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, the little -known Tembe Elephant Park protects an elephant population that once ranged freely into neighbouring Mozambique and is famed for producing massive tuskers – indeed, the three largest tuskers in southern Africa, Isilo, Induna and Makobona, all reside in this park. Excellent viewing is to be had at Mahlasela Hide – on the day we spent there, close on 100 individual elephants came past – but even though the Big Five are all present, other wildlife is difficult to spot, the exception being the park’s dense population of the handsome nyala antelope. Despite this, the park stands out in several respects – the first being its remote location and genuine wilderness feel (access is by 4x4 only), the second the wonderful and very sensible priced tented camp operated by the local Tembe community, and the third being the opportunity to see several localised bird species associated with sand forest in northern Zululand. All in all, this is a low-key delight, and for those not in a rush to tick off the so-called Big Five, the elephant watching 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.

Tembe Elephant Park: home to some of the biggest tuskers in Africa
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Being at the end of the road in a far corner of South Africa, Tembe Elephant Park is not very well known. The delicate environment of sand forest is only accessible by 4x4 and only 10 vehicles per day are allowed in the park. The remote wilderness vibe is a key attraction, but the real draw is South Africa’s biggest elephants. These elephants are the last remaining indigenous herd in KwaZulu Natal. Before heading out here, I expected this to be a bit of marketing hype, but I was mistaken: the elephants are enormous and their tusks are some of the biggest I’ve seen. The 3 biggest tuskers have been given names and I wasn’t fortunate to see any of them, but I saw plenty other impressive bulls. All of the big 5 are present in the park, but we didn’t see a lot on the drives. The best viewing of elephants is from the excellent hide overlooking a waterhole. Elephant bulls arrived steadily alone or in small groups and we also saw some of the breeding herds coming down for a drink and a bath.

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
Overall rating

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.

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  • 3.6/5
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