A Sunset Safari in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park

A baby elephant stands close to its mother, inside South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park

As golden-hour rays of sunshine cast shadows upon South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park, we remained cautiously optimistic that we’d spot wildlife. Our open-air safari vehicle rolled through the stunning landscape, characterized by sage-colored foliage and terracotta-hued soil. Water droplets sparkled on the vegetation, the result of an earlier rainfall that had quenched Addo’s parched terrain.

Embarking on the late-afternoon game drive moments earlier, the guide cautioned our group that no ‘Big Five’ animal sightings could be guaranteed. The Big Five, a term originally coined by hunters, describes creatures considered the most challenging to hunt: elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinoceroses and leopards.

Despite the ranger’s disclaimer, the animals did emerge. First, we spotted a quartet of kudu. The animals’ antlers resembled curling ribbon twisted around a gift.

A few moments later, the most observant in the group called out, “Look on the right – elephants!”

Like spectators at a tennis match, we craned our necks at breakneck speed. Sure enough, a pair of young bulls were play-fighting, just a few meters from us. Spotting our vehicle, the elephant youth rapidly darted into the bushes, seemingly worried they might be scolded for being mischievous.

Moments later, we encountered a sweet baby elephant cautiously shadowing its mother. While the mama elephant nibbled on foliage, the little one watched as a paparazzi of tourists feverishly snapped away.

Standing only as tall as its mother’s breast, the baby elephant was tiny. The end of its trunk looked like a piece of homemade pasta. Given the Italian penchant for giving regional pastas descriptive names, I wouldn’t be surprised if a tube-shaped pasta had already been dubbed ‘little elephant trunk’.

Other sightings included warthogs, elands, a zebra, a spotted hyena, as well as a pride of lions lounging confidently in the distance. There were signs of smaller life too – everything from the protected flightless dung beetle, to massive termite mounds.

Not surprisingly, as life’s best moments often do, the safari passed quickly, and we found ourselves back at the park’s welcome center. Wandering down a flight of stairs leading to a wooden observation deck, I spotted several adult elephants drinking at a watering hole. The lighting was warm, and the elephants appeared relaxed, despite a handful of visitors watching them from afar.

With that special scene forever etched in my memory, my Addo safari was complete. It’s no wonder why the word ‘safari’ originally meant ‘journey’.

A young elephant breast feeds in Addo Elephant National Park.
A baby elephant breastfeeds alongside the road.
A young elephant stands closely to its mother in a South African national park.
This pair seemed to go about their business, despite several vehicles full of park visitors watching their every move.
An elephant feeds in the bush of the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa. Several termite mounds are in the foreground.
An elephant reaches for food in the rugged bush. Termite mounds dot the foreground.
A termite mound sits next to green foliage in Addo Elephant National Park.
If you’re as intrigued by these massive mounds as I was, you might enjoy this National Geographic piece about how termites build these structures.
The view of a reddish dirt road in the Addo Elephant National Park. Green mountains are off in the distance.
An S-shaped road winds through the Addo Elephant National Park.
An S-shaped road winds through the park. I think those animals are zebras.
A zebra grazes on bright green foliage in Addo Elephant National Park, in South Africa.
When we approached this zebra, our guide mentioned that the animal had been in the same spot for more than one day. He suspected the zebra was not well. When I later saw my images on my computer screen, I could see that the animal’s right back leg looked to have a wound. During the game drive a passenger asked if park personnel would help the zebra. The guide explained that it was policy to only intervene if an animal was endangered. Otherwise, they let nature run its course.
A warthog crosses a dirt road in the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, not far from Port Elizabeth.
The warthogs made frequent appearances during our drive. Here, an adult warthog crosses the road. At other times, we saw babies, too.
An open safari vehicle, with passengers inside, looks for animals in the bush at the Addo Elephant Park.
Lions lie on the ground in Addo Elephant National Park, just before sunset.
Far from our vehicle, a trio of lions reclined among the foliage. Apparently they’d been in the same spot for much of the day.
A pair of kudu (left) and a solo zebra (right) in Addo Elephant National Park.
A pair of attentive kudu (left) and a zebra feasting on foliage (right).
An eland (left) and warthog (right), within the Addo Elephant Park, pause to look at a safari vehicle filled with visitors.
An eland (left) and warthog (right).

Shawn’s parents, our guide, and me and Shawn.
A pair of elephants drink from a watering hole in South Africa.
A pair of elephants — likely a male and a female — drink from a watering hole in Addo Elephant Park, located in the Eastern Cape. As discussed in this New York Times article, 90-95% of Addo’s female elephants do not have tusks. Elsewhere, that rate might only be about 2%.

Video of this Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Addo Elephant National Park is one of South Africa’s largest national parks, and it’s also a sanctuary success story. In the 1930s it was established to protect just 11 elephants, and today it’s home to more than 600! It’s located in the Eastern Cape province, roughly a 40-minute drive from the city of Port Elizabeth. This Addo map gives an overview of the site, and even includes an animal-sighting game.
  • It’s possible to do a self drive through Addo, but we joined an official guide for this sunset tour. Here are Addo entry fees and game drive costs.
  • In the past decade, it’s estimated that the global elephant population has decreased by about 60%. From avoiding organizations that exploit elephants, to refraining from buying ivory, here are things you can do to help elephants.
  • Visit the Great Elephant Census, or this list of elephant advocates for more information.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All rights reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

26 thoughts on “A Sunset Safari in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park

    1. Amy, great to hear from you! Indeed, it is pretty special seeing wildlife in their natural habitat. Here’s hoping our paths will cross soon – on which side of the Atlantic is the unknown. :)

      1. It is a special corner of the world, Maria. We based ourselves in the Stellenbosch area, just outside of Cape Town. When you go, see if you can purchase Table Mountain tickets in advance. Despite two tries, we weren’t able to get up there via the cable car. The cable car can only run when the weather is favorable, and that means you might need to wait in line for a few hours on the days it is running. The next time we visit, we’d love to hike to the top. :)

  1. What a wonderful experience you had – your photos and descriptions gave us an excellent glimpse into this area! I love it that they protect the dung beetles, which I’ve always found kind of endearing. The Nat. Geo. article on termites was quite fascinating, thanks for that link (and all the others). Great post!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful words, Marilyn – and I’m glad you enjoyed that piece on the termites. I didn’t mention it above, but during our game drive, the ranger scolded some irresponsible visitors for getting out of their vehicle. He caught them playing with dung beetles out in the middle of the road, but their behavior was dangerous because of the presence of lions, too. Have you seen some dung beetles out in the wild, or did you take a liking to them through documentaries? :)

    1. “Seeing these animals in their natural habitat is a great privilege.” I couldn’t agree with you more, Carol!

      Living on a continent with its own abundance of wildlife, have you had a similar experience? I haven’t been to Australia yet, but hope I’ll get the chance someday soon.

    1. Virginia, I remember Out of Africa from my childhood, as my mother was a fan of it. I even played the movie’s theme song on the piano. :) As a child, I used to pretend that I was the park ranger for the ravine behind my parents’ home. Those memories of caring for imaginary animals (with the hope of someday seeing them in person) made me treasure this safari experience even more.

      I wish you a wonderful weekend ahead!

      1. Hi Tricia, spending most of my time in the Czech Republic, but I think in the near future it will be split with China and Seattle as well. Hope you guys continue to have wonderful and safe travels!

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