What is Addo Elephant National Park and why should I visit?
Addo is one of the 20 national parks in South Africa and is the third largest. Why should you visit? It’s literally in the title…ELEPHANTS! There are over 600 living in this park. When I visited, I didn’t even need to enter to see them as they were gathered at the watering hole right outside.
But you should still visit inside the park if you’re in the Eastern Cape province and you want to go on safari. Forget about the Big Five, you can even add in the sharks and whales and see what they’re calling the Big Seven without leaving Addo. In addition, you might spot hyenas, ostrich, zebras, warthogs, tortoises, hippos, and a variety of antelope species like bushbuck. There is also a marine section of the park where you can see whales, great white sharks, and penguins. Even though I spent only about 2 hours in the middle of the day, which is one of the worst times to look for animals because it’s hot, I saw lots of elephants, zebras, warthogs, a tortoise, and some bushbuck as well as a variety of birds so it was worth my time. I wish I could have stayed longer!
One animal that makes Addo unique is the flightless dung beetle. I didn’t realize it had any significance at the time, but I couldn’t help but wonder why there were signs throughout the park asking cars to drive around a beetle. When I looked it up, I found out that this subspecies of dung beetle is rare and vulnerable, and lives only in the southeast of South Africa, with the largest known concentration in Addo. These dung beetles can do some incredible things like roll balls of dung more than three times their size around! Gross, I know, but read more about the wonders of the flightless dung beetle (really, do it) here.
When’s the best time to visit? What’s the weather like?
One bonus of Addo is that the weather is not extreme at any point during the year, so the park can be visited successfully year-round. In the summer (January), the average high temperature is 89˚F (32˚C), while in July the average low is 41˚F (5˚C). It is a semi-arid climate which means it doesn’t rain a lot, but the rainiest months are February-March and October-November. However, I went in late October and it was great weather! Most attractions operate year-round.
How do you get there? What’s the best way to get around?
The closest nearby city is Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth or simply PE. Older travel guides, websites, and even airport codes (it’s PLZ for Port Elizabeth International Airport) will refer to it as Port Elizabeth or PE. Rest assured, it is the same place*. You can fly from to Gqeberha from any of the other major cities in South Africa or make it a road trip (~8.5 hours from Cape Town and 11-12 hours from Johannesburg or Durban). I flew from Cape Town and it was about a 1.5 hours flight.
From Gqeberha, the park is an approximate one-hour drive. Unlike some wildlife parks I’ve visited elsewhere, one bonus of Addo is that you can take your own vehicle and drive around. This makes the park more affordable because you don’t need to hire a guide. You do need to make sure you follow the park rules such as staying inside your vehicle, sticking to speed limits, staying on designated roads, not touching or feeding the wildlife, and respecting the park hours.
*Gqeberha shed its former name in 2021 as part of a movement to break from South Africa’s colonial past, replacing it with the Xhosa name for the river that flows through the city. Xhosa is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, the second largest native language spoken in the country with 20 million+ speakers, and Gqeberha is home to the Xhosa people. And how do you pronounce that? Here’s a guide and a warning that Xhosa is one of the click languages and is difficult for those of us who aren’t used to making the click sound! I always feel bad that I’m butchering it terribly, but I will keep trying and maybe someday I’ll get it right.
Where’s the best place to stay?
Within and around the park, there are options for a range of budgets including camping, cabins, hotels, and even a luxury lodge. If you want to go on an early morning or nighttime game drive, I would recommend staying within or immediately outside of the park so you don’t have to get up crazy early! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do this because of other commitments. A different option is to stay in Gqeberha if you want to be in an urban center and this is what I did. I was at the Garden Court Kings Beach, a comfortable standard hotel facing out over the Indian Ocean. But it would have been difficult to get into the park super early because you are already an hour away.
What should I bring on my trip?
- Cash – in case there is loadshedding and the credit card machines are down and you want to purchase something from the cute gift shop
- Comfortable clothes
- Camera – for all those elephant pics
- Make sure to keep your ticket with you – you’ll likely be asked to show it again
- Get a map at the entrance which includes, importantly, an animal sightseeing game that pits you against your friends to see who can spot the most animals! It’s also really helpful to identify what the animals you find are and how rare they are, which you can tell from the point value
How much does it cost?
At the time of writing, Addo entry costs 376 rand / day / person for international visitors, about $22 USD (depending on the exchange rate, of course). South African nationals get a lower rate. Now, I know I was already in the area and there are other costs associated with getting to the park (flights to Gqeberha / SA in general, food, lodging, gas) but this goes to show that going on a safari and seeing animals does not have to be thousands of dollars if you don’t want it to. There’s a restaurant and a very cute gift shop so bring extra cash. When I went, the power went out and so the ATM was down and I had to choose my souvenirs wisely. I got my favorite South Africa mug (below) and an elephant sticker, but I would have bought more if I had more cash on me.
You might be interested in other activities such as camping, lodging within the park, guided tours, hiking trails, or 4×4 drive which all cost extra. These costs are listed on the park website (activities, lodging) and vary depending on what you want to do.
What’s there to see and do?
The main land activity, and the only one I was able to do, was the game drive. You can go by yourself, or hire a guide if you’d prefer. I’d recommend going at a few different times of day to increase your chances of seeing more animals.
Other options that I didn’t get to (…sigh):
- Visit the marine section of the park by booking an eco-tour where you’ll have the opportunity to see sharks including great whites, whales, penguins, bottlenose dolphins, and seals! The tour operator recommended by the park is Raggy Charters. While I didn’t visit the marine section of the park, I wish I had after perusing their website!
- Go hiking on one of the designated park hiking trails
- Rent a 4×4 vehicle and do an off-road drive
Have you been to Addo? Would you go? Let me know in the comments!