Tuesday, March 26, 2013

River Bend Lodge, Addo Elephant Park – Jeremy Williamson

Ideally located immediately opposite the entrance gates to Addo Elephant National Park Main Camp gates, is the privately run, Five Star, River Bend Lodge. Set in a 14,000 ha private concession within the greater Addo Elephant National Park, from this venue one is able to experience Addo in superb luxury.

The Addo Elephant National Park is South Africa's 3rd largest National Park - originally proclaimed in 1931, in desperation to save the last remaining cape Elephant, with possibly only 11 of these large pachyderms left in that area. What a success story. There are now in excess of 500 and in order to broaden their genetic diversity, some bulls from the Kruger National Park have relatively recently been introduced. With the decimation of the elephant herds in the 1800's and early 1900's, with primarily the larger tuskers being sought after, those remaining genetically produce progeny with smaller tusks whilst some have none. So with these new Kruger Park elephant's genes, the genetics could in time return to normal. This is the same species Loxodonta africana we all know and love, as the genetics were originally modified by man's intervention, I believe this to be a sensible and acceptable correction of the malady.

One of the Kruger Park bulls
Other animals have also been brought back to Addo from local extinction, one of the most significant being the African lion - Pantera pardus, thus escalating the Park to Big Five status, almost a prerequisite for international guests. So convenient too, no need now for those wishing to only visit the Cape to have to travel further. The area is slowly getting back to what it must have been like before man's destruction of the wildlife.

The Park is presently 180,000 ha with plans to enlarge the protected area to 264,000 ha progressing well. This Greater Addo area includes St Croix and Bird Islands, just off the coast, these islands host the largest breeding colony of the Cape Gannet and second largest breeding colony of African Penguin. With this diversity of biomes in the area, with hosting the Big 7, elephant, rhino (both black and white) lion, leopard, buffalo, whales and the great white shark and then a very large diversity of antelope species as well, the Addo area has become a rewarding wildlife destination. Some specials too and some very threatened, such as the Addo flightless dung beetle ! Beyond Addo there are a number of Private Game Parks, many already removing the dividing fences from neighboring properties and creating a vast protected area, a huge plus for biodiversity ..and the area is Malaria free too !!

The breakfast and luncheon veranda venue
At River Bend Lodge all the accommodation is in very comfortable chalets, slightly away from the Main Lodge area, affording privacy,

 all the chalets are air conditioned as well as having ceiling fans, each with expansive views out into the reserve.

In the rooms there is a mini bar, satellite TV, loads of space, comfortable chairs with the bathrooms en-suite with separate bath and shower, some also have outdoor showers whilst the Honeymoon Suite has a private plunge pool.

 Then the comfort and soaps and... The luxury suites are made up of two adjacent units with inter-leading doors if required, ideal for families. Set in the grounds of a farmstead of old, there is a beautiful established garden with some large trees which attract a number of diverse bird species.

The Lodge is fenced, entrenching it’s suitability as an ideal venue for children and so easily accessible, being only some 45 minutes drive from Port Elizabeth. Although Five Star, the Lodge is comfortable and casual, there is a TV lounge “for sport enthusiasts”,

lovely deep verandas where one may sit and relax, watching the passing parade,

 more lounges, all with super comfortable couches and  chairs,

 a lovely loft library

and then a sheltered pool area, again with comfortable recliners. A place to relax between those game drives!

Lana and I entered the concession just before 14h00 (check-in time) and drove the 3,5 kms to the Lodge gates. On the left just before River Bend Lodge is a water-hole right next to the road, as we drove up, a herd of approx 80 elephant were there drinking and doing elephant things. With the herd milling around and our cameras safely ensconced in their cases in the boot, a wonderful photo opportunity missed. As we watched, the matriarch led the herd away and into the bush – we were not to see them again.

A warm welcome from Tariro Chaonwa, a welcome drink, check in, she then took us on a tour to familiarise Lana and I on the Lodge facilities, with easy access to our chalet, we settled into our room,  with cameras now ready, a quick nap? Lunch is not included on the first day, although Tariro offered to arrange for the kitchens to make somethingg should we be starving -  and so instead to the gourmet high tea on the main Lodge veranda before departure on the Game drive.

 There is a convenient water-hole just beyond the fence, lovely, tea, cake and delicacies with a view, but unfortunately no visitors today. In the distance one could see some plains game, so with anticipation we prepared for the afternoon game drive. This was to be on the River Bend Lodge concession. Speckboom - Portulacaria afra is relatively abundant amongst dense stands of other low woody shrubs, with the grass component rather poorly developed. The Speckboom has been the saving grace of the area, as it is favored as browse by so many of the resident species from black rhino to kudu to just so many of the thriving populations.
Our guide was determined for us to have a better elephant sighting than the one both parties (ourselves and a Honeymoon couple) on the vehicle, had experienced on the way in, so we spent some of the afternoon searching for this elusive herd that had melted away. There were however some really wonderful opportunities to see some of the general game in reasonable numbers, in good light.

Yellow mongoose
Eland herd

Our game drive and sightings were all in this elongated narrow strip between the fence / R342 and the Zuurberg Mountains which is rather inaccessible in parts and to where the elephant had retreated, returning to their hiding place. We were fortunate to have seen them at the water-hole on arrival. This is not really a problem for the Lodge though, as the game drives can alternatively be conducted inside the main Addo Elephant Park, where normally excellent sightings of elephant may be enjoyed. We did however find a lone elephant bull who obligingly posed for us.

Pale chanting Goshawk
Juvenile Blue Crane
Back to the Lodge and a divine dinner. It is in the culinary department that the Lodge excels.Imagine after a delicious cauliflower soup to have as one of the starter choices; Parma Ham, crispy egg, pea mousse and Truffle dressing. The "Crispy Egg", was intriguing, this was a 'boiled' ? egg cooked with a soft center, with a delicious golden, crispy crunchy coating on the outside. Want the recipe? An early Easter surprise. I have been practicing upping the status of my modest breakfast egg.

What a delicious line up on the Menu for mains. Roast Sirloin, my choice, done to rare perfection and so tender, but there was a Moroccan spiced Line Fish or even a Mushroom Risotto mit trimmings. The dessert was a beautifully presented caramelised Apple Tart, vanilla Struzzel and Creme Anglaise. There was also a selection of cheeses too. Well considered wines as an accompaniment were suggested, an excellent recommendation. A delicious and beautifully presented meal in a fine convivial dining room, decorated with period furniture and with service of a high standard... then to bed, to the comfortable suite and slumberland.

An early start and we were on a mission, this time to find lion. These felines have recently been introduced and are yet to multiply in this sector of the Park. They will. We did not find them. I am inclined, when visiting our game parks, to appreciate the animals as they are discovered, to sit and watch and appreciate them and then move on.

The lovely early morning light offered some super opportunities, we were fortunate to be able to snatch the odd photograph. Yes, antelope, jackal, baboon, birds and such are rather high on my list of animals to see and photograph – especially in that golden light as the sun peeps over the horizon.

Take each sighting as it is presented, it could well be the most pleasant.

Leopard tortoise
Black backed Jackal
Back to the Lodge for breakfast, a rather delightful affair looking out over the bushveld and beyond. I am sure with more time we would have been able to see more of the species in the area, with a trip to Addo Elephant Park possibly a bonus, from this venue. This Lodge would be an excellent choice for those wanting five star accommodation and superb meals vs staying at the National Park accommodation and driving ones-self. Beautifully appointed with excellent service, guided game drives, well priced, this convenient luxury Lodge is highly recommended.

Photographs : Jeremy and Lana Williamson