Ca­vort among the ele­phants, then head for a G&T and an af­ter­noon nap

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Chris­tine McCabe

THE name Ele­phant House may be evoca­tive but even more so is its deep veranda, set with comfy so­fas and ring­ing with the clink-clink of ice in tall tum­blers of Pimm’s.

Over­look­ing a pretty court­yard where sun­birds hover among pink aloe flow­ers and a lan­guid hound saun­ters like a lion across the lawn, the long veranda is one of count­less plea­sures of this charm­ing nine­room lodge on the cusp of the Addo Ele­phant Na­tional Park in South Africa’s East­ern Cape.

Addo is one of the coun­try’s con­ser­va­tion suc­cess sto­ries, pro­vid­ing a sanc­tu­ary for ele­phants that sur­vived the de­struc­tion of the cape’s great herds early last cen­tury. When Addo opened in 1931 it was home to 11 ele­phants; to­day they num­ber in their hun­dreds, to­gether with li­ons, buf­faloes, black rhi­nos and hye­nas.

The park was re­cently ex­tended to the coast, help­ing to shore up the East­ern Cape’s claim to the Big Seven na­tional parks. For de­ter­mined wildlife en­thu­si­asts, to li­ons, buf­faloes, leop­ards, rhi­nos and ele­phants can be added south­ern right whales and great white sharks.

Back at Ele­phant House we are fo­cus­ing on the big three: gin, tonic and an af­ter­noon nap, a pol­icy ac­tively en­cour­aged by Clive and Anne Read, who opened this charm­ing hostelry in 1999 fol­low­ing a spot of ad hoc mar­ket re­search.

Horse breed­ers and long-time res­i­dents of the rich Sun­days River Val­ley, the Reads, work­ing in their pad­docks one day, were struck by the con­stant stream of tourist traf­fic en­route to Addo.

What was needed, they de­cided, was a way­side inn.

The farm­house-style ho­tel they sub­se­quently built feels as if it might have been here for a cen­tury. It has a high­pitched thatched roof, skeins of creep­ers and coun­try-style ve­ran­das scat­tered with African arte­facts, and the walls are hung with grainy pho­tos of pi­o­neer­ing an­ces­tors in full sa­fari kit.

The gar­dens are a de­light (with two large swim­ming pools), marked by banks of ethe­real aloe, hedges of spekboom or pork­bush (a sta­ple for the ele­phants), and shady trees strung with sun­bird nests dan­gling fes­tively like Christ­mas baubles.

The pub­lic rooms are scat­tered with Per­sian car­pets and fur­nished with an­tiques, fam­ily pho­tos and var­i­ous horserac­ing mem­o­ra­bilia.

‘‘ We wanted it to feel like home, like re­turn­ing to your grand­par­ents’ farm,’’ Clive says, ‘‘ and noth­ing makes me hap­pier than see­ing a guest with his feet propped on the cof­fee ta­ble.’’

This sense of home is re­in­forced by the Ele­phant House’s won­der­ful staff, all lo­cal (chef Linda has been with the ho­tel since its open­ing) and al­ways on hand but never in the way.

The stable doors to each of the suites are gen­er­ally left un­locked and guests have the run of the house to help them­selves to books from the li­brary or rus­tle up a quick post-sa­fari Pimm’s.

Guest suites fea­ture a sep­a­rate sit­ting room hung with curious old botan­i­cal and wildlife prints. Beds are dressed with mono­grammed linen and ev­ery evening at turn-down house­keep­ers leave, in lieu of a choco­late, a charm­ing African story.

At 6.30pm, cham­pagne and canapes are served in the bar and if you are lucky enough to be in res­i­dence on a Wed­nes­day or Satur­day, you’ll be treated to a high­en­ergy dance per­for­mance by a troupe of as­ton­ish­ingly tal­ented stu­dents from nearby Pat­ter­son. So joy­ous is this im­promptu con­cert, the ho­tel staff all turn out to sing, whis­tle and stamp their feet.

Af­ter­wards a quiet din­ner is served in the veranda restau­rant. Linda’s food is sim­ple but de­li­cious; roast chicken and lo­cally grown veg­eta­bles sing with flavour.

Ele­phant House runs its own sa­faris into Addo, led by an in-house ele­phant ex­pert (al­ter­na­tively, you can join one of the park’s many daily sched­uled tours).

There is no guar­an­tee of spot­ting an ele­phant, but be­fore we have trav­elled 500m we have seen four. And then they are ev­ery­where, saun­ter­ing through the spekboom, wal­low­ing in wa­ter­holes. The only crea­ture more nu­mer­ous is the charis­matic warthog.

Af­ter spend­ing three or four hot and dusty hours with the ele­phants, it’s won­der­ful to re­turn to the cool, shady grounds of Ele­phant House for a swim, then a snooze on one of those deep veranda so­fas.

The Reads in­tend to make this re­treat even more exclusive (re­duc­ing the room in­ven­tory to seven) in Septem­ber, when they open a new, more bud­get-con­scious ho­tel across the road. Their grow­ing ho­tel em­pire also in­cludes the Win­der­mere bou­tique digs in nearby Port El­iz­a­beth. Chris­tine McCabe was a guest of Ele­phant House and South African Tourism.

Check­list

Ele­phant House, PO Box 82, Addo, 6105, South Africa. Phone +27 42 233 2462; www.ele­phan­t­house.co.za. Tar­iff: Low sea­son B & B rates from R750 ($103) a per­son; three-course din­ner, R190. Get­ting there: A com­fort­able 45-minute drive from Port El­iz­a­beth. Check­ing in: Cou­ples from home and abroad. Wheel­chair ac­cess: Most ameni­ties are on one level and two gue­strooms can be adapted. Bed­time read­ing: TheS­to­ry­ofBabar by Jean de Brun­hoff. Step­ping out: A good se­lec­tion of tours op­er­ate from the lodge, in­clud­ing day trips to private re­serves, ca­noe­ing, ele­phant­back sa­faris, he­li­copter sight­see­ing and cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal and agri­cul­tural ram­bles across the Sun­days River Val­ley. Brick­bats: More bath­room unguents in the rooms, please. Bou­quets: Com­pli­men­tary mas­sages, man­i­cures and pedi­cures in sea­son (Oc­to­ber to May).

Time out: Ele­phant House’s airy veranda is the per­fect spot af­ter a day on sa­fari

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