In the far north of Kwazulu-Natal province, on the border with Mozambique, lies a uniquely beautiful, but little known, wilderness gem. Diminutive suni antelope forage along the sandy forest floor, a reminder that this area was an ancient seabed millions of years ago. Magnificent elephants carrying impressive ivory amble through the thickets, undeniably the star attractions of this show, while lions loudly proclaim their rule over the marshes and pans.
This is the Tembe Elephant Park.
Leopard, buffalo and rhinoceros (both black and white) complete the “Big 5”, while giraffe, plains zebra, hippo, warthogs and several kinds of antelope, including massive numbers of nyala and impala, have found sanctuary here. The incredible variety of habitats found in this area – sand forests, extensive stands of palms, dense woodland, open bushveld, the expansive Muzi marshes and seasonal waterholes – abounds with birdlife, and over 340 species have been identified here already, including some rarities like the African Broadbill.
For centuries humans and elephants have shared this piece of Maputaland, although never harmoniously, as conflict arose around shared water sources and when elephants raided the crops on which the people relied. This changed in 1983, when Chief Mzimba Tembe set aside 30,000 hectares of tribal land as a refuge for the last remaining free roaming elephants in this part of the continent. His community agreed to resettle outside the reserve so that its boundaries could be fenced and animals that had long been exterminated from the area could be reintroduced. Not only was this a visionary investment in the wellbeing of his people, but Chief Tembe also gave a precious gift to the people of South Africa and the world. Today the reserve and lodge still belong to the Tembe people, who benefit from employment in the tourism and conservation sectors, the natural resources protected there and the profits generated through tourism.
The elephants now number more than 250 animals, and Tembe has become renowned for the large number of elephant bulls carrying impressive ivory. As an added bonus, these beautiful animals are extremely relaxed in the company of people – be ready for some close-up encounters when coming to Tembe!
Upon arrival around noon, the warm welcome we received from the officials at the gate immediately made us feel right at home. Formalities completed, the lodge was informed of our arrival and within minutes our transport had arrived. Only 4 x 4 vehicles are allowed on the extremely sandy tracks inside the reserve and we were therefore escorted to a secure parking area near the gate where we could safely leave our vehicle.
Transferred into the game-drive vehicle we departed for the nearby lodge, but almost immediately encountered a massive elephant, named Ucici, walking along the road in our direction. Guide Vusi switched off the engine and we sat absolutely mesmerised as the huge tusker came confidently ever closer, eventually stopping a mere meter or two away from us, before moving to the side of the road so that we could pass, not in the least perturbed by our presence. What a welcome!
At the lodge, some of the staff members had gathered to greet us on with traditional song and dance. After checking in and enjoying a nice cool drink of fruit juice we were escorted to our accommodation – a beautifully decorated, and very roomy, safari tent with en-suite bathroom, to which our luggage had already been delivered – to settle in before lunch and the afternoon game drive.
Not even an hour has passed since our arrival, and already the scenery, wildlife and warm people of Tembe have made a deep impression on all of us. We had three nights to spend here, and it was clear that we were going to enjoy every minute of it.
We quickly settled into the lodge’s leisurely routine. An early morning wake-up call is available, but being early birds you’d have to be up pretty early yourself if you wanted to wake up the de Wets! Before setting off on the early morning game drive at first light, guests can help themselves to a selection of cereals, toast, fruit salad and yoghurt to put pay to any hunger pangs that might have arisen through the night.
Clambering into the game-viewing vehicle everyone gets a blanket to keep the worst of the cool morning air at bay before heading into the wilderness, the guides scanning the sandy tracks for fresh signs of predators. Our guide Patrick and soft-spoken tracker Nkosi was born and raised in the Tembe area and thanks to their excellent knowledge of the plants, animals and culture of Tembe, and their warm and friendly nature, every drive turned out to be a most pleasant experience.
Half-way through the morning drive the guides will park at a lovely spot where hot coffee, tea and rusks are by now a very welcome treat before heading back to camp. Have you ever enjoyed your morning tea accompanied by the roaring of two magnificent wild lions just meters away? Thanks to Tembe we can now say that we have!
On arrival back at the lodge, guests head for the dining area where a full English breakfast, nicely rounded off with a bran muffin or two, will be served.
Guests then have the late morning and early afternoon to laze around the camp – a small library, a couple of reed enclosed lounges and a sparkling pool are available for guests’ enjoyment or you could head to your secluded safari tent to relax on the veranda. You can even arrange for a massage or you could also ask your guide to deliver you to the hide at Mahlasela Pan to spend a couple of hours there watching the animals and birds come and go. We enjoyed walking around the camp grounds taking in the rich fauna and flora.
Everyone gets together in the dining area for lunch at around 2pm. Who knew that Kudu Burgers are that delicious!? The lodge staff will go out of their way to ensure that every guest’s specific dietary preferences are met, so don’t worry that you’ll go hungry if you like vegetables more than meat!
It’s time again to head off into the bush in search of Tembe’s feathered, hooved, tusked and clawed inhabitants. It was during one of our afternoon drives that we encountered the magnificent elephant bull Isilo, South Africa’s biggest living tusker. Just as the sun reaches the western horizon there’s time to park off again in another beautiful location and enjoy a cold refreshment while taking in the unparalleled beauty of an African sunset. With darkness now swallowing the wilderness the spotlight comes out for the drive back to the lodge, picking up the eye-shine of some of Tembe’s nocturnal animals and birds along the way.
On arrival back at camp, a very inviting camp fire awaits the guests and quickly everyone is relaxing around it, excitedly chatting about their day as if they were old friends who have known each other for years. As soon as dinner is ready the camp staff comes around, inviting everyone to their tables. More mouth-watering meals; kudu wors and steak, impala kebabs and chops, all served with crisp home-grown vegetables, salads and maize porridge, the African staple, to be enjoyed under the curious gaze of the bush babies clambering around the trees that surround the dining area. Of course you’d expect a delicious desert at the end of such a delectable meal, and the Tembe staff won’t disappoint in that arena either!
Three guests were lucky enough to celebrate their birthdays at Tembe during our stay. After dinner, the lodge staff presented them each with a beautifully decorated cake accompanied by the obligatory “Happy Birthday” songs in English and Zulu. After the meal, it’s time for entertainment in the form of traditional Zulu song and dance performed by artists from the Tembe community.
Retiring to your accommodations for the night, you will find the beds neatly turned down, the electric blankets heating it all cosily, and on your pillow a small chocolate and short note with information about Tembe’s people and animals.
Now that’s a routine we could all get used to. Lying in bed at night, listening to the far off wailing of a bush baby or hearing a tree snapped nearby by a foraging tusker, city life and its daily grind is but a distant memory…
Be warned – leaving Tembe is bound to be a lump-in-the-throat affair. Being seen off by the staff in front of the lodge, wishing you a safe trip and hoping to see you again soon, you’ll already be making plans to return to this beautiful place, its amazing wildlife and the warm, hospitable people who are so proud of their culture and their reserve, and what they have achieved here.
Marilize has already made arrangements to include Tembe in the portfolio of destinations she offers her clients, secure in the knowledge that they’d be treated like royalty for every minute of their stay at South Africa’s most affordable full service game lodge in a “Big-5’ game reserve, while enjoying breath-taking encounters with legendary wildlife and a glimpse into fascinating local culture.
When you start putting together your bucket list, be sure to leave a space for Tembe near the top!