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[MY TAKE] All about Addo Elephant National Park

Refilwe Thobega takes a breather from the rat race at the Nyathi Rest Camp in the Addo Elephant National Park.

Addo Elephant National Park. Picture: Addo Elephant National Park

It is not every day you are woken up by the sound of birds and the call of wild animals. Then you get out of bed, open the curtains and all you see is the backdrop of the Zuurberg mountains. Total bliss.

Sitting around the fire after an awesome meal, with a group of nature lovers, having great conversations and learning from each other's backgrounds, laughter filling up the place and just stars high above are what make a perfect night at Nyathi Rest Camp in the Addo Elephant National Park.

What's even more amazing is the lack of signal. Literally. Not that can stand on top of a hill and get signal. No. There is no signal, keeping you in total peace far away from the distractions that come with social media, the internet and technology.

This was my amazing reality for three days and two nights when I took part in the first official media visit to the rest camp after it was opened by the Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa in September 2016.

There is always a backstory, right.

Nyathi, which today boasts self-catering rooms with beautiful architecture and craftsmanship were once just walls and rubble, with only baboons as residents when the initial owners left. There was no hope of revival. Who could blame them?

Then South African National Parks (SANParks) built it from scratch and created the 5-star Nyathi Rest Camp.

You have to see it to believe it.

Picture: Refilwe Thobega/EWN

Addo Elephant National Park is about 30 kilometres outside of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, forming part of SANParks' collection of 19 parks.

Since 1931 the emphasis at Addo has been to save the Eastern Cape elephants from extinction. And that has been successful – the population has grown from 11 to more than 600 at present.

Picture: Addo Elephant National Park

Other park residents include 23 lions, about 1,000 buffalo, rhino, zebra, a range of buck, including about 2,000 kudu, and a variety of birds

For the past three years Addo Elephant National Park has been managed by Mzwandile Mjadu (54) who says that growing up, he had a great interest in animals and nature.

Mjadu says that no day at the 180,000 hectares park is ever the same as the previous day.

“You can’t get to everything that you want to get to all the time. I enjoy viewing the animals and I take interest in their wellbeing. One manages by wandering around.”

Picture: Addo Elephant National Park.

Last year Addo welcomed 265,000 visitors, up from 241,000 in the 2014/2015 year.

Mjadu says the park is doing its bit to attract visitors as there is still the misperception that the parks are only for the wealthy.

“We don’t have many black people visiting the parks," he says, adding this may be due to a lack of proper and adequate education.

What many may not know is that every September SANParks offers South Africans the opportunity to visit a park for a week without paying entrance fees. All they need to bring is their identity documents and enjoy nature at its best.

“I would love to see families coming in with picnic baskets, going through the park, riding on horses, going on game drives and enjoying the trails,” Mjadu says.

The park runs a programme in which they fetch school kids from the nearby communities and expose them to environmental education.

“The results of our efforts and this programme will definitely be realised over time. We are investing in the youth."

Anban Padayachee, senior section ranger at Addo Section, echoes the reality of many black South Africans not visiting the parks.

“My view is that at the moment South Africa does not have a strong middle class. But we won’t grow weary in the work that we do. We are conserving all of this. When the country gets to that point, of having a strong middle class and more people are employed and can afford to visit the parks – all of this will be waiting for them.”

WATCH: Inside Addo Elephant National Park and Nyathi

Addo is not immune to the biggest challenge that faces all national parks - rhino poaching. However, there is a team of dedicated field rangers trying to protect and conserve them.

“They sleep in strategic areas to guard the rhinos. They play a huge role – trying to defend the pride of the natural heritage,” explains Mjadu.

The park employs 146 permanent employees – most of them are from surrounding communities. And there are about 500 more working on the Expanded Public Works Programme.

There are many activities to try out when you visit the Nelson Mandela Bay area.

Make a stop at the not-to-be-missed Nanaga Farm Stall - famous for its mouthwatering pies, roosterkoeks and pineapple juice.

You could also enjoy a cruise on the Sundays River.

Or how about sandboarding on the highest and most untouched sand dunes in Southern Africa? Namibia has nothing on us.

Perhaps take a trip to Woody Cape Backpackers and the coastline. Or drive through to Langebos Huts to experience the feel of the forest.

Picture: Refilwe Thobega/EWN

And for the adrenaline junkies who seek the ultimate rush, you could move 500 metres down the longest double zip line in South Africa. This comes after 15-minute hike. And when you get to the top and take a very rare look down you realise and appreciate that all the sweat and pain up the mountain was worth it.

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