Home of Big Tuskers, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa

Visit the legendary Ivory Route where the great tuskers still tramp their ancient pathways through dense sand-forest and tall yellow grass.

I am passionate about Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), a province in South Africa which has a diverse offering of awesome travel destinations and experiences.  Bush, Beach, Mountains, Lakes, Dams, Culture, Conservation, World Heritage Sites, it has a fantastic climate and friendly people and is easy to access by road and air.  Kwa-Zulu Natal really does have it all and having travelled all over South Africa, I can honestly say this is one of the most beautiful provinces and well worth visiting. 

I’d love to share my knowledge and inspire you to visit of some of these awesome destinations in KZN and if you are a local resident and reading these posts, please keep reading – you may be surprised just how many destinations you don’t know about and / or haven’t yet explored.  You don’t have to travel far if you live in KZN to have the most fantastic getaway and with our current Covid lockdown situation, we really do need to be looking at supporting our local destinations once we are permitted to travel again. 

The first destination I’m going to share with you is a place that holds a very special place in my heart and one that I call my second home having spent much time here as an Honorary Officer for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife supporting and assisting management and staff in their conservation efforts as a volunteer over the past 12 years, 8 of those as secretary for the Honorary Officer Group.  Also home to some of Africa’s largest elephants, elephants that were the last naturally occurring free roaming elephants in KZN, this wilderness area is aptly called Tembe Elephant Park.

Tembe Elephant Park, under the custodianship of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, is situated within Maputaland, previously known as Tongaland, in the extreme northern part of KwaZulu-Natal.  The elephants found in Tembe are one of only three naturally occurring populations of elephant in South Africa, and the only indigenous, free-roaming elephants of the KwaZulu Natal Province.  Tembe became a “Big 5” reserve in 2002 and is named after the late Inkosi Msimba Tembe, leader of one of the largest Tonga clans. 

This 30 013ha reserve was proclaimed in October 1983 to protect the lives and property of the local people from damage and injury from elephant, preserve the last naturally occurring population of African elephant in KwaZulu-Natal, protect one of the largest populations of Livingstone’s Suni in southern Africa, as well as other wildlife which occurs in the area, and preserve and protect the unique sand forest. 

A “Tusker” is an Elephant whose Tusks exceed 100lbs (45.45kg).  Isilo (“Isilo” means Zulu for King) was the largest Elephant Tusker in Southern Africa and together with the late Induna and Mkadebona, they were some of the greatest tuskers in Southern Africa.  It is an intriguing journey searching for these big tuskers and discovering the Big 5 and other wildlife species that trample these ancient pathways in the ancient Tembe Elephant Park wildlife paths.

There is only one private lodge in Tembe Elephant Park called Tembe Safari Lodge.  It is unique as it is the only community-owned full-service game lodge inside a proclaimed game reserve. In Tembe terms, this means that the lodge is right in the middle of unspoiled bush, with the trees and grasses of old Africa nestling right up against your luxury tent.

Tent? Don’t worry… this certainly is not ‘camping’ but ‘glamping’ as many people refer to sleeping under canvas on comfy beds with an en suite bathroom and private verandah area.   There are 4 types of luxury tents accommodating single travellers, couples and families, varying in size.  All have an en suite bathroom consisting of an inside toilet and basin and an outside walk in shower.  The outside shower is very private with high stone walls and the only ones that may be peeking are the bushbabies and birds.  There is something really special showering under the stars with only the sound of the water and the bush.  One of my favourite things to do is enjoy a hot shower in the crisp night air, take a deep breath, look up and give thanks for the privilege and opportunity to be able to be in the bush, to be surrounded by nature, a place where I feel totally at peace, fulfilled and inspired to inspire others to explore and experience ‘real’ wild Africa. 

The main lodge area has a wonderful open air outside boma where the bonfire is lit before dinner where you can enjoy catching up with other guests over a cold drink, a thatched dining and bar area and rustic thatched lounge.  Tembe is primarily a sand forest so do remember that pathways are sandy and they are well lit up at night.  If you have mobility issues, be sure to say so, so that you can be accommodated closer to the main area.  The camp is often visited by Nyala, Guinefowl, Samango monkeys and diverse birdlife and in the evenings, the bushbabies visit during dinner times which is particularly special watching them peeking at you, exploring the trees and enjoying the spoils left out for them.  There is also a small swimming pool accessed along one of the pathways which is very welcome, particularly in the summer months when temperatures can be in the high 30’s, early 40’s (celcius).  Some of the tents actually have private rustic spa areas so if you would like to indulge in some ‘me’ time and really get into a relaxed mode, make sure you get a tent with your own spa area – the ladies here really do spoil you with their relaxing massages.  The lodge grounds are enclosed by a fence to keep the elephants, lions and other wildlife out and guests in and safe.  Some evenings, you are entertained by the Tembe dancers who are a local group who visit the lodge by request and re-enact folklore stories in song and dance. You will be entranced by the African rhythms and the eloquent dancers dressed in Thonga/Zulu regalia – skins and furs; wielding shields and spears. All tips received from the audience are put into a fund that buys school uniforms for the local children who cannot afford to buy their own.

Tembe’s activities consist of 4×4 game drives and what makes Tembe safari game drives unique is that your guide and tracker will have grown up in Tembe, and therefore they are showing you their ‘back yard.’ Combined with this local knowledge is the pride of anyone welcoming visitors to their home. In an open game drive vehicle they will take you into the park, on the sandy 4×4 roads, through sandforests, swamp areas, closed and open woodlands and will stop in to the various waterholes and pans. 

There are two wildlife viewing hides, one in the Southern Section of the park called Mahlasela Hide and the other in the middle of the park and the northern most point that guests can access, called Ponweni Hide.  Both are worth a visit and both worth sitting at with a pair of binos, camera, flask of coffee (or G&T if its’ sundowner time), bird book and snacks.   Take time to sit at the hides, maybe for an hour or two, listening to the sounds of silence, the gentle chirping of birds, the odd crack of a stick or breaking branches as wildlife make their way down to the waterholes, watching the streams of impala and nyala coming to the water to drink and play, the odd warthog rolling in the mud, waterbuck cautiously approaching, listening to the clash of ivory as young elephants test their strength by placing their trunks on eachothers heads and pushing their opponents back and watching the antics of wildlife on the natural stage in front of you.  I find that the best time of day to visit the waterholes is around 11am when the elephants seem to hang about. 

There are numerous waterholes within the park, some of which hold water longer than others after the rains. Mfungeni, Ezinaleni and Zimambeni pans are all good spots to look for game that come to drink or wallow.  Mfungeni pan is supplemented year round, so provides exceptional game viewing.  I have had a couple of incredible experiences sitting at Mfungeni Pan in my vehicle, one being lions stalking bushbuck and all the time hoping they would rather prey on the numerous nyala around the pan and the other with a bachelor herd surrounding my vehicle, not by choice mind but wasn’t quick enough to reverse out of the way so I had to stay put, engine off! I asked my passengers to keep dead still, limbs inside the vehicle and not to make any sudden noises or moves.  These elephant were very chilled but very inquisitive and one of the eles were quite keen on putting his trunk through the passenger window which I quickly put up inches before he did.  Needless to say, my passenger didn’t dare move, and hardly breathed! The sniffing of my vehicle went on for a good 10 minutes and I’m sure the ele heard my heart beating!  The elephant were completely silent and you could just hear the shuffling of their feet and skin against skin before they were content that they had finished exploring my vehicle and quietly went on their way.  I think my passenger changed his underpants as soon as we got back to camp! Moral of the story, anticipate and get out of the pathway… if you can! 

I’ve had so many wonderful, memorable experiences in Tembe from lions stalking buffalo, lion kills, inquisitive lion cubs approaching the vehicle, elephant encounters, amazing sightings of suni, sightings of playful bushbabies in camp, inquisitive samango monkeys, gaboon viper encounter (beautiful viper but scary to encounter I must admit), huge python sightings, big tusker sightings, the first ever wild dog pack release into Tembe after looking after them in the boma, tree climbing lion sightings, being charged by lion on foot whilst feeding the wild dog in the boma with our conservation manager, wild dog collaring, wildlife monitoring, lion callups and collaring, and so much more.   I feel privileged to be a part of the conservation of this very special, unique and wild wilderness area where I know that my family and I have made a notable difference in conservation.

You can also self-drive in the park if you have a 4×4 and one of the most popular routes are East and West Swamp Roads – This route loops around the Muzi swamp in the east of the park and is popular for game viewing due to the open nature of the terrain.  Lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo are frequently seen along both East and West swamp roads, and at Tembu crossing where the two roads meet. Look out for common reedbuck and marsh-dwelling birds in the reed beds.

For bird lovers, the Sand Forest Drive passes through patches of mature sand forest habitat in the west of the park on the Gowanini loop, past the water tower, the birding along this route is excellent and many of the sought after summer migrants and rare endemic species can be found within the sand forests. Look out for the following: Plain-backed Sunbird, Woodward’s Batis, Wood Owl, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Broadbilled Roller, African Barred Owlet and African Broadbill.   Early morning drives are a good time to see the elusive suni, side-striped jackal, red and grey duiker and two species of nocturnal Galago (also known as bushbabies) may also be seen early morning or late afternoon.   My most special bird sighting is a pair of Bateleurs who sit in the same tree on a certain road at a certain time of the day and that’s when I go out early mornings to fetch staff and they are 9 x out of 10 in what I call the Bateleur tree – a dead tree in the middle of the bush on the side of the sand road that I travel. 

When you arrive at Tembe, you will sign in at the reception centre, a building we are very proud of as the Honorary Officers upgraded this shell of a building into a warm and welcoming reception centre area – take a little time to look at the photos and purchase a visitor guide, a booklet I have put together and we are on our 2nd edition and one I’m immensely proud of and by purchasing a booklet, you are contributing to one of our fundraising initiatives which fund the various projects we have undertaken in the park from maintenance of ranger camps, maintenance of fences, plumbing work, electrical work, veterinary assistance, research initiatives etc.  If you have a 4×4, you are welcome to drive to the lodge yourself (please do deflate your tyres as this is 4×4 territory), and make way for dung beetles and other wildlife en route – the drive is a short +/-10 minute drive from the gate.  If you don’t have a 4×4 or would prefer to leave your vehicle near the main entrance, we have secure parking behind our conference centre and offices. 

When you arrive at the lodge, you are cheerfully greeted by the Tembe staff who sing and welcome you with refreshing towels and warm smiles.  This really does set the tone for your stay at Tembe – kick off your shoes, feel the sand between your toes, take a deep breath and let it out, together with all your worries and let it all go, allow yourself to take time out for yourself and embrace the bush and what it will present to you during your time here.  This truly is a special wilderness and I really hope it touches your life in a special, meaningful way. 

Tembe In Summary:

  • 4 1/2 hours drive from Durban, towards Kosi Bay
  • Big 5 reserve
  • Home to some of Africa’s big tuskers
  • Home to the second smallest antelope, the Suni
  • 340 bird species
  • Community-owned lodge
  • 340 bird species
  • Rustic camp
  • Luxury tented accommodation
  • 4×4 sand roads – no tar roads
  • Private spa areas behind certain rooms
  • Local Tembe guides – knowledgeable, experienced, friendly
  • 3 wholesome meals included
  • 2 game drives daily + wildlife hide visits included
  • Teas/Coffees included

For more info, you are welcome to contact me at info@africamemoriestravel.com / 084 510 9775.