I spotted a few elephants crossing the road ahead of me, so pulled off onto the right-hand side (wrong side in South Africa) of the road and turned off my little gold Volkswagen Golf. I waited and watched. More elephants appeared out of the tall bushes. The first elephant to reach the other side of the road inspected a big shrub, and took a bite, its gigantic mouth slowly chomping the foliage to mere fiber. Branches, leaves, and all.
The elephants were on the move though, and the female turned toward me. Then she walked toward me. I did not move a muscle. And, then I remembered my experience so long ago in Kenya and realized I could move muscles, but not quickly, and definitely not noisily or in a threatening manner. I watched and enjoyed the peaceful sounds as the elephants paraded past within two meters of my open window.
Addo Elephant National Park
This South Africa National Park (not a private game reserve) is fantastic and I advise everyone I meet who is planning a trip to South Africa to visit here. I heard about it while researching for my trip, but certainly did not expect it to be as good as it is. Go!!
It’s a good place for animals. There is no hunting and no elephant riding. In fact, you don’t even get too close to the animals unless they come to you — they’re wild after all and they can roam wherever they want—no little zoo cages here. Addo is the size of Belgium and vehicles are allowed in only half of the area. Any non-park vehicles must stay on the roads at all times.
This is the only park in this area of South Africa that has all the Big 5 animals—lions, rhino, cape buffalo, leopard, and elephant. I saw all except the lions. There are no giraffe in this park.
I advise everyone I meet who is planning a trip to South Africa to visit. I heard about it while researching my trip, but never actually put it on my list of places to visit. I’m so lucky that an employee at my backpackers in Knysna highly recommended the park. Otherwise, I may not have visited.
Your other option for lots of wild animals is to drive clear across the country (many hours) to Kruger or visit a private game reserve which have fewer animals and are for-profit. Some of them allow trophy hunting, if that’s your thing (it’s not mine, so I have no advice available on that topic).
I arrived at Addo National Park entrance on a warm and sunny early afternoon in February (summer in South Africa). My plan was to arrange my park tickets for the next few days day, so I could get an early start the next morning and subsequent days. Then, I would drive a few miles back down the road to Orange Elephant Backpackers and relax for the afternoon.
After looking over all the ticket options, I decided to pay and enter the park for the afternoon even though it was only for a half-day. (Tickets are not pro-rated based on the time of day of entry, so I still had to pay full-price.) It was lucky I did! It turned out to be my most productive animal viewing hours.
During my days at Addo, I saw all except the lions. I also saw leopards feeding, zebra, tortoise, the most gigantic lizard of my life. There were all types of herbivores, jackals, and birds.
A few more notes on buying tickets: By arriving in mid-afternoon I was able to buy my self-drive entry tickets without waiting in a line. I also explored all the options for the tours the park offers, including sunset and night time tours and tours by horseback. Book everything you can in-person, because I met a traveler who had the hostel book over the phone, and the park lost her reservation—they don’t seem especially well organized.
Self-drivers must depart the park before sunset. The only way to see nocturnal (night) animals is on a guided tour with the park. I went on the 2-hour tour and it’s really fun! The vehicle is outfitted with a spotlight. My tour found a rhino mother and baby. We watched them run away through the bush. There are also many smaller animals. Elephants are not nocturnal, and they go into the low parts of the park where it’s warmer at night.
Toilets and Picnic Area
At the park there are only 2 (two) locations with public toilets. You can get out of your vehicle to pee on a bush in another place, but there are often lots of people around. Plus, there are signs there warning you that a lion may be nearby and to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
One public toilet is at the main entrance (outside the gates) and the other is at Jack’s Picnic site off the southern access road. The picnic site is surrounded by a big fence and has picnic tables and braai (barbecue) grills. You’re safe to walk around inside this fenced area.
So, if you’re a 3-cup-a-morning coffee drinker, my recommended pee bottle is the wide-mouth Nalgene bottle. Be sure to mark it with a very obvious no drinking symbol! For women, here are pee funnels you might find useful.
Accommodation Near Addo Elephant Park
There is plenty of accommodation near Addo Elephant Park, as well as inside the park, at all price points. Nearly all accommodation offers pickup from the nearest city of Port Elizabeth, since Addo is quite a distance from any large town. [Read about renting a car in South Africa—it’s easy and cheap compared to the USA!]
Booking.com and Agoda.com offer accommodation starting around $40 USD and go up through super luxurius! Just click in the search box below and enter ‘Addo’ as your city to get started OR click here for Booking.com and here for Agoda.com.
Many places have discounts for children, and even offer connecting rooms in case you’d like some space from your parent / kid / friend / random travel buddy.
Sleeping Inside the Park
You pay a premium to sleep inside the park. For camping through self-catering basic safari tents through luxury hotels within the park, prices range from $60 USD to $500+ per night. If you can afford it, stay at one of the locations with a watering hole. Then you’ll get to view wildlife from the property! Here’s the link to Addo Elephant Park Lodge and all other in-park accommodation.
Backpackers – Where I Stayed
I stayed just a few miles from the park entrance at Orange Elephant Backpackers for about $30 per night in a private room. They treated me really well and I had a great stay! This backpackers (hostel with both dorm and private rooms) was perfectly quiet and nice. They have an onsite restaurant-bar (think pizza and beer) about 50 meters from the rooms, so that’s where the social life is. That means the sleeping area stays peaceful and quiet with lovely gardens to enjoy. The kitchen is large, but like all hostels (and Airbnbs) I’ve ever stayed at, I’d appreciate if they labeled the cupboards, so you know where the cups or plates are without opening 20 doors. They have a Baz bus pickup, in case you don’t have a car.
The owner has ridden his motorcycle nearly everywhere in South Africa, and is a great resource for trip-planning. I also did a full-day safari with them, because it is so nice to learn from a guide and have a day off from driving. However, this tour cannot go off-road. Only park-guided tours driven by the park can go off-road to get closer to an animal kill or something of that sort. So, even if you buy a fancy private tour, you can’t go off-roading.
Since I was traveling solo I always requested a reduced price if my room came with multiple beds or breakfast or something like that. Obviously, being just one person I wasn’t going to eat 3 breakfasts.
Addo Elephant Park Camping Inside and Outside the Park
Tent camping outside the park is rare now. Orange Elephant Backpackers no longer allows it, since there were problems with things getting stolen. However, if you sleep in your campervan, you can still park and sleep—just not in a tent.
Basic camping is available starting around $20 USD per night at the rest camps and bush camps inside of Addo Elephant Park.
Some terminology as you read through accommodation descriptions to help you along:
“Ablutions” refers to the toilets. Camping sites typically have shared bathrooms or ablutions.
“Self-catering” means that you’ll bring your own food. Usually a kitchen with utensils is available.
“Braai” is a barbecue area. Bring plenty of food to grill– it’s the most common method of cooking when away from home in South Africa. You can stop at any store and ask what’s good on the braai– they’ll recommend plenty of sausages and meat. It’s the perfect way to literally taste local culture.
How Long to Stay in Addo
I felt that three to four days was enough. You should note that driving safaris are a spent entirely sitting in a car. So, try to break it up with some walking or horseback rididing
Day 1 (half-day): Self-drive in my car
Day 2: Morning horseback ride; afternoon self-drive.
Day 3: Early morning South Africa National (SAN) Park drive; full-day self-drive; night time SAN Park drive.
Day 4: Full-day guided tour with Orange Elephant Backpackers.
Horseback Riding at Addo Elephant National Park
Horseback riding in the park is an experience not to be missed. I chose a morning ride for the cooler temperatures and less-strong sun—it gets hot! It was wonderful seeing the landscape off the road and from another pace and point of view.
The horseback rides are for all level riders. For safety helmets are provided and the guide carries a rifle. I was also told, that if something dangerous happened and I was told to gallop away, I should not stop, even if my guide stopped. Ok, then, and off we went.
The horseback riding tour goes through a section of the park where there are no roads and vehicles are not permitted. It feels adventurous and unique riding in the wild without an engine or metal or wheels, when you could come upon a lion or any other animal. My guide and I chatted and he explained to me that the park doesn’t know where the lions are located at any given time, because their radio collars have run out of battery and haven’t been replaced. So, we constantly had to be on the lookout for them and any other animal we wanted to observe or avoid.
Horses have better smell and hearing than people, and sense when there’s any danger, so it’s safer being on horseback than on foot. As my guide and I galloped across a plain my horse pulled ahead, and we raced with the wind in our hair. Then, my horse suddenly veered off course, taking a wide berth around some bushes. My guide called after me that there was a cape buffalo in a bush. Cape buffalo are the most dangerous animal in the park. I learned that they will attack from the front, but are smart and sneaky and can go around behind and then attack again. And, unlike most herbivores, they don’t back down when threatened.
Meanwhile, we never were able to approach the antelope, kudu, and other herbivores. They took off at a trot or run whenever we came within range of seeing them up close.
While riding, I saw small things in the distance scampering across the plain. Looking more closely I realized they were monkeys. I always think of monkeys as being in or very near to trees, so it was a surprise to see them sprinting through grassland. One of the groups had so many monkeys—moms and babies, too. They’d get to a clump of trees and stay there, enjoying the shade and food.
We also saw some ostrich, but didn’t get very close to them, which was fine with me. Like kangaroos, one kick from them and you’ll have your entrails hanging out. The only animal we got right up next to was a tortoise. My guide dismounted his horse and picked up the tortoise to show me its underside to know its gender. My guide was wonderful and shared everything he knew about the local animal life and ecology of the area.
Drones and Other Technology
Drones are not allowed at all in the park or near the fence line. The reason for this is poachers. The rhino is very endangered, and even the safari guides do not report amongst each other when they spot one, in case a poacher has infiltrated their WhatsApp group.
If you photograph a rhino, you should wait a day before posting it to social media, since your photographs metadata contains GPS points and could alert the poachers to the animals’ location. This gives the animal time to move to another location. I was thrilled to observe a mother and baby rhino on my night safari.
I reluctantly departed from Addo and all the wonderful animals after a few days and drove on.
Read about my 5-week road trip around South Africa and Lesotho. It was so much fun! I did it solo– just rented a car and went.
Tickets and Tours
All Addo Elephant Park prices including in-park hotel, tours by the park and hop-on guides who will get in your car with you for a few hours, if you’re self-driving.
You have various options for tours. For day tours you can do self-drive or go on the various tours offered by the park. Also, many accomodations can arrange tours for you. For an all-inclusive tour, check these out.