Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS - WORDS BY DON PIN­NOCK

Don Pin­nock is ob­sessed with them. Here’s where he goes to be with these cap­ti­vat­ing crea­tures

The long, thought­ful re­gard of an ele­phant, which could ei­ther stroke you with its trunk or flat­ten you, is one of Africa’s great­est spine-chill­ing mo­ments. You feel its in­tel­li­gence but you have no idea what it’s think­ing. Here are 10 of the best places in South­ern Africa to en­gage with these gi­ants

There’s a rule of the wild, of­ten fa­tal if bro­ken, that you don’t get in the way of a wild ele­phant. You give it all the space it needs. And if the tusker is a ma­tri­arch in charge of a breed­ing herd, you keep well away. These warn­ings were flash­ing code red as I stared up at the huge grey crea­ture only me­tres away that had im­paled me with her stare. The sit­u­a­tion could have been avoided if I’d checked the stairs into the hide be­fore the Hwange game-drive ve­hi­cle moved off. It turned out they were bro­ken. So I leaned up against a log pile at the wa­ter­hole and hoped for the best.

As the sun dipped west­wards, ele­phants be­gan ar­riv­ing across the wa­ter. I was trans­fixed but, as it tran­spired, a lit­tle too trans­fixed to no­tice a breed­ing herd led by a huge ma­tri­arch com­ing up be­hind me.

There was nowhere to hide and run­ning would have been sui­cide, so I made my­self as small as pos­si­ble and, I think, stopped breath­ing. The ma­tri­arch led her herd to the wa­ter’s edge and the soft twi­light was filled with the sound of slurp­ing, sigh­ing and the happy squeals of young­sters.

I fer­vently hoped she hadn’t seen my crouch­ing form but, it turned out, for the mo­ment she was ig­nor­ing me. When the drink­ing was done she turned towards me, raised her trunk and sniffed. With her ears flared in warn­ing she seemed to fill the sky.

We looked at each other for an un­com­fort­ably long time. Then a strange thing hap­pened. I gen­er­ally avoid at­tach­ing hu­man in­ten­tions to an­i­mal ac­tions, but she did some­thing so hu­man I couldn’t help it: she low­ered her trunk and nod­ded. As she did, I felt an in­ex­pli­ca­ble wave of ac­cep­tance wash over me. I re­laxed and smiled at her.

Then she put her ears back in their at-ease po­si­tion, stepped for­ward in a tra­jec­tory that would take her only a few me­tres from where I was sit­ting and led her fam­ily past me.

From that mo­ment – I sus­pect at her be­hest – I be­came ob­sessed with ele­phants, spend­ing time with them when I could, writ­ing about them when I couldn’t. So here’s my South­ern African bucket list of the best places to ex­pe­ri­ence them.

1. TEMBE ELE­PHANT PARK North­ern Kwazulu-Na­tal

Un­til a few years ago, Tembe had the south­ern hemi­sphere’s rock-star ele­phant with the big­gest tusks this side of the equa­tor. Isilo was a ven­er­a­ble 56 years old when he died of nat­u­ral causes in 2014. His tusks weighed more than 65 kilo­grams.

The 300-square-kilo­me­tre park still has some huge tuskers, all pretty chilled around tourists. With ele­phant fam­i­lies com­pris­ing nearly 300 in­di­vid­u­als, it’d be im­pos­si­ble not to en­counter them on a game drive.

The park was pro­claimed in 1983 to pro­tect ele­phants mi­grat­ing be­tween south­ern Mozam­bique and Ma­puta­land and to man­age crop raids. It’s 50 per cent owned and fully run by the lo­cal com­mu­nity, which also owns and man­ages a lodge in the park.

GET­TING THERE From Dur­ban, head north on the N2; af­ter Mkuze, turn off to Jozini. The park is 72km fur­ther and is well sign­posted.

PARK FEES R50 pp + R110 (car). STAY HERE Tented suites at Tembe Ele­phant Park Lodge are from R1 650 pp shar­ing a night (three night stay), in­clud­ing meals and drives. 031-267-0144, tembe.co.za There are also self-cater­ing Airbnb op­tions around Jozini.

2. ADDO ELE­PHANT PARK East­ern Cape

In the early decades of the 20th cen­tury, ele­phants were not wel­come in the Addo area and ex­ter­mi­nated by gov­ern­ment de­cree. By 1931, there were only 11 left when pub­lic dis­taste at the slaugh­ter con­vinced the au­thor­i­ties to de­clare it a na­tional park.

Since then, Addo has be­come one of the coun­try’s premier ele­phant con­ser­va­tion and view­ing ar­eas. But be­cause of ear­lier ivory-hunt­ing pres­sure, the park’s 600 ele­phants are largely tusk­less. They’re now so easy-go­ing, rangers don’t bother to carry firearms.

You’ll see ele­phants on any of the park drives; Mar­ion Ba­ree wa­ter­hole is par­tic­u­larly good for close-up in­ter­ac­tions with breed­ing herds. The wa­ter­hole look­out point at Main Camp is flood­lit at night and there’s an un­der­ground hide for star­tlingly close en­coun­ters.

GET­TING THERE The south gate is only 45 min­utes’ drive from Port El­iz­a­beth on the N2, or turn off at Mother­well and fol­low the signs to the main gate. PARK FEES R68 pp.

STAY HERE There are four rest camps in Addo: Main Camp, Ny­athi, Spekboom and Maty­hol­weni. Within these is a wide range of ac­com­mo­da­tion, in­clud­ing

two-sleeper sa­fari tents from R830, for­est cab­ins from R930 (sleep four), ron­dav­els over­look­ing a wa­ter­hole from R1 500 (sleep two) and guest houses from R4 610 (sleep six). Camp­ing costs from R280. 042-233-8600, san­parks.org


In Kruger, if you’re not see­ing ele­phants, you’re not leav­ing your hut. In the wet sea­son they are more wide­spread, but in the dry sea­son they spend more time closer to wa­ter. So drive the roads close to the main rivers and sea­sonal rivers that have nat­u­ral wa­ter­holes.

The Croc­o­dile River in the south and the Biyamiti Loop a lit­tle fur­ther north pro­vide en­chant­ing en­coun­ters, as do roads along the Skukuza to Lower Sa­bie route. North of Satara is a new one-way gravel road that passes a few springs. It’s a fab­u­lous land­scape with great ele­phant sight­ings.

They are also of­ten spot­ted from the high-wa­ter bridges cross­ing the Oli­fants and Letaba rivers as well as from the Oli­fants River look­out. Fur­ther north, there are usu­ally ex­cep­tional sight­ings on the wind­ing roads around Shing­wedzi in the dry sea­son, when large num­bers of ele­phants use the Shing­wedzi River’s per­sis­tent pools.

GET­TING THERE There are air­ports at Pha­l­aborwa, Hoed­spruit and Nel­spruit (the lat­ter is the only op­tion from Dur­ban or Cape Town). These are also the main feeder towns to the park for self-driv­ers. PARK FEES R82 pp.

STAY HERE There are 12 main rest camps, five bushveld camps (cot­tages from R1 150), six satel­lite camps ( from R295 pp shar­ing at Tam­boti Tented Camp), two overnight hides (from R725 a night) and two bush lodges (from R3 270, sleep up to 12 or 18). Camp­ing is from R285. san­parks.org

4. KAOKOVELD North­west Namibia

A fam­ily of ele­phants strid­ing across the desert is an eerie sight. They’re like ex­plor­ers on an­other planet. But they’ve learned the ways of the Namib and do just fine.

The best place to see them is west of Ses­fontein in the Hoanib River. They’re also found from about 40 kilo­me­tres east of Pur­ros all the way to the mouth of the Hoarusib River. These are mostly the same herds which move from the Hoanib to the Hoarusib in May/ June, then back in Oc­to­ber/ No­vem­ber, depend­ing on which trees are bear­ing fruit.

GET­TING THERE This is 4x4 coun­try with no com­pro­mises. You have to be well equipped and in a party of more than one ve­hi­cle. The Kaokoveld/ Kunene Re­gion is about eight hours’ drive from Wind­hoek. Note: go­ing in mid­sum­mer is only for the hardy.

STAY HERE Fort Ses­fontein is a ho­tel in an old Ger­man fort. R1 375 pp shar­ing B&B. It of­fers a guided drive to see the ele­phants for R1 060 pp. +264-65-685034, fort-ses­fontein.com

An­other op­tion is camp­ing, which is cheap (less than R200). There is the Cameltop com­mu­nity camp­site in Ses­fontein, and good sites at War­mquelle (the pools here de­serve a visit, on­gongo.com) and Khowarib. Pur­ros camp­site is mag­i­cal. There are also plenty of spots to wild camp in the river (check for rain in the wet sea­son).

5. HORSE­SHOE BEND Zam­bezi Re­gion (Caprivi), Namibia

Horse­shoe Bend on the Kwando River is a se­cret place beloved of ele­phant watch­ers in the know. It’s an oxbow lake where very large num­bers of ele­phants come to drink si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Best is to hang out un­der the jack­alberry trees towards sun­set and wait for the show.

The Bend is in the 6100square-kilo­me­tre Bwab­wata Na­tional Park. Namibia’s new­est park be­gan as the Caprivi Game Re­serve back in the 1960s, but dur­ing the Namib­ian lib­er­a­tion strug­gle the area be­came a re­stricted SADF se­cu­rity zone and is only now emerg­ing from a grim his­tory of war. And the ele­phants are back.

GET­TING THERE Bwab­wata is 900km from Wind­hoek on the Trans-Caprivi high­way (B8). The near­est big town is Rundu, 200km west of the park. PARK FEES R30 pp + R10 (car). STAY HERE There are sev­eral op­tions in the area. A good bud­get choice is Divundu Guest House, near the en­trance to the park (and very near Popa Falls) – thatched bun­ga­lows for R475 pp shar­ing B&B, new on­river rooms R600 pp shar­ing, camp­ing R95 pp. +264-66-259031, sa­fari­now.com. More up­scale Shametu River Lodge has chalets from R870 pp shar­ing or lux­ury tents from R985 pp shar­ing. Camp­ing is R410 for two. +264-61-237-294, shame­turiver­lodge.com


Etosha Na­tional Park is one of Africa’s great wildlife-view­ing des­ti­na­tions. In­stead of trekking around look­ing for an­i­mals, sim­ply hang out at one of the wa­ter­holes and they’ll come to you. Oli­fants­bad, south­east of Okaukuejo, is well named and is much loved by the great grey crea­tures. Aus, nearby, also pro­duces fab­u­lous sight­ings.

Moringa wa­ter­hole at Halali Camp is an­other spe­cial place favoured by ele­phants dur­ing early morn­ings and evenings. Perched on a kop­pie with an am­phithe­atre-style view over the wa­ter­hole, it’s also spe­cial for see­ing black rhino un­der evening flood­lights. Kalkheuwel near Na­mu­toni is good for breed­ing herds of ele­phants, and many other an­i­mals be­sides.

GET­TING THERE Etosha is 435km north of Wind­hoek and the drive takes about six hours on good roads.

PARK FEES R60 pp + R10 (car). STAY HERE There are three rest camps – Na­mu­toni (ad­ja­cent to the his­tor­i­cal fort), Halali and Okaukuejo – with a range of op­tions: rooms from R900 pp shar­ing B&B, bush chalets from R1 000 pp B&B, wa­ter­hole chalets at Okaukuejo from R1 500 pp B&B. The new Oli­fantsrus camp­site (max­i­mum eight peo­ple) costs R350 pp; other camp­sites cost R300 pp. The lux­ury camps, Dolomite and Onkoshi, have chalets from R1 820 pp B&B. +264-61-285-7200, nwr.com.na There are also sev­eral pri­vate lodges just out­side the park.

7. MANA POOLS Zim­babwe

For the thrill and fear of walk­ing around un­guided in an un­fenced park full of wild an­i­mals, Mana Pools on the Zam­bezi River in north­ern Zim­babwe is the place. Ele­phant en­coun­ters are cer­tain and fre­quent. How­ever, they’re re­laxed around peo­ple and are quite likely to have a long sniff at your tent at night (as are the lions, so be care­ful).

GET­TING THERE Ac­cess roads to Mana Pools Na­tional Park (270km from Harare) are fine, but you’ll need a 4x4 in the park. PARK FEES R295 pp (paid in US dol­lars), ve­hi­cle R147. A walk­ing per­mit is R220, guided walks cost R370.

STAY HERE Nyamepi, the main camp, has 30 sites with braai places, flush toi­lets and hot show­ers. From R1 035 to R1 700 for up to six peo­ple. There are sev­eral ex­clu­sive camp­sites (one party only, six peo­ple max) around the park – Ndungu, Mucheni, Chi­take, BBC, Gwaya and Nkupe – from R1 330 to R2 540. There are also four tented camps and five self­ca­ter­ing ‘lodges’ (rus­tic cab­ins). zim­parks.org, but rather book through man­apools.com – the $50 fee is worth it.


The in­tro­duc­tion to this story took place at Lit­tle Makalolo, so it holds a spe­cial place in my heart. The hide gets you close and per­sonal – es­pe­cially in the win­ter months – with hun­dreds of ele­phants. It’s in a pri­vate con­ces­sion so no crowds in­trude. Be­sides ele­phants, there’s a strong pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing buf­falo, rhino, hyena, gi­raffe and the oc­ca­sional leop­ard. Hang­ing out there as the sun sinks is one of the con­ti­nent’s great plea­sures. But from pretty much any­where in Hwange you are en­sured of ex­cel­lent ele­phant in­ter­ac­tions.

GET­TING THERE There are good paved roads to Hwange from Bu­l­awayo (340km) and Vic­to­ria Falls (100km), and within the park they’re not bad. PARK FEES R220 pp + R145 (car). STAY HERE Lit­tle Makalolo is in the south­east­ern sec­tor of the park, over­look­ing a vi­brant wa­ter­hole. The six lux­ury sa­fari tents in­clude a fam­ily unit. From R6 800 pp shar­ing, in­clud­ing all meals, two daily sa­fari ac­tiv­i­ties and park fees. 011-257-5000, wilder­ness-sa­faris.com

There are camp­sites and ba­sic bush camps in Hwange at a frac­tion of the cost. zim­parks.org


There’s a small bay along the Chobe River favoured by ele­phants. It’s not on any map (ask a ranger) and it’s hit and miss when the great grey crea­tures ar­rive, so park on the beach and wait. The re­ward for pa­tience is enor­mous.

Both times I’ve been there my ve­hi­cle was lit­er­ally en­gulfed by ele­phants. Chobe Na­tional Park in Botswana has the high­est den­sity of ele­phants in the world – maybe 120000 at times – and they’re so chilled one stuck its trunk through my open win­dow and gave me a long, thought­ful sniff.

GET­TING THERE Most vis­i­tors ac­cess the park from Kasane – there is an air­port here, and the Sududu Gate is just out­side town. A 4x4 is rec­om­mended. You’ll also have ex­cel­lent game en­coun­ters on a boat trip down the Chobe River. PARK FEES R163 pp + R68 (car).

STAY HERE The park has three camp­sites – Ihaha, Savuti and Liny­ati – with ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties. From R240 per site. chobe­na­tion­al­park.co.za/ chobe-camp­ing There are sev­eral lodges and ho­tels in Kasane and out­side the park, but most are fairly pricey. chobe­na­tion­al­park.com There are also Airbnb op­tions.


My abid­ing me­mory of Moremi is watch­ing a very large ele­phant in Xakanaxa Camp try­ing to reach marula fruit. Not quite manag­ing the height, he stepped on a small brown tent think­ing, no doubt, it was an anthill. The young cou­ple who owned it watched aghast as the tent im­ploded. Prob­a­bly puz­zled, the ele­phant wan­dered off, trail­ing their clothes­line of soggy wash­ing.

Moremi is hard­core, but it’s one of the most mag­i­cal wildlife des­ti­na­tions in the world. Par­adise Pools in Xakanaxa is not on the reg­u­lar map (ask at the en­trance gate) but it’s a se­cret ele­phant play­ground. An­other nearby place for ele­phants is the Mokotlho com­mu­nity camp­sites on the Kh­wai River.

GET­TING THERE From Maun and its air­port, it’s mostly cor­ru­gated or soggy nar­row roads (80km to the park gate). PARK FEES R150 pp + R65 car. STAY HERE There are a few pricey luxe lodges. Camp­ing is the best op­tion, and you need to be com­pletely self-suf­fi­cient.

Camp­sites are ex­cel­lent, with hot show­ers. About R200 pp at Xakanaxa. getaway.co.za/ travel-ideas/book-camp­sites­botswanas-na­tional-parks

ABOVE You’ll need a 4x4 to self-drive the swamps and sandy roads of this Big Five park that’s also a top bird­ing des­ti­na­tion.

ABOVE Addo’s dense val­ley bushveld means tak­ing the road is a much eas­ier com­mute to wa­ter­holes – and they hap­pily share the tar­mac with ve­hi­cles.

Be­fore young cows in a breed­ing herd have their own off­spring, they will pro­tect and help any calf in trou­ble. Re­lated cows also share suck­ling du­ties.

Kaokoveld’s roughly 130 ellies have be­come ‘neat’ feed­ers – they don’t knock over trees, strip bark or break branches – and they can go sev­eral days with­out wa­ter.

ABOVE At dawn in Okaukuejo get down to the camp’s wa­ter­hole. TOP Per­ma­nent wa­ter spots in Etosha are busier than a sports bar dur­ing a rugby test match, with as var­ied a clien­tele. And just like crowded bars, size tends to dic­tate who gets to drink first.

With a 4x4 and a good knowl­edge of wildlife be­hav­iour, you’ll have an­i­mal en­coun­ters in Mana Pools like few other places on Earth.

In this, the dry sea­son, Moremi’s ‘roads’ are a 4x4 chal­lenge; in the wet sea­son many be­come im­pass­able.

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