The heat is intense, more intense than normal. The fiery sun burns down relentlessly from the vaulted blue sky above. Everything is still. Even the birds and the insects are sheltering under whatever shade they can find. In the distance a warthog followed by three young, all with their antenna-like tails in the air, dart towards some mud. I reach lazily for some new green leaves growing on the edge of a branch from the tree under which I am cooling, while I flap my ears in an attempt to cool myself. I hear the rumble of a shiny beast as it draws near. I flap my ears, unperturbed. The heat is intense.
While lions are exciting to spot in a game reserve, or an illusive leopard, there is really nothing that truly gets the heart racing like an elephant. The elephant is the only animal that possesses the power and size so that your vehicle offers little protection from it. Many times I’ve read of tourists stupidly getting too close to an elephant and finding their vehicle rolled and crushed in a seemingly nonchalant effort by the elephant. And so it is that Addo Elephant National Park, and surrounding areas, are famous for many things, but one specifically are their elephants.
“Just step back and I will tell you when you can come forward,” the guide at the Kwantu Elephant Sanctuary informs us. We've never been to an elephant encounter, but we have read about Kwantu and their work with the elephants, and the price is affordable for a family of five, so we are keen to experience it. Before us four huge animals loom as the guides sitting atop them steer them towards us. They look at us from below their long lashes as they probe inquisitively with their dexterous trunks. All that stands between us and these mountains of grey muscle is a small wooden pole fence. “Ok,” the guide says, “you can go forward and feed them.” He hands us a small bucket filled with corn. “This is like chocolate for them,” he says smiling at us, “they love it.” He then demonstrates how we should feed these majestic animals.
I step forward, holding a small handful of elephant “chocolate” and raise my hand which is a signal for the elephant to raise his trunk and open his mouth. A huge muscular trunk towers above me and before me the huge maw of it’s mouth opens revealing a soft searching tongue. I can smell the rich, musty smell of this huge beast as it waits expectantly. All I have to do is stick my hand into it’s mouth…that’s what he said didn’t he? For a moment I’m not too sure about this. After all, who puts their hand into a huge beast's mouth, unless you are keen on casting off your mortal coil. Yet now it is too late, as the huge elephant leans closer towards me. I push my hand into its mouth as it gently closes its mouth around my hand, covering me with it’s warm slobber. What a scary, strange, amazing feeling. I step away, in awe of this incredible beast. In moments we are all feeding them. Their long, worm like, trunks probe the air and slurp up the treats from our hands before returning again in search of more. There is truly something amazing about being so close to such a magnificent beast. All of a sudden you get perspective. We seem so small, so puny, so weak compared to the incredible power of the elephant. Pride evaporates to be replaced by wonder and awe at such a powerful animal, that can also be so amazingly gentle.
We’re staying at the Avoca River cabins and the running joke during our trip has been whether we are staying in “the east” or “the west”, referring to the old east-west divide in Berlin, where spartan conditions existed on one side and luxury on the other. We have experienced both east and west, and it’s the blend that truly makes this adventure a wonderful experience. We are expecting “the east” as we know from the booking that our hut does not even have it’s own kitchen.
“Will it have it’s own toilet? Will it have electricity?” the kids ask, hoping for more “west” and a chance to charge all the electronic devices that are more important to keep energised than our bodies. Much to the the children’s relief this is firmly “the west”. Our small hut which consists of just one room and a small shower/toilet (wow that’s great, it’s inside) is beautifully decorated and has beds for all five of us. The hut opens up on to a lovely deck that overlooks the river below. Sure, there is a communal kitchen, which is open on one side to a lovely braai area and another deck overlooking the Sundays river below, but this is only shared with one other hut.
“Hi I’m Anna and this is Rosanne,” the elderly English lady says. “Sorry about the fridge,” she says referring to the shared fridge, “we will move our things so there is more room for you.” Soon we are chatting to these friendly ladies from the UK and sharing our stories with them, as we hear about their travels around South Africa. Once more this is what travelling is about - it is not about strangers you meet, but about friends you have not yet met.
The main reason we are staying here is to visit Addo Elephant National Park which is nearby. Addo was established in 1931 and had only 11 elephants. Today this successful park, which is now the third largest park in South Africa, has over 600 elephants as well as lion, black rhino and many other animals.
“Imagine driving the whole of Addo and not seeing a single elephant,” Hannah commented the day before as we watched a huge herd of elephant lazily drinking and playing at a muddy waterhole. It sure seemed hard to imagine, but not at the moment. We have been driving for nearly two hours and have not seen a single elephant! How can those massive giants of the bush disappear so completely? In fact we have not seen a single animal besides a few scuttling warthogs. It’s as though the animals did not get the memo today that this is a tourist park and they are meant to appear, or at least take turns to appear. Are they on strike for better wages? Or maybe they are just tired of tourists? The answer is far more simple…it’s the heat. I have never in my life experienced a day like this.
The plan was simple and very appealing. Unlike yesterday when we were at Addo earlier in the morning, today we would relax at our accommodation…swim, canoe, chill. Then at about 2pm we would head to Addo, cruise around spotting the wildlife before heading to the lovely braai spots they have at their fenced off picnic area. Yet we had not taken into account the weather. The sun was delivering a day like none other. Early in the morning it rose with lava-hot intensity and it simply burned hotter and hotter as the day went on.
“Stop, it’s 41C,” someone shouted pointing at the temperature gauge in the car as we searched in vain for the animals. Out come the cameras to record this epic temperature. Ensconced in the bubble of aircon inside the car, the heat seems unreal. “Let’s open the window to feel it,” Sarah suggests. In seconds a dragon breathing fiery breath arises next to our car, engulfing us in unbearable heat, as the outside air rushes into the car.
“Shut the windows! Shut them!” I scream, “we’re wasting the aircon.” With singed eyebrows and blow-waved hair from the brief encounter with the outdoors, we realise why there is not a single animal in sight. The temperature is unbearable. Just like the animals, there is no chance of us being outdoors and having a braai in this heat. “We could just put the meat on the car bonnet,” Joshua suggests, which is not a bad idea, but only if you want charred steak!
“Stop, it’s 42….it’s 43….it’s 44….” Again and again we stop, pull out the cameras and capture the never-seen-before temperatures. It seems like we have been transported to a post apocalyptic world where all that exists is a fiery sun burning everything up. How long can this continue. Yet the sun, now heading to late afternoon, is not yet finished. Up and up the temperature soars, 45…46…47…It just seems impossible that it could get any hotter. 48…49. By this stage we are crazed with excitement…the animals forgotten, especially as they have all vanished. We keep stopping, not for animals but to photograph the temperature. Will it hit 50? We watch as we drive on, but finally the temperature begins to recede to a more respectable low 40s.
As the temperature reaches, by comparison, Icelandic conditions of 37C, we spot our first elephant. The huge animal is sheltering under a small tree. As we stop and watch her she reaches her trunk up and grabs some leaves while flapping her giant ears. She looks at us, unperturbed as she continues to strip the thorny tree of its leaves. Later we see a lone bull cooling himself at a small water hole. At least some of the animals got the memo!
In the evening, as we help our English friends make a log fire to cook their dinner…thanks Eskom for helping to bring us together by taking our electricity away…we go online to do some research about heat records in South Africa. We learn that the highest ever recorded temperature in South Africa was 50C recorded in Kirkwood, next to Addo, in 1928. We were 1 degree off of that…in fact, in all likelihood it was 50C or more somewhere nearby. It’s no wonder the animals were on strike. I don’t even think that elephant “chocolates” would have coaxed the elephants out today. This is Africa…it has it all, from cool rivers to warm elephant tongues to steaming hot days! Simply loving it!
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