), Denys Reitz of Boer War fame, and the inventor of the jet engine have in common?

Add to the list wingless dung beetles, a massive elephant called Hapoor, and a giant tortoise called Domkrag.

If you answered Addo Elephant Park, you would be absolutely correct.

I was lucky enough to visit this beautiful part of the Eastern Cape recently, for the first time in many years.

Addo starts with A, the first letter in the alphabet, and in my humble opinion this location should rise to the top of anyone’s bucket list. The area is fascinating.

Just as a start, let’s take a look at two of the items on my opening list: Hapoor, the massive bull elephant, was named after the large nick on his ear, thought to have come from a hunter’s rifle. No wonder he had an intense dislike of humankind.

And what about the giant tortoise? He was so gigantic he was known to crawl under cars and lift them up! Which was why he was christened Domkrag, or ‘hydraulic jack’.

Oh yes, Addo is not just any “elephant park”…

My journey started in Port Elizabeth, where I picked up a brand new Isuzu D-Max 3-litre turbo diesel. This workhorse will be doing a few months’ duty at Caravan & Outdoor Life, as it’s our new long-term vehicle.

After getting behind the wheel of the new ride, I headed literally round the corner to Eastern Cape Caravans in Walmer to pick up my home for the trip. The kindness of the owner’s of Eastern Cape Caravans, the Grobler family, was awesome.

Eben Grobler hadn’t hesitated when he got the call from our office that we are coming to his neck of the woods: “Of course I have a caravan for you! In fact, Richard can use my own personal Jurgens Fleetline for the trip.”

That generous offer only increased when I met Eben, his wife Benita and their daughter Chantelle at their neat Campworld and Safari Centre 4×4 complex in Walmer.

They’d informed us about impending freezing weather expected at Addo, so I’d somehow managed to cram a warm sleeping bag into my suitcase. Not the most comfortable, as it was a mummy bag. At least it was warm.

But Eben told me: “Don’t worry! The double bed is already made up with a down duvet. And there are two extra single duvets just in case you get cold!”

ADDO REST CAMP

I took the more scenic route to Addo via Despatch and Uitenhage. The first thing that strikes you is the immensely dense, thorny forest scrub found in this area. No wonder 18th century travellers described it as a “hunters hell” and “impenetrable thorny thicket”.

Setting up camp in the National Park at the Addo Rest Camp, I discovered the Grobler family had packed me a goodie bag filled with snacks, chips, delicious rusks, Jacobs coffee and long life milk. But best of all, they packed a whole load of ground coffee in sachets. It was quite ingenious. Tear of the top of the sachet, fold out the cardboard wings that hold the open coffee bag in place in your cup, and voila you have a perfect cuppa. I wonder how they knew I was a coffee ‘holic? It was the first time I’d met them!

Addo has a campsite that will draw visitors back time and time again. Neat and mostly shaded there are 21 caravan sites and 12 dedicated sites for tents.

The caravan sites have a neat gravel floor, and each site has a power point (blue plug type), a good braai with an adjustable grill, and monkey-proof bins.

The monkeys can be a serious nuisance so don’t leave food outside or you caravan or tent open. Two caravanners close to me had their mosquito mesh ripped open. So make sure you zip up your canvas vents and mosquito netting before going out.

Easily accessible to all the caravan and camping sites is a well-equipped kitchen with five 2-burner stove tops, a big double stainless steel island sink and a chest deep freeze only for meat.

At the main reception area is a well-stocked shop selling all the basics for camping. They also have a good stock of meat, cold meats, fresh bread, packaged take-away sandwiches, etc.

The also sell beer and wine. The shop also has a large amount of clothing, gifts of all sorts and even expensive binoculars.

Adjoining the shop is the large Cattle Baron restaurant. The well-known franchise keeps up its good name at the park. It’s especially well known for the meat dishes from its grill. I had a superb hamburger on my first night in camp.

It was still freezing cold and dark on that first morning at Addo. But after coffee and rusks I drove to the game reserve entrance gate. With the Isuzu’s cabin heater on full blast I was as warm as toast as I headed to the nearby Domkrag dam.

Sadly, old Domkrag has passed on to tortoise heaven many moons ago. But literally 500 metres from the entrance gate I made out the silhouette of a large bull elephant in the thick bush next to the road.

As the landscape began to light up in the early morning sun, three other elephants joined him.

Leaving the dam I headed out on to the Nzipondo loop. With not another vehicle in sight, I stopped to watch a grey heron as it stood motionless in the shadow of a large spekboom. With a sudden grey flash he speared something in the grass. I managed to get a picture, but I had to enlarge the image substantially to see what was for lunch… the prey looked like either a rat or a mole.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

The area up near Domkrag dam and the beginning of the Nzipondo loop is relatively open in comparison to large parts of the park.

Early 18th and 19th century travellers described the area that’s now makes up the Addo Elephant Park as “an impenetrable thorny thicket” and a “hunters hell”.

Thank goodness for nature lovers – a large proportion of this dense Eastern Cape bushland has been preserved for posterity.

With the advent of people settling in the Sundays River in the 1700’s, the ivory hunting began in earnest.

In 1786, an extensive loan farm called De Gora was granted to Commandant Willem Kuuhn. Sections of the De Gora farm now form a large part of the Addo Elephant Park.

Clashes also occurred with the Xhosa people as more people moved into the area. This led to the Third Frontier War during 1811/1812. The military had the job of removing the Xhosas from Addo’s “impenetrable thorny thickets”. Hence the building of army posts at Addo Drift, Coerney, Slagboom and Rietberg.

The hunting continued unabated though. In 1837 it was reported that nearly 7 tons of ivory were exported to Port Elizabeth.

Later that morning I moved down to Hapoor Dam, named after that famous bull elephant. There was a huge herd of elephants down at the water.

There are said to be some 600 elephants in the park today. I decided to come back to Hapoor Dam later that afternoon. The helpful ranger at the gate had told me if I allow myself 40 minutes or so, I will make it back to the gate in plenty of time.

Addo also has some 400 buffalo, and I reckon at least 80 of them were grazing around Hapoor Dam when I arrived. I opened the window of the Isuzu to photograph a lone kudu bull that grazed unperturbed some ten metres from the bakkie.

A large elephant bull arrived just as I was leaving for my comfortable warm down duvet in campsite number 20.

Than night, snug in bed, I read some of the notes I’d printed out prior to this trip.

It’s hard to believe but by the 1900’s the elephant population had been practically wiped out due to growing conflict between the farming community and the animals. So in 1919, Major P.J. Pretorius was set the task of shooting the remaining elephants.

Sometimes using a ladder to see over the towering Addo Bush, Pretorius with his huge .475 Jeffries Cordite Express double-barreled rifle shot 114 of these magnificent creatures.

When he left the area in 1920 there were only 16 elephants left.

This is when Colonel Denys Reitz came to the rescue. Minister of Lands at the time, he had the Strathmore and Mentone Forest Reserve set aside for the protection of the elephants.

To compress a books worth of information in a couple of sentences: With the addition of the Kenmure farm, Addo Elephant Park, some 2 000 hectares in size, was finally declared a national park. The park is now covers 1 640 square kilometres, and in SA is second in size only to the Kruger Park.

The park has been expanded to include the Woody Cape Nature Reserve and a marine reserve that includes St Croix Island and Bird Island. Sadly, my short stay would only allow me time in the northern section of the park. There’s plenty to do in the park but the surrounding area also has a lot to offer. So I set off for a scout around the local area.

ORANGE ELEPHANT BACKPACKERS

Heading out of the Addo entrance I turned left on the R342 back towards Port Elizabeth. Literally a few kilometres down the road from the reserve entrance (as you head back towards the small village of Addo) is the Lenmore restaurant, deli and bakery. It’s a great little spot with a restaurant and an outside wood-fired oven.

There are fresh bread, rolls and other baked goodies every day from the bakery. They also stock all the basics that one often forgets at home like fire-lighters, wood, charcoal and some food. They also have a large selection of exotic spices and sauces to accompany a good selection of braai meat and sausage… I noticed some springbok, kudu and ostrich carpaccio in the fridge.

Continuing  a short distance down the road is a place that I’ve really got to love on previous visits to Addo. It’s a wonderful quirky, inviting place called The Orange Elephant Backpackers, with its adjoining Thirsty Herds Pub.

It has a new addition to the herd called Marley’s Breakfast Café. The “bull elephant” of the backpackers is John Alderman, who runs the place with his son Josh and daughter Kaitlin. Josh’s girlfriend Marley recently opened the small breakfast café. She also helps Josh in his Wild Herds pub, where they serve pizzas from Monday to Thursdays, while Friday’s and Saturday’s are reserved for fire night, when they have braai or a lekker potjie.

If more formal dining is your scene, then continue heading down R342 for a few more kilometres to the Addo Wildlife, including the Tangelo’s Restaurant and Farmstall.

One enters into the large airy farm stall selling everything from handmade leatherwork to clothing and local food products.

The farm stall looks through to a large lounge and the restaurant beyond. But before you sit down for something to eat, I would highly recommend a visit to the wildlife centre.

This section has a large collection of raptors, reptiles, monkeys, squirrels, parrots and snakes. I had the privilege of accompanying Moris Pagwairi into quite a few of the large enclosures, as well as getting up close with Cape Eagle Owl, Spotted Eagle Owl, Barn Owl, Bengal Eagle Owl, Rock Kestrel, Verreaux’s Eagle, Lanner Falcon and Pale Chanting Goshawk, among others.

I quickly learnt that a Cape Eagle Owl is not to be trifled with. He was on the ground and I was concentrating on my camera when the bird sunk one of his talons through my jeans and thick socks, drawing blood.

Moris laughed and said: “You are lucky… he flew down and clawed my head the other day!” Apparently he gets mean if you don’t have food.

When Moris said he will take out one of the corn snakes so I can get a better photo, the speed of my retreat made him realise that he was dealing with a full-fledged ophidiophobic!

The petting enclosure with its rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, dwarf goats, ducks, geese and turkeys was more my style.

SLAGBOOM & KIRKWOOD

What’s also my style is driving around in the new D-Max. I decided to head back on the R342 towards Addo campsite. A short distance before the turn-off is the R335 on your right.

I decided to take a drive down to Slagboom, lying directly at the base of the Zuurberg Mountain range. It’s beautiful, and I had the “excuse” of needing to test the Isuzu on a gravel road without a caravan rolling along behind.

An easy way of getting to Slagboom is simply follow the signboards to the Addo Police Academy. The first part of this short excursion takes you past the huge citrus orchids that now seem to cover every square inch of the Addo/Kirkwood landscape. But you reach a turn off to the left with a pretty bad gravel road that takes you down to Slagboom adjacent to the electrified Addo fence.

It’s this drive that makes you aware of the dense, dense thorny bush that must have greeted from the early stone age dweller to the Xhosa and later the white colonialists.

It’s a beautiful drive and well worth it. I decided to come back to the point where I turned next to the Addo fence , and instead of turning left back to camp I turned right and did a circular route via the small town of Kirkwood.

In Kirkwood I stopped at one of late brother’s best friends Kevin Tibshraeny’s Butchery for the best biltong, droëwors and biltong in area.

I then followed the R336 back to camp in Addo. It’s an interesting drive back past orchard after orchard with the ripe oranges, looking like Christmas decorations, waiting for the picking team to arrive.

I stopped at the bridge over the Sundays River to take a picture. With my notes I realised that it was Percy Fitzpatrick, of Jock of the Bushveld fame, who played a huge role in the formation of the Sundays River irrigation programme. He was also one of the pioneers in introducing citrus to this part of the world.

The next day I was to find out a lot more about this fascinating man when I arrived at my second campsite for the trip.

THE HOMESTEAD

The Homestead is just a short distance from the tiny hamlet of Addo. It was sad to leave the excellent campsite at the Addo Elephant National Park, but The Homestead was great too. The resort is run by Ronnie and Hildalene Beyl. The beautiful old homestead with its magnificent gardens was originally the home of Hildelene’s parents, Thurston and Magda Whittle. The Whittle family are part of the original settlers that arrived in this area back in 1820. They are also related to Frank Whittle the inventor of the jet engine!

Walking around the garden with Hildalene, she pointed to a lovely small cottage adjacent to the main home and explained: “A large part of Jock of the Bushveld was written in that cottage.”

She went on to tell me that Sir Percy and his wife Elizabeth Lillian Fitzpatrick are buried at The Lookout just off the R335, the selfsame road I had followed the day before from Kirkwood.

With Hildalene and Ronnie’s directions I found the graves which have a fantastic view over the Sundays River.

Sadly, the graveyard with its small botanical garden has been neglected. A pity for a man that meant so much to this area.

Many moons ago, funnily enough camping and following a pretty tough 4×4 track I had stayed down at Slagboom with Boetie and Boy Whittle. It turned out that Boetie is Hildalene’s brother.

From the moment you drive down the driveway of this stately homestead you know you’re in for a great camping experience.

There are eight dedicated caravan stands with electric points close at hand (normal three-pin plugs, not the blue ones). Each of the caravan sites has a braai and a rubbish bin.

There are a further 7 sites set aside for tents.

There are separate men’s and ladies’ ablution blocks. Near the ladies’ ablution block is a small building with a scullery and laundry facility, including two large industrial washing machines.

I really enjoyed wandering around the farm. Every evening the cattle would meander through the park on their way to the nearby kraal.

Hildalene’s father Thurston has an impressive garage filled with tractors, old welding sets, an old car from the 50’s (it looked like a Wolsley), and more tools and bits and pieces than I have seen in a long time.

Just behind the workshop was the old cottage used by Percy Fitzpatrick while writing his famous novel.

I wandered around the garden with its huge trees and quirky signage and found the wooden deck overlooking a small dam. I’d found my spot, so I fetched one of my new coffee brews compliments of Eastern Cape Caravans and watched the sun set over the dam.

It’s now wonder that many people who book into the Homestead for a night find it so peaceful they stay for a couple of days.

Addo is a mere 12 kilometres away.

Letting my mind drift while watching the sun set, I thought of how for first-time visitors, Addo Elephant National Park might seem like “impenetrable thorny thickets”.

This is my third visit to this area, but the thicket is starting to open up paths for me. And the more paths that open up the more fascinated I am.

Take a look at my pictures, visit the Addo website, and I can guarantee that you’ll soon be packing your bags to visit the only game reserve that contains the Big Seven: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino, the Southern right whale and the Great white shark.

EASTERN CAPE CARAVANS

A big thanks must go to the Grobler family of Eastern Cape Caravans in Port Elizabeth for lending me their very own brand new Jurgens Fleetline for this trip.

And a big thank you for supplying me with a fully kitted caravan with every single thing an experienced camper dreams of.

You can see the family’s dedication to detail the moment you enter the spick and span premises at number 22, 4th Avenue, Walmer.

They are authorised dealers for Jurgens Ci, Gypsey, Sprite, Sprite Tourer, and Jurgens Safari luggage and off-road 4×4 trailers.

I had to hold on to my credit card with all my might when I entered one of the best-stocked camping shop selling tents, equipment, outdoor gadgets of every kind, and off course those ingenious coffee sachets.

 

To book your stay at the Homestead, fill out the contact form below.

By Richard van Ryneveld

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