Bucket list and Covid claustrophobia – that’s how we found ourselves on the road north to Tembe. It’s said that Tembe Elephant Lodge is so much part of the reserve the animals hardly know it’s there – we, too, felt the pleasure of disappearing.
Story Anne Schauffer
Pictures Anne Schauffer and supplied
I love this quote by Chaim Potok: “I’ve begun to realise you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” Tembe has this. The Tembe quiet may be the deep silence of sand underfoot or under-wheel, compounded perhaps by the 10 vehicle limit at any one time in the 300 square kilometre park, and the massive elephants which, despite their size, pad through their world astonishingly silently. It could be some or all of that, but whichever, that quiet wilderness “has a quality and dimension all its own”.
We stayed at Tembe Lodge, the community-owned and run safari tent lodge on the Tembe tribe’s ancestral land, a story as old as the park itself. Vusi Tembe is a member of that family, a highly skilled and knowledgeable guide, who can hear and identify a bird call over the sound of a diesel engine while skilled birders are still scrambling. This has been his home for life, so the birds, wildlife, terrain is in his blood. His view about Tembe is clear cut: “I’m not working for myself, I’m working for the community.” It’s a view visibly echoed by everyone with whom we came into contact. Ownership and collaboration is empowering, and there’s a tangible sense that everyone – in front of and behind the scenes – puts their heart and soul daily into their warm, inviting version of hospitality.
From Durban, it’s an easy four to five hours to reach Tembe, and guests often combine it with other tempting locations in the vicinity, particularly coastal ones like Kosi Bay. Lodge guests park their vehicles at the main gate and are collected in a 4×4 game drive vehicle, absolutely essential on the sand roads – and their self-drive option (not for the Lodge) stipulates it.
There’s a wonderful history to Tembe. The park lies in the sand forests of Maputaland, on the KZN/SA boundary with Mozambique. Their elephants were South Africa’s last free-ranging herd, at one time moving seasonally between Maputaland and Mozambique. The park was proclaimed in 1985, largely to protect local people from invasion by the elephants. Nkosi (Chief) Mzimba Tembe donated the land to form the reserve – to help conserve and protect the sand forest and its many unique flora and fauna species, and to create a refuge for the last naturally occurring population of African elephant (Loxodonta Africana) in KwaZulu-Natal.
The biodiversity of the park is managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and the lodge by the community. With over 55 people all employed from this KwaTembe region, the lodge is the biggest private-sector employer in the region and largest contributor to the local economy.
You’ll find the Big Five at Tembe – all historically known to have been seen here – but the biggest of the Five is the real drawcard. The park is renowned for its Tuskers, that is, elephants with impressive “ivory” weighing over 45kg; the named Tuskers have now passed on, but a number of up-and-coming youngsters are clearly heirs to that throne.
Big Five aside, they also have a pack of wild dogs, and you may be as lucky as we were to see the rare Suni antelope, standing just 35cm high, in the dense understory.
Elephants may be a key drawcard at Tembe, but the landscape is the other. It’s a tapestry of four to five different ecosystems, with the largest tract of sand forest in South Africa, as well as woodland, grassland and swampland. Travelling through this ever-changing environment is such a joy, because with the changes comes rare fauna and flora. This mixed terrain is a tantalising one for birds, and Tembe has a massive birding population – topping 350 species. The park is recognised as one of South Africa’s prime birding spots including birds such the rare Rudd’s apalis, Rufous-bellied night heron, Natal nightjar and the Woodward’s batis.
The dawn chorus. Almost a cliché, but when you hear it from the silence of the camp as the sun creeps up, it’s a louder, clearer, yet gentler wake-up call less alarming than coffee. Slow, slow crescendo …
Not much beats the intimacy with nature that glamping provides. A sheet of canvas between you and the wilds, one strong enough so you feel entirely secure, yet light enough to feel the vibration. That, together with plenty of light and air through the “windows”, and the primal pleasure of a joyful outdoor shower, gives you that sense of excitement, expectation, possibility.
Importantly, you didn’t have to erect the tent yourself … it’s all there, laid out pristinely, so bedded down in the wonderful landscape that you literally can’t see your neighbours. Whoever said “tread lightly on the earth” must have stayed in a Tembe tent. Not only do you have a particularly spacious tent with en suite … but also your own open-sided spa tent (and massage beds) attached. The therapists come to you – an outdoor massage to the sounds of the birds and the bees beats any other, hands down.
Tembe Lodge is an informal, relaxed experience. Dress up or down, sarong or safari chic. You can interact with other guests, or not – entirely up to you. The dining layout is such that you’re at your own candlelit table, and if you want to sit around the roaring communal boma fire after dinner, that’s your choice. You can also fire gaze at a distance from others, or join in the meditative murmurs.
Our game ranger was Vusi Tembe, and he remained “ours” for the duration of our stay. His knowledge was one thing, but his story-telling about African folklore was equally captivating. Another thing unrivalled elsewhere, is the quality of the elephant interaction. The guides and elephants know each other and are habituated, so the elephants are calm around vehicles which provides some memorable encounters.
There are a number of waterholes and hides on Tembe. One, Mahlasela hide in particular, is near the lodge, and a favourite of the elephants. We could have sat there all day watching a parade of species come down to drink. Is anything more satisfying than being elevated in a hide, secure, comfortable with coffee and rusk in hand … as the animal world carries on with its day, unaware of or unperturbed by your presence? For me, not much.
We took the road to Tembe to satisfy our curiosity to explore a park of which others had spoken so highly. We came away so much richer for the experience, discovered a wonderfully welcoming, relaxed, supremely comfortable and, yes, affordable tented lodge, and a skilled, knowledgeable guiding crew and hospitality team.
If you, too, feel the need to listen to some silence, head north to Tembe Elephant Lodge. *
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