An index to this trip appears on the first post.
March 22, 2016
Shortly before I left Nashville, my friends Addie and Helen gave me a charming poster for the “Periodic Table of the Elephants,” a fun joke considering that I’m a chemist. On the fourth day of my holiday, I visited Addo Elephant Park, just north of Port Elizabeth. Would I get to see my second animal of the “Big Five?”
I woke before 6AM, filled with a sense of purpose. Today I would see the elephants! I packed my bags into my dusty car, tossed my hotel room key into the return, and drove over to the gas station. I wandered inside to collect a croissant and a bottle of juice for R11. As I was checking out at the register, a man leaning against the counter pointed at my coins and then at himself. I just said, “no,” and headed back out to my car. It was well before seven A.M., but I had started southeast on the R63 and then the R75.
The drive started out very peacefully. Graaff-Reinet is part of the karoo (in fact, it is surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, which includes the Valley of Desolation). My recollection of the first hour included very little variation, but as I neared the coast I began encountering some rows of hills and passes. Whenever I gained altitude, greenery surrounded me. That was particularly true when I turned east on the R336. Wherever I looked, I saw orchards, fields of crops, or grape vines. I was concerned that I might miss a turn, but the three cows on the shoulder of the R336 and R335 helped mark the intersection (I frequently saw livestock and other animals wandering near roads, including cows, horses, and particularly goats).
When I arrived at Addo Elephant National Park, I was at the back of the line of eight cars. Everyone arriving at the park was required to complete a form including our identity and car registration paperwork. Because I was a foreigner, I was required to pay a fee of R230 for entry, four or five times the fee for South African nationals. Since the gate was becoming very backlogged, a guard checked that I had filled the form and waved me into the park via the exit lane. I paid my fee at the reception center instead. The attendant provided paperwork confirming that I had paid and stamped it officially (South Africans place great faith in stamps for verification). I bypassed the visitor’s center otherwise since I was concerned about getting into the game area any later than the 10:30 AM I had arrived, thinking the animals might not be stirring in the heat of the day.
Back in my car, I showed my stamped form to the guard at the entrance to the game area. He asked me if I wanted to hire him for a ride-along guide, and I declined. I drove into the game area, and I was immediately rewarded by close-up views of a tortoise and of a pair of warthogs, right next to the road. I thought that was pretty neat, but I had not yet realized that warthogs are absolutely everywhere in the park.
I angled my car toward the Gorah Loop, mostly because my sense of direction hadn’t survived getting to the park. Once I was on the loop, I said farewell to blacktop and drove on a packed dirt roadbed instead. I throttled all the way back to 20 kph and keep my head moving back and forth. I was quite happy at first with all the animals I saw (hawks! meercats!), and I soon realized that the long-armed creatures were not baboons but rather vervet monkeys.
But where were the elephants? Evidence that many lived around me was abundant. They had left droppings every few feet on the roadway, and the brush certainly looked like large creatures had been rummaging about. As I entered an area with heavy foliage, I slowed down even more and peered about me as much as I could. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing! It was only after I emerged from the brush and came upon a large pasture that I saw an elephant, happily posing for motorists driving on the road that circled his position.
I was elated. I had seen the elephant! Then I turned the corner to “Carol’s Rest,” and I was astonished. Three elephants were lounging in the concrete watering hole, occasionally blowing water on themselves to beat the heat. Zebras, warthogs, and kudu lounged nearby.
Five cars of tourists were parked in the dirt lot adjoining the watering hole. At first my view was blocked by another car, but soon I was shooting photograph after photograph. After a time, the other cars left the area, and I had some solo time with the creatures. One of the elephants walked out of the water and into the dirt lot, and we had a staring contest across a distance of 50 feet. His presence was a reminder that this was not a zoo. In fact, I was in the elephant’s home, and his casual walk into the dirt parking lot demonstrated that there was no barrier between us.
After thirty minutes communing with the group, I decided to head out. I stopped to photograph a dung beetle since the park rules give them the right of way. They just adore the mounds of elephant dung (and tourists are cautioned not to drive through the piles).
At one point, I was surprised to see a group of warthogs walking brazenly up the road toward my car, almost like a gang of hoodlums cruising for danger.
I made my way up to Zuurkop Lookout Point. It was empty when I arrived, but immediately a busload full of German tourists disembarked. Happily one of them snapped a photo of me above the valley below.
I headed out, but I got badly turned around, driving almost to Kadouw Lookout Point before realized where I was. Only then did I realize that the signs at each intersection bore a number that related them to a spot on the map. I headed north to the Main Camp to start my drive to Port Elizabeth. Sadly, my disorientation continued. I headed south on the R335, as planned, but I never found the connection with the R102; instead I drove through a township before I was unceremoniously dumped into the N2, heading into Port Elizabeth from the East. I hopped off the national road at the R75 and parked myself at a McDonald’s. I was really hungry since I had eaten nothing since a croissant before 7AM, and it was about 3:00 PM by the time I was at Port Elizabeth. A college lecturer from Durban, also named David, informed me that four elephants was a pretty small yield for Addo, considering that he had seen more than 100 in a single visit! The recent rains had allowed more of the elephants to stay in the woods rather than being drawn to the watering holes.
I set out to find my hostel for the night at the 28 Towpath. After spending some quality time with a map, I realized that the R75, just outside the window, continued northward for quite some distance. After about 15 km, I could take the Chelsea cross street to reach the R367, which would dump me right into the hostel’s neighborhood. Unfortunately, the road signs in the north of Port Elizabeth are atrocious, and the R75 runs through a township. I didn’t see a sign for Chelsea (in fact, I have yet to see anything other than Google Maps that identifies that road as Chelsea), so I drove right past it and was forced onto the freeway out to Despatch. I turned around and tried road after road until stumbling upon Chelsea (no, I do not use a GPS). Even after having driven across Chelsea, the highway on the other end was named the M19 rather than the R367. Happily, the view from the Towpath was very suitable for relaxing.
At last, I had arrived in Port Elizabeth!