Whether you want to languish in luxury at an upmarket lodge, experience the sights and sounds of the bush from a safari tent or choose from a host of other affordable accommodation facilities – the world-renowned Addo Elephant National Park has it all.
The park has proven itself to be one of South Africa’s most popular tourism destinations, with occupancy rates at its various accommodation facilities running at about 92% throughout the year.
Added to this, several contractual partners and private concessions within the park have added an upmarket dimension to the park, attracting international tourists as well as having brought about numerous economic benefits to the park and surrounding community.
The park, which was home to just 11 elephant when first proclaimed in 1931, is now sanctuary to more than 450 of these majestic creatures. It is also refuge to the Big Seven – making it one of South Africa’s key tourism destinations.
Its 164 233 hectares are inhabited by abundant birdlife and a multitude of wildlife species including lion, black rhino, buffalo, leopard, spotted hyena, zebra, a variety of antelope species, as well as the unique flightless dung beetle. The Great White shark and seasonal Southern Right whale in the marine section complete the Big Seven.
Situated in the malaria-free Eastern Cape, only a short drive away from Port Elizabeth, the park stretches across five biomes from the vast Darlington Lake, Zuurberg Mountains and dense bushveld of the Sundays River Valley to the indigenous forests at Woody Cape.
These forests hug the largest coastal dune fields south of the Namib, overlooking the park’s marine area at Bird Island and St Croix Island.
Privately owned concessions
The privately owned concessions – Gorah Elephant Camp and Nguni Lodge – and contractual partners – RiverBend Lodge, Darlington Lake Lodge and Intsomi Lodge – when combined with the park’s own facilities, offer the visitor a multitude of choices, both in type of accommodation and price range says South African National Parks (SANParks) Frontier Region communications manager Megan Taplin.
A new – and the biggest – contractual addition to the park, the 14 900 hectare Kuzuko Contractual Area has been stocked with elephant, lion, cheetah, black rhino and buffalo.
Construction of a 48-bed luxury lodge was recently completed, while future concession and contractual opportunities are also possible within the park, with plans including the introduction of a canoe trail that will operate on the Sundays River – home to the park’s hippos.
“A concession, usually signed for a period of 50 years or more, is where a private business is given the rights to operate a business, whether it’s a lodge or an activity, within a national park. The park still owns the land and infrastructure and receives a percentage of the concessionaire’s turnover. Concession opportunities are always put out on public tender to ensure that the process is transparent,” Taplin said.
“The advantage to the park is that we can concentrate on our core business, which is biodiversity conservation, while still providing a range of offerings to visitors.”
The advantage to concessionaires is that they can operate their businesses within a successful national park while not having to purchase land or set up a conservation system, while the advantage to contractual partners is that SANParks stocks their land with wildlife and runs it according to its conservation principles.
“A contractual partner brings land into a national park. They also operate a business, usually a lodge with associated activities on the land, with the park receiving a percentage of the turnover,” Taplin said. “The advantage to SANParks is that we expand the park without having to purchase more land, and, we are able to offer more diversity of product to visitors, as with concessions.”
Although somewhat controversial at the time, the commercialisation strategy adopted by SANParks at all of its parks thirteen years ago has today resulted in increased tourism, improved infrastructure in these areas, more jobs for surrounding local communities and broadened black economic empowerment (BEE) participation.
Underlying the policy was the re-evaluation of what SANParks considered its core function – the management of biodiversity in protected areas and providing a foundation for tourism and recreation. Previously, the parks managed everything in the reserves, from doing laundry to fixing roads and providing hospitality services, often at significant financial loss.
The main camp of the park offers a wide variety of accommodation including chalets, rondavels, guest cottages, safari tents and forest cabins, to suit all tastes and pockets. It also runs at about 92% occupancy throughout the year, making it one of SANParks’ most popular rest camps.
A unique feature here is the waterhole lookout point that is floodlit at night, as well as an underground hideaway allowing close encounters with wildlife at the waterhole. Guests also have access to a popular a-la-carte restaurant offering contemporary food with an African influence and a curio shop, both of which are private concessions.
The park’s Matyholweni Rest Camp, located near the coastal town of Colchester at the Sundays River Mouth, provides a second gateway into the park.
“An agreement between the Mayibuye Ndlovu Development Trust and the park sees a percentage of the turnover from Matyholweni channelled for use in local community projects,” Taplin said. “The trust consists of representatives from eight surrounding communities, local government, the Sundays River Valley Tourism Forum and the park.”
For a secluded experience in magical forest, Narina Bush Camp at the foot of the Zuurberg Mountains and on the banks of the Wit River can be reached by car, hiking or horse trail. Visitors can access the camp by crossing a river bridge and walking about 500 metres through forest.
The Langebos huts are available to hikers on the two-day Alexandria Hiking Trail, as well as those simply wanting an overnight stay in the forest, while the seven kilometre Dassie Day Trail begins at the huts and the breathtaking Woody Cape coastline of the park is a short drive and walk away.
For a more rustic experience, try out Kabouga Cottage near the town of Kirkwood, or the Mvubu Campsite, nestled on the banks of the Sundays River.
Private concessions and contractual partners
Gorah Elephant Camp, the first private concession in the park, opened in 2000 within the main game area. It boasts ten luxurious tented suites and an elegant farmstead, restored to its 19th century colonial splendour. Guests can explore the bush with experienced rangers in open vehicles, on foot or horseback.
RiverBend Lodge, situated in the Nyati area of the Park, offers eight luxurious double suites and inter-leading rooms for families. Longhope Villa has a private house with its own guide and chef. Game drives are conducted inside the national park or in RiverBend’s 5 000 hectare reserve, which is teamed with giraffe, white rhino, gemsbok and the endangered bontebok.
Guests can also enjoy mountain drives and walks, tours to RiverBend Citrus Farm and cultural and historical excursions.
Nguni River Lodge has spectacular views over a pristine floodplain encircled by mountains. Its eight African-style suites offer spectacular views over a floodplain, with sightings of abundant wildlife. Guided game drives on open land rovers and walks led by professional guides offer close encounters with the Big Five and more.
The luxurious Darlington Lake Lodge, which offers only five en-suite rooms and seven en-suite tents, overlooks the lake. The lodge also has a fully equipped conference facility.
Intsomi Lodge is situated in the Alexandria Forest along the park’s coastal section. The 1 000 hectare property, Langvlakte, has been the site of recent wildlife introductions by the park. Eight luxury twin-bedded chalets are situated within the majestic indigenous forest.
Guests begin their journey at the forest, passing through a valley where indigenous antelope and zebra roam, continuing onto a grassy ridge to overlook an uninterrupted vista of the coastline. An impressive conference centre, in a hideaway setting, offers professional catering. Other activities on offer include guided walks, drives, hikes and horse trails.
For alternative nearby accommodation, ranging from comfortable to luxury, visit Greater Addo for a list of guesthouses, guest farms, hotels and game parks in the area.
This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, winter 2008 edition. Republished here with kind permission.