Thinking back to childhood holidays in the Kruger National Park, I remember the thrill of anticipation at the thought of spotting one of the great tuskers, those old, cumbersome yet regal bull elephants with tusks so long they crossed in the front or scraped the dirt as they walked. With every drive came the not only the possibility of finding unexpected or elusive game, but also the challenge of spotting a celebrity elephant.
Blissfully unaware of the woeful plight of the country’s elephant population at the time, I never realised how slim my chances of finding a true tusker as incredible as the magnificent seven outside of Letaba’s elephant museum actually were. It’s sad to think we need a museum to remember these gorgeous bulls, and that the world may never see another tusker to match the great Mafunyane, Dzombo, Joao, Kambaku, Shawu, Ndlulamithi, or Shingwedzi. It’s true, there are still a few with the potential out there, but so few they’re like a handful of needles in reserve the equivalent of a haystack the size of the African continent.
There is a place, however, where your chances off spotting one of these giants are immensely greater. While its size and animal population densities aren’t a scratch on those of our flagship national park, Tembe Elephant Park in north-eastern Zululand is home to what is believed to be some of the biggest tuskers in the world, and being only three hundred square kilometres, finding them is a hell of a lot easier.
Developed by Tembe tribal authority and KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife, Tembe Elephant Park was established in the early eighties to protect elephants, which used to migrate between Maputaland and southern Mozambique. Since these elephants were traumatized by the Mozambican civil war, the park only opened its gates to visitors in the early nineties, but in the past two decades it has become one of the top reserves in Africa in terms of conservation of elephants with ivory.
Tembe’s tuskers aren’t the only reason for its increasing popularity. With over 340 bird species (rarer species include eastern nicators, African broadbills, Neergard’s sunbird and many others) the park has also become a birding hotspot, and Tembe Elephant Lodge, the park’s only lodge, has also acquired its own reputation for its superb setting, excellent menu, and all-round great service, giving people more great reasons to return year after year.
Over the years, the thrill of the challenge of finding those enormous bulls has settled into a deep appreciation of every live elephant sighting, but it’s heart-warming to know there is still a place out there where they’re not only safe, not only thriving, but also not too difficult to find.
Photography and game viewing:
If it’s elephants at the water you want to photograph, go out when it’s hot! Early mornings and late afternoons might produce great sightings of buffalo, lion and other mammals (especially along the edge of the Muzi Swamps) but during the cooler hours of the day the elephants disappear into Tembe’s thickets. Try to be at Mahlasela Hide around 10 am before the light gets too harsh. Remember to bring your long telephoto lenses, because there are loads of birds to photograph, not only on drive, but also in camp.
If I want to go:
From Hluhluwe, travel north on the R22 for approximately 126 km and then turn left on the P522 at the round about. Follow this road for approximately 15 km until you see the park entrance on your right.
Only 4×4 vehicles are allowed in the park!
Elephant viewing is great throughout the year, but the summer months (November to February) can become uncomfortably hot. During the dry winter months (June to October) large elephant bulls tend to gather at the waterholes during the hottest hours of the day.
Tembe Elephant Lodge
As one of the lowest-priced full-service game lodges in a South African game reserve, Tembe Elephant Lodge makes it easier for locals to enjoy the comfort of an all-inclusive, luxury safari without breaking the bank. With stylish yet simple tented accommodation, excellent service and an unbelievable menu, you’ll find it hard not to want to go back every year.
Rates vary depending on season and length of stay, and include four meals a day and all game drives.