October 22nd, 2010
Driving towards Addo, I couldn't shake off the idea that this might be one of the more boring national parks. Just a series of dull, gently, rolling hills I imagine.
But this impression begins to fizzle as I turn off the R342 and drive through one biome after another [Addo has five]. I'm about 30km from Paterson and an hour from Port Elizabeth, driving away from the main park entrance when the fishing line strands of power lines, held up by muscular metal hulks marching towards the city, recede behind me. Up ahead are the Zuurberg Mountains; they rise and shine beatifically.
After checking in, the local ranger Wesley Cragg, takes us through RiverBend's private concession spanning 14 000 hectares. I immediately notice the immaculate condition of the hillsides.
Wesley drives our open Land Rover up an exhilarating road through rugged, unspoiled territory. These cliffs, its forests hung with old mans beard, and euphorbia poking long thin fingers into the sunset sky, are in pristine condition. Pin cushions dance on a summit bristling with the scythe silhouettes of Buffalo Horns.
As darkness settles, we find a strange shape and point a spotlight at it. A Brown Hyena.
The next morning, having slept on the softest pillows ever, the landscape resembles a watercolor, with soft yellow touches on the southerly Coxcomb Mountains. Wesley quickly finds a large group of elephants and that is when Addo takes on a whole new personality. He parks the Land Rover plum in the middle of the herd and the animals barely seem to notice we're there. BBBBBPPPPHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHFFFFFFFFF - the elephants make a loud noise like an old sputtering truck engine. In stereo it's a delight.
Gradually I come to realize how distinctive the elephants are here, compared to anywhere else. For one thing, they're obviously happy animals. For another, they're incredibly relaxed. So much so, as the morning wears on, the youngsters, who have been trunk wrestling and chasing each other about, now lie down right in front of us. The still boisterous infants climb playfully over their sleeping siblings while parents, standing nearby, let their trunks droop entirely onto the ground. They're sleeping.
The elephants at RiverBend are very relaxed around human beings. Photo: Nick van der Leek
"When the elephants are like this there's no place else I'd want to be in the world," Wesley says. I nod quietly in agreement. Every three to four days this herd of 70 makes their way to the waterhole right in front of the lodge. It's an incredible sight.
When I ask Wesley how come we've been privy so such scenes [it's virtually unheard of to see elephants lying down like this], Wesley says, "They're a lot more comfortable because there aren't any predators here. But we will be introducing lions to this side of the concession in a few months, and then their temperament will have to change. They'll become a lot more alert and anxious."
When in Musth, you Must
We leave the drowsy elephants in favour of two male gladiators that have moved up the hillside in front of the lodge to do battle. The males are in musth, a periodic condition characterized by a increased levels of male hormones, and aggressive behaviour. The smaller male elephant is taking a beating, but nevertheless holding his own. They kick up a lot of dusk, bellow and trumpet, and occasionally you hear the tusks make contact. On the way back to the lodge Wesley shows me a bleached white elephant skeleton beside the road. "This young male died in combat; fighting another male."
This gives me visceral insight into the reality, and the intensity, of love triangles in nature.
Back at the lodge I settle down to an artfully crafted brunch. The whole of RiverBend echoes the beautiful touches of the surrounding countryside. The fish and chips is prepared with a nice touch of creativity - the fish is served partially wrapped in brown paper. While sitting on the patio taking in the view, swallows sweep and dive, Weavers KRRRRRRRRRRR and ostrich and warthog pace around the perimeter of the property.
En route to my suite I find a Brown-headed Kingfisher perched in the garden. This fellow shares the same relaxed demeanor as the elephants, allowing me to approach to within 2 metres. When the animals are this happy in their accommodations, it's easy to follow suit. There's a large swimming pool opposite the bar area, lit a deep indigo at night. The 4 course meals at RiverBend are worth mentioning too; make sure you have a go at their Biltong and Dukkah seasoned beef sirloin for dinner, or try their Pan fired Kingklip. For dessert the Rooibos milk tart with Koeksister pieces will fill up any remaining empty space.
A Brown-headed Kingfisher perched in the garden. Photo: Nick van der Leek
Unusually, RiverBend is a child-friendly destination, with dedicated playpens for the kiddies, as well as optional kiddies-only game drives. Don't forget RiverBend's gardens. I found plenty of birds to point my camera at just outside my suite, including an Oriol, Grey heron, Mousebirds and Kingfishers playing tag over the lawns, especially with the sprayers on.
The interiors are tasteful contrasts of white and dark chocolate, the lounge doors opening to miles of continguous open space. The lodge also a beautiful lounge, bar and attic for socializing after the game drives. Each suite has its own plunge pool, and an outdoor shower, along with the usual vanilla white ceiling fan and air conditioner.
The rangers here are obviously passionate, resourceful and full of ideas. For example, one of the highlights of the game drive was Wesley playing bird calls from his cellphone. He has plenty of MP3's, and an interesting one is the olive bush shrike. Replaying their calls, since they're territorial by nature, invites them right up to the vehicle to investigate.
You also stand a good chance of seeing animals here you've probably never seen before. Like striped polecats. They look like shiny black velvet purses running over the ground. I also saw grey duiker, jackals and dassies. Birds, as mentioned, are in abundance from Clapper Larks to Amythst Sunbirds, Titbabblers to Boubous, Flycatchers to Nedickys.
A dung beetle doing its thing. Photo: Nick van der Leek
In sum, RiverBend itself is an artful oasis of creatively styled comfort exhibited in a fresh, frontier interpretation. The tastefully designed suites are set outwardly to absorb the sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. And Addo, especially this part, rather than being dull, is unique and compelling for its natural diversity. The Zuurberg Mountains add a spectacular relief to the rest of the reserve that is well worth experiencing. You sense the diversity of the landscape particularluy in the divergent vegetation, the bacon tree [spekboom], the fynbos and proteas, and our own Joshua Trees [euphorbia].
Compared to many neighboring reserves I've visited, RiverBend is the most untouched, and arguably the most beautiful. But the best thing about RiverBend is the opportunity to commune at close range with a large herd of very relaxed elephants. The joy of life these elephants seem to have is infectious. I suppose this must be the happiest place in the world for elephants and for those who love and appreciate them.