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Africa Geographic Travel

Written by Terry Stallard

Nestled in the northern end of Maputaland, lies Tembe Elephant Park, a unique community-run safari lodge co-owned and managed by the Tembe Tribal community.

A wooden “welcome” sign, beaming smiles, attention to detail and personal service fly the flag high for African hospitality.

Elephant park
In Tembe Elephant Park, the ‘Big Five’, the world’s biggest elephants and the friendly Thonga people welcome you!

Established in 1973, the park lies adjacent to Ndumo Game Reserve and is not far from the Mozambique border. The land is a confluence of tropical white sand, raphia palms, African bushveld and grasslands.

Tembe Elephant Park
Tembe Elephant Park boasts a very diverse landscape, ranging from thick forest to open savanna plains. Not a metre of tar exists in the park, so it is only accessible for 4×4 vehicles ensuring a ‘genuine wild Africa experience’.

Renowned for its large African tuskers (elephants with giant tusks), sand forests and tiny Suni antelope, the park’s webcam videos had piqued our curiosity to find out more about this 30,000-hectare reserve. We were grateful that Tailor Made Safaris had included two nights on our customised itinerary in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Tembe Elephant Park
This is what Tembe is famous for: these are the three biggest tuskers that roamed the park in recent years, named Isilo, Nduna and Mkadebona. Although they have now died due to natural causes, there are other big tuskers still to be found in Tembe today.

We eagerly stretched our legs after the four and a half hour drive from Durban and were assured that our 4×4 could navigate the sandy road. Those with low lying vehicles parked safely within a fenced area near the gate, and were transported to the camp.

It was apparent that the staff held the arrival and departure of guests in high esteem and we felt like royalty as we were chaperoned up the path to our luxury tent. Neatly secluded and positioned privately from the other tents, our abode was a luxurious haven of privacy with a screened outdoor shower and veranda.

Tembe Elephant Park, accommodation
Accommodation in Tembe is in luxury safari tents, each privately set away in the sand forest with en-suite bathroom and outdoor shower.

Very soon we were in the canvas-topped game drive vehicle. A cold front had blown in and we were grateful for the warm rugs and jackets. With cheerful disposition our guide informed us that a pride of lion had a new litter of cubs and had been seen frequently in a certain area.

Tembe Elephant Park, wildlife
All members of the ‘Big five’ roam free in Tembe, as well as black rhino and the rare suni antelope.

We headed out to the plains and came across a lone elephant bull meandering across a marsh. Historic tales of the age-old ivory trail cropped up as I marvelled at the weight of the ivory tusks. Further along, on the open plain, a large herd of buffalo lay nestled with their backs to the breeze. A highlight on the night drive back to camp was seeing a owl tucked up on a tree branch.

Tembe Elephant Park
On game drives you will, of course, find elephants, but also plenty of dung beetles which thrive on the copious amount of elephant dung everywhere. And if you’re really lucky, you may even see the African wild dog!

After dinner, the guests settled in comfortable camps chairs around the open-air fireplace. A myriad of stars twinkled beyond the tree tops and a low hum of African harmony swirled steadily closer. A Tembe choir group moved forward in rhythmic unison and enacted stories of Zulu legend through dance, song and mime. We were captivated. What colour, passion and commitment these young gentlemen expressed of their local tribe.

Tembe Elephant Park
Tembe Safari Lodge itself is set in a natural environment, giving that lovely ‘sand between your toes’ feeling. In the evenings, a local choir can perform acapella songs and dances.

The next day, after the early morning game drive and breakfast, we made our way back to the tent. My husband is a keen birder and he settled himself on the veranda with bird book and binoculars. Tembe has over 300 species of birds and the surrounding bush certainly emanated a diverse chorus.

I, on the other hand, had decided to indulge in the luxury of an outdoor massage. With delicate and professional service, I was transported into a perfect realm of relaxation.

Tembe Elephant Park
And should the excitement (or adrenaline!) get the most of you, why not relax by receiving a massage in the bush spa!

“Twinspot!” The exclamation roused me from my slumber as my husband enthused of the tiny bird hopping delicately in a thick bush next to our tent. A flock of crested guinea fowl comically nodded their heads in greeting as they passed by.

All too soon and the cycle of the following night and morning drive had passed. Yet, the warmth and hospitality experienced at Tembe made one feel that it was good to be in Africa!

Tembe Elephant Park
All in all, Tembe Elephant Park is a must visit for anyone passing through KwaZulu-Natal!

Tembe Elephant Park is featured in Tailor Made Safaris ‘Best of the Elephant Coast Tour’. 

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