July 8th, 2019
The brush rose above the tops of our trucks, covering the rolling landscape in a thick green blanket. Eagerly we scanned the gaps in the vegetation for the occupants of the park. Not fifty feet behind us, behind the heavy gate, was the ranger station where we had received our permits, maps, and a list of the animals on the preserve. Our enthusiasm was instantly rewarded: a fully-grown elephant strode from the surrounding tree cover and crossed the road in front of our foremost vehicle, four juveniles in tow. Instantly we stopped, more interested in photographing the enormous beasts than challenging them. A few minutes later they had departed, leaving a young bull elephant in their wake, who confusedly and frustratedly passed the width of the road, shaking his truck before disappearing into the surrounding brush.
Addo elephant National Park (South Africa) was founded to protect the remaining elephants in the eastern cape and maintain the human-elephant interactions. Over the years, it has acquired many additional species, any of which may be spotted during the game drives. As we continued our way through the brush, we soon saw warthogs rooting among the leaves. It was not until we left the cover of the vegetation that herds of animals surrounded us: zebra, warthogs (not necessarily grouped in a herd), and blesbok. Some animals were taking advantage of the sunlight to graze, others rested in the long grass.
Blue-grey mountains surround us as we crest the hills on undulating gravel roads. As we drove, more and more bovids (cloven-hoofed mammals, of which cows are a classic domestic example), popped up. These animals and humans have a long history, with bovid remains recovered from many archaeological sites. As archaeologists know the preferred ecology in which these species thrive, their presence can help reconstruct past environments. However, elephants continue to appear on the horizon, solitary or in groups of two or three. We do not get another close encounter that day.
After driving to our lodgings, a nearby bed and breakfast, we return to the park for a night drive. We fill much of the massive vehicle, which resembles the merging of a bus and a land rover. It quickly becomes dark, the last remnants of rosy sunset fading as the temperature plummets. Eventually, the bus rover roars to life, easing out of the parking lot and away from the welcome center. We quickly leave the lights and noise behind, the landscape dark and shadowed, a breeze skating along the top and sides of the vehicle, and the only the noise the constant hum of the bus rover. Above, hundreds of stars light the sky. Our guide begins to shine a spotlight at the brush, swinging it quickly back and forth in order to catch a glimpse of the animals. Soon our patience is rewarded with a glimpse of a fleeing brown hyena. These animals are rarely sighted, our guide explains, only when they are forced into new territory by lions or spotted hyenas.
|HOMER students and researchers|
Excited, primed for success, we move forward, pausing by a beautiful owl, which stares at us with golden eyes before departing in a flurry of wings. A unique prize comes next and is soon gone—an aardvark, hurrying across the landscape to the cover of the brush. This animal is only spotted once a year by the guides in Addo—and this is the first sighting for this year.
|the elusive aardvark|
The next pair of animals are two apex predators—lions. They seem unfazed by our excited chatter, resting within twenty feet of the vehicle. A brother-sister orphaned pair, they are younger enough to still be together. The male blinks slowly in the bright light, but otherwise demonstrates no further interest in us.
As we drive, we spot many other nighttime animals: a spotted hyena, two porcupines, elephants, a hare, more bovids, and another owl. Eventually, we make our way out of the park, our minds full of the wonderful experience.
The following morning, not yet having enough of the animals, we return to the park. Soon we come across a herd of cape buffalo. They are massive, indestructible horns sticking menacingly out from either side of their heads. However, they ignore us and continue to browse, striping the leaves from plants. Too soon we have moved on, leaving the herd to the line of paparazzi.
Birds are everywhere, from the tops of trees to tucked under bushes. They come in an assortment of colors, from brown to blue to bright yellow. Some glare suspiciously at us, others ignore us in favor of food.
Zebra, bontebok and elephants become common, but this does not stop a line of traffic from forming around any sightings. Most of the time, the animals are too far away to be bothered. However, the elephants, whether out of annoyance or a desire to dominate or a honed mischievous streak, force their will upon the humans. A prime example of this occurred at the watering hole. The vehicles lined up along its edge, waiting for the bull elephant leisurely making its way towards the fence, hoping for photos. We were close, close enough to read the sign pinned to the electric wire explaining why some watering holes were protected from elephants. Slowly the bull ambled past the hole, then turned and walked straight at the vehicles.
|traffic jam in Addo|
First one, then many of the vehicles began to reverse, edging slowly and then quickly away from the bull and the second elephant rapidly approaching. One by one, they herded the cars back and then turned their attentions to each other, locking their trunks and pushing, standing their ground. Perhaps it was only a friendly competition, because soon they were wandering across the grass, away from the displaced vehicles.
|the elephant claims his space|
|a friendly tussle?|
We caught a glimpse of one more species on our way out, the mongoose, which fooled us with its stance into thinking it was a meerkat. We watched their furry bodies root in the grass, questing for food. Then we too were off, searching for lunch and ready for another week of archaeology.