Port Elizabeth - Weighing up to 7 000kg and measuring four metres at the shoulder, an African bull elephant can eat 200 kilograms of plants and drink about 200 litres of water a day.
Elephants are very, very big.
But statistics and adjectives cannot prepare one fully for a close encounter with Earth’s largest land animal.
Wild elephants command attention and respect like no other creature. And in Addo Elephant National Park, just 50km north-east of Port Elizabeth, there’s every chance of getting near them.
My guide was Martin Bronkhorst from the Gorah Elephant Camp, a beautiful private lodge in the east of the park where I was staying. On an afternoon drive, we spotted a lone bull.
Bronkhorst slowed down and stopped just a few metres away.
The bull stopped feeding and came ambling over to us, standing alongside the vehicle. An elephantine eclipse blocked out the sun. His tusk almost scraped the top of the Land Rover’s bonnet.
“He seems to be enjoying our company,” Bronkhorst whispered.
“I hope he is,” I replied softly.
After a few minutes, the bull sauntered down the road, as if on his way to another appointment.
“Incredible, hey?” Bronkhorst smiled. “These Addo elephants are very friendly. And that’s something of a miracle considering everything they’ve been through.”
If it’s true that an elephant never forgets – as the saying goes – then these must be very forgiving.
According to Lyall Watson’s excellent book Elephantoms, in the early 1700s there were probably several thousand ranging across the Eastern and Western Cape.
When the Europeans arrived 400 years ago, the slaughter began.
The last elephant in Cape Town was shot in 1652 and hunters moved steadily up the east coast.
By 1915, there were probably no more than 130 near Addo, the last major population in the region.
Here the animals hid in the dense spekboom, a rubbery, near-impenetrable succulent bush. Surrounded by citrus farmers, the elephants had nowhere to go. At night they’d emerge from the thicket and raid the orchards.
Soon farmers were petitioning the government to kill all the elephants. A hunter – Major PJ Pretorius – was employed by the Administrator of the Cape Colony to do so. Between 1919 and 1920, he shot 114 elephants with his 475 Jeffries double-barrelled rifle, and captured two calves to be sold to the Boswell Circus. At the end of the macabre year, just 16 were left.
It took another decade before authorities saw the need to save the last of the Cape’s elephants; in 1931 the Addo Elephant National Park was proclaimed.
For several decades, however, the elephants feared or hated anything that looked or smelled like a human. They would chase people and turn cars over. And who would blame them.
Today more than 600 elephants roam the park, moving peacefully among the vehicles of more than 140 000 tourists a year. The park has grown considerably since proclamation, today stretching roughly 150km across a highly diverse set of ecosystems.
For Addo, see www.sanparks.org.