Expert Reviews – Tembe Elephant Park

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Southern Africa’s largest tuskers
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Zululand’s counterpart to Addo Elephant National Park is the little-known Tembe Elephant Park. Tembe protects an elephant population that once ranged freely into neighboring Mozambique and is famed for producing massive tuskers. Indeed, about 10 years back, the park provided sanctuary to the three largest tuskers in southern Africa: Isilo, Induna and Makobona. The members of this legendary trio have since died of natural causes, but there are still plenty of impressive bulls with gigantic tusks. Probably the most reliable spot for elephant viewing is Mahlasela Hide. On the day we spent there a few years back, close on 100 individuals came past. Herds might be encountered anywhere in the park though.

Other wildlife is more difficult to spot. All the Big Five are present, but over the course of two visits, I have only encountered lion and buffalo once each, and I’ve yet to see a leopard or rhino. The reserve supports a dense population of nyala, a handsome antelope characteristic of Zululand. On our most recent visit, we saw two troops of samango monkey, a species that is very rare in South Africa. Birding is potentially exceptional. The park is home to several localized bird species associated with the sand forest in northern Zululand. In general, guided drives tend to focus on looking for elephant and other large mammals.

Tembe stands out for its remote location, relatively low tourist volumes and genuine wilderness feel (access is by 4x4 only). In addition, the local Tembe community operates a wonderful tented camp that offers very sensibly priced packages inclusive of meals and game drives. Birding in the camp can be rewarding and it is also often visited by bush babies at night. All in all, this is a low-key delight. For those not in a rush to tick off the so-called Big Five, the elephant viewing can be superb.

Walk of the elephants
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Located on the border with Mozambique, Tembe Elephant Park is by far the best government-run game park for the Big Five in KwaZulu-Natal. In my opinion, it also comes a pretty close second to Kruger. Beyond the park’s namesake Elephant, the park is also home to larger mammals such as zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and hippo as well as a variety of antelope species including the world’s smallest antelope – the Suni which stands about 12-17 inches high to its shoulder. Noted for its vast swamplands and spectacular sand forests dominated by thickets of tall trees, Tembe is a wild, remote place that is very special indeed. Its true beauty, however, is only revealed if you allow yourself the time to spend a couple of nights in the park.

The sand forest home to South Africa’s last big tuskers
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This little-known park bordering Mozambique was proclaimed in 1983 to protect South Africa’s last free-roaming elephants. Today, Tembe is a Big Five Reserve and lots of other wildlife has been reintroduced, but it’s still the elephants that steal the show. These elephants are enormous and they carry seriously big tusks, some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. The best viewing of elephants is from a hide overlooking a large waterhole. One morning, I saw several bulls coming to drink alone or in small groups. A big breeding herd then stayed around for a long time as they enjoyed cooling down in the water.

Aside from giving a home to these special elephants, Tembe’s main importance lies in protecting the largest tract of sand forest in South Africa. This delicate environment is home to an impressive variety of rare flora and fauna and the birding is phenomenal. The gracious nyala is very common and this is also a prime habitat for the secretive red duiker. Even more special is the chance to see one of Africa’s smallest antelopes, the suni. I was lucky to see this shy territorial creature scurrying around camp at dusk.

Excellent elephant action at waterholes and quiet bush atmosphere
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This is a fairly remote, small park in Maputaland, on the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique. While not teeming with plains game like some of the larger savannah parks in South Africa, it is home to the Big 5 in an area of sand forests, pans and wetlands. Elephants of course are the stars of the show, and there are some especially large individuals at that. The organized game drives from the one lodge gets visitors to them quickly, to watch the magical displays of families frolicking at the waterholes. The attractive nyala antelope is also a common resident, and I enjoyed the lovely sight of them skipping through the sandy bush. Sightings of other large mammals are fairly rare though – on my visit I count myself very privileged to see a solitary rhino in the reed beds and a leopard eying up branches from her position in the grass. Tembe is a good place for an introduction to the bush (especially for children) with guaranteed eli-watching. The community-owned lodge is also a highlight – not luxurious but friendly and laid-back where the staff and guides, all employed from the vicinity, have a great personal knowledge and affection for the park.

Tuskers of the Sand Forest
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In my humble opinion Tembe is nothing short of amazing. If you have time to visit just one game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, then I would unreservedly recommend it be the meandering sand tracks of this gloriously wild reserve. With only one small lodge within the park and a maximum of ten self-drive 4x4s allowed in per day, Tembe is one of the few game reserves in South Africa that feels truly wild. The 30 013 hectare Tembe Elephant Park is dominated by sand forest and the game-rich Muzi Swamp in the east. It is home to an abundance of wildlife, including wild dogs and a burgeoning lion population (over 40 at last count). But, it is the Tembe’s elephants – and especially its huge tuskers – on which the park has built its reputation. More than 200 of these gentle giants tramp the sandy paths of this pristine wilderness and sightings are all but guaranteed from the hide overlooking Mahlasela waterhole as well as at nearby Mfungeni Pan. Quite aside from the huge buffalo herds, plentiful elephants and abundant general game, the overgrown sandy tracks of Tembe explore one of the last wild tracts of South Africa that still exudes a genuine wilderness feel.

Elephants and special birds
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Tembe is located in the far north of Zululand, bordering Mozambique, and interestingly is part-owned and run by the local Tembe tribe. There is only one lodge option, which is well-run and good value and we loved the staff singing to us on our arrival.

Tembe is renowned for its big elephants, although with the recent (natural) death of its biggest tusker, you will only see ‘emerging’ tuskers – i.e. young bulls who have still to develop into their prime. Don’t come to Tembe expecting to see the Big Five – the bush is very thick, and sightings are difficult. However, do come to Tembe for the rich birdlife, including some real specials found only in this remote part of South Africa. The guides are all skilled birders, and in three days we ticked off the African broadbill, pink-throated twinspot, lemon-breasted canary, grey waxbill, Eastern nicator, Rudd’s apalis and many more.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.3/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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