A recent knee injury (and a complete lack of riding skills) had made me a little nervous about my ride through the Addo Elephant National Park.
At first, I kept my eyes firmly on the horizon, which bobbed up and down with the rhythm of my horse, Girlie, a quiet, sturdy mount. Trails guide Thando Ndamo grew up with horses and has been riding more or less since he can remember. His advice was just to relax and enjoy the experience. As we ambled along the fence-line, he began pointing out plants and flowers, and slowly my eyes began to open to the world around me.
The park is famous for its elephants, flightless dung beetles and other wild creatures, but the focus of our horseback trail was on the landscape and vegetation. While there are spectacular hikes in other sections of the park, the thick bush in Addo’s main game area means it’s not ideal for guided walks, because it’s just too hard to see what’s hidden in the thickets.
When you’re on horseback, your vantage point changes, but you’re still immersed in the environment. The lions were close to the main camp, so we stayed on the safe side of the boundary fence. In the two hours that we were out, the gentle, undulating landscape revealed a colourful world of wild flowers and birdsong that was enchanting.
First, I noticed the clusters of sweet thorns ( Acacia karroo), which Thando described as a particularly useful tree. They were just starting to bud, but soon they’ll be a mass of yellow pompoms. Its thorns, which are technically called spines, were several inches long and had tiny insects nesting in them.
According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), it’s an indicator of sweet veld, which is good for grazing. The plant gets its common name from the gum that is exuded from wounds in its bark. Apparently, this gum tastes quite pleasant and is eaten by people and animals, while honey made from it has a wonderful taste and texture. The sweet thorn also has many medicinal uses, ranging from wound poultices to eye treatments and cold remedies.
The spekboom (Portulacaria afra) was ubiquitous and we stopped to examine its small, star-shaped dusky pink buds, which were buzzing with insects and birds attracted by the sweet nectar.
This fascinating plant forms an important part of the diet of the Addo elephants. According to SANBI, their top-down browsing habits help the plant to spread and thrive. Its leaves apparently have a tart flavour that tortoises particularly like, and sucking on a leaf is said to quench thirst, and treat exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke. It’s also apparently an excellent 'carbon sponge' that can sequestrate free carbon from the atmosphere in a particularly efficient way – which means that a stand of spekboom (translated as 'bacon bush' in English) can apparently remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an equal amount of deciduous forest.
Other common species I noticed on the trail were part of the family Mesembryanthemaceae, also known as either mesembs, fig marigold, midday flower or ice plant, and as vygie (little fig) in Afrikaans. They only open in full sunlight. They have succulent leaves, bright, shiny petalled flowers and hygrochastic fruit (capsules that open when it rains). According to SANBI, the Mesembryanthemaceae 'form a major and unique component of southern Africa's arid land flora. Mesembs are extremely diverse, particularly so in the Succulent Karoo region, although they have a strong presence in the fynbos.'
When you’re on horseback, your vantage point changes, but you’re still immersed in the environment.
When my ride was over, I spent the short walk back from the stable to the main camp taking photographs of some of the blooms, which up close reveal exquisite detail, and from afar merge into a textured mass of yellows, greens and mauves. It can be risky to identify flowers on a species level as I am not an expert and there are many variants, so I’m still busy with most of them.
While other national parks, like Tankwa Karoo, Namaqua, West Coast and even the Karoo, are well known for their flowers, Addo’s array of blooms came as a surprise to me. The fields of flowers and flowering spekboom made a gorgeous backdrop for the elephants and other animals that I saw later on a game drive through the park, while the bird and insect life was phenomenal.
In total, Addo also protects representative areas of five of South Africa’s nine biomes: Albany thicket in the original Addo section (also in the Kabouga, Colchester, Nyathi sections); fynbos in the Zuurberg section; forest in the Woody Cape area and Zuurberg section; Nama Karoo in the Darlington section and Kuzuko Contractual Area of the Park; while the Indian Ocean Coastal Belt is made up of coastal dunes and coastal grassy plains. You can read more on the South African National Parks website ... and in just a few clicks, can book your stay.
I visited Addo Elephant National Park on a trip hosted by Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism as part of a group of bloggers. You can follow our Twitter and Instagram posts under the hashtag '#PErocks'.