Year in the Wild Blog

Airborne over Addo

The last two days have been busy! Yesterday I spent the day in the Woody Cape section of Addo Elephant National Park, and it’s another world. The scenery changes completely. Instead of the sub tropical thicket which characterizes the main section of Addo where most of the wildlife is, Woody Cape comprises dense evergreen coastal forests, long, sandy beaches several kilometres in length, and the largest coastal dune field in the southern hemisphere. (I presume the endless Namib coastline’s dunes are of desert origin, not ocean origin.)

I was fortunate to spend yesterday morning with rangers Guy Padayachee, Lungile Somyali and Korsten Hendrikse, as well as conservation student Melissa Perozzi. Riding on the back of one of the park’s Land Cruisers, we drove down onto the beach and into the dunes, to put back some fossils and bones which some local people had found a few weeks ago while walking on the beach.

This area is rich in evidence of stone age man’s lifestyle, dating back to 160 000 years. There are huge shell middens – literally ancient rubbish dumps where people used to process shellfish like mussels, limpets and abalone. We came across one on the way down, and found some ancient pottery, as well as some fossilized bones and teeth, which had been exposed by the incessant wind. It’s a fascinating place, and although the rangers weren’t sure of the identity and origins of the archaeological finds, I look forward to finding out more from the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, who have studied this area intensively.

This southern part of Africa is now considered to be the last place on earth where modern man was able to survive the last ice age, which occurred about 150 000 years ago. The theory goes that while ice covered most of the northern hemisphere, and desert conditions prevailed elsewhere (because of the lock up of the earth’s fresh water in ice), the southern and eastern Cape remained temperate and hospitable because of the warm Agulhas Current.

Allied to this, there was once plenty of shellfish in the oceans here, and the shallow ocean floor would have provided lots of opportunity to collect food from the rock pools. Finally, the coastal fynbos was highly valuable because of its rich tubers and corms, which provided extremely good carbohydrates to the diet of our ancestors. Botanist Richard Cowling told me recently that it was these three things – the warm Agulhas current, the shellfish and the bulbs of the fynbos plants – which allowed Homo sapiens to survive the bottleneck. Experts reckon there were only about 1 000 humans left on earth after the ice age, so whoever you are, your ancient heritage lies in the southern Cape of Africa. Makes one think!

Yesterday afternoon, I explored the beautiful forests in Woody Cape with Melissa, and we hiked part of the Alexandria Hiking Trail, which is a two day trail through this area. It reminds me of the Tsitsikamma Forests, and Melissa told me that there are plenty of Knysna loeries in the forest – I can believe it.

I wish I could have done the whole trail, but I had to fly this morning with conservation manager John Adendorff over Addo in his little plane (nice conundrum to have, I admit.) The light wasn’t brilliant because of high cloud, but it was a privilege to get airborne with John. We saw some nice herds of elephant, buffalo, Burchell’s zebra and eland. We also flew over the eastern dune field near the mouth of the Sunday’s River, and I got a good perspective on how HUGE the dunefield is. It extends all the way east from the river mouth to the horizon, a distance of 70 kilometres.

John has been in Addo for tweny years, and knows it like his own home…which it is, I guess.

He told me how when they introduced four elephant bulls from Kruger a few years ago, they at first couldn’t integrate into the breeding herds. The four bulls had come from different parts of Kruger, yet they soon found each other in Addo, and stuck together as a group. Eventually they managed to integrate into the herds, but only after a few years. John believes that the elephants from Kruger communicated in a different “dialect”, and he reckons they initially had trouble socializing with the Addo elephants, simply because they couldn’t understand the locals. After a few years, they had “learnt” the “regional language”, and were able to woo the local females! John was quick to point out that it’s impossible to prove this, but that’s his gut feel…and I think it’s highly plausible.

Other interesting things that are evident from the air:  large parts of the subtropical thicket were once cleared by farmers for grazing, and these areas are now part of the park, but they remain transformed. The grazers like buffalo and zebra love it, but as John points out, these are not entirely natural areas, and the park is slowly restoring them to spekboom veld and thicket.

It is also very clear from the air that, like most nature reserves in South Africa (and increasingly in Africa), there are large semi-urban communities living right on the borders. (The national N2 highway roars right between Woody Cape and the main section of Addo.) This poses big challenges to both communities and the reserves. Fences become one of the most important – and expensive – assets in the park, and John told me that 90% of the rangers’ time is spent maintaining fences. This is crucial when one considers that there are elephant, lion, jackal and buffalo living within a few metres of large communities.

It’s also obvious that the coastline and estuary needs protection from development and over fishing. The Sunday’s River estuary is heavily developed (some illegally, according to John), and there are homes, factories and communities living right on the sensitive estuarine area where sea fish come to breed  before heading back into the ocean. There have been plans afoot for some time to proclaim a Marine Protected Area all along the Woody Cape section, but government bureaucracy has got in the way. But it seems like it will happen…and so it should. John regularly sees Southern Right Whales and Great White Sharks while flying along the coast.

Thanks very much John for taking me up in the air…

I’m heading into the Zuurberg again tonight, to stay at the Narina Bush Camp, which is an unfenced tented camp in a kloof in the mountains.

Finally, I’ve always wondered where the name Addo comes from – apparently, “!Ga dao” is a Khoisan term meaning drift or crossing (“dao”) where the poisonous Noors plant (“!ga) grows…

Melissa looking west over the dune field in Woody Cape

On the bakkie heading along the beach

Melissa found this toad (or frog?) in the sand at the base of the dunes!

Another example of life in the inhospitable sandy dunes

Ranger Lungile Somyali at the site where the fossilised bones and teeth were found

Melissa holds one of the fossilised teeth we found...probably a herbivore of some sort

The land snail shell on the left is fossilised and embedded in the calcrete...the one on the right is a modern day one, which we found in the fynbos


The beach at Woody Cape

At a huge shell midden on the way down to the beach

Looking down towards the Cape, over the dunefields

Can you spot me?

Almost full moon, rising over a grove of trees which have been isolated by pasture

The hiking huts at Langebos, the start of the Alexandria Hiking Trail

Yellow wood trees several hundred years old...the forest here is very similar to the Tsitsikamma


Fruits of the forest - not sure what this is, but will find out...Melissa says the rangers recommend you don't eat it, because it's not edible!

Conservation manager John Adendorff gets the Bantam ready...

Take off...

Mouth of the Sundays River...the park borders onto it on the left

Sundays River mouth and the end of the Alexandria dune field in the west

The Alexandria dune field extending east.

Estuary of Sunday's River

Communities border right onto the park fenceline near the N2

Herd of ellie drinking...watched by tourists

Herd of buffalo...huge herd, several hundred strong

The big buffalo herd walking up to drink...

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  • Hi Scott

    I think your photography is beautiful! I would love to go on an adventure like this! Have a blast for all of us,

    Caileigh xx

  • The atmosphere is a very healing one,enjoying the beauty of nature.

  • Great pictures and informative writeup of my home town Addo Scott! I completely agree and I can only hope they will make the area along the coast a marine sanctuary. All the best on your adventure

  • I enjoyed this post soooo much!! I did my practical training for Nature Conservation Diploma in Addo in 2006 and worked in the Woody Cape Section for 8 months, 2 in Colchester section and 2 months in the main camp. It seems like a life time ago, but yet very little has changed! Guy was my supervisor and I have such a soft spot for Sergeant Lungile! What an incredible ranger. And one of very few that knows how to drive those dunes!! Spent hours working in the dunes and on the beach. Absolutely loved it! Ons of the most incredible years of my life, surrounded by beauty 24/7. Thanks for the post and beautiful photos. Cant wait to see what’s in store. Regards Marizanne

  • Thank you for sharing Addo & your info, especially your photos’ & Woody Cape area

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