There’s a park in Africa that is sandwiched between Zululand and Mozambique. It’s a little park – 300 square kilometers to be exact, but it is a magical place, filled with beautiful African animals, birds and insects. It’s a place where leopards pad around quietly at night seeking their prey; a lion’s roar pierces the dawn and buffalo roam on the empty plains. Here Africa’s largest elephants break through the bush on their way down to the water and dung beetles have the right of way on the dusty roads. Nyalas nibble on leaves and grass right next to your tent and bush babies join you for dinner.
Tembe is about five and a half hours drive north of Durban and as parks go it ticks every box for visitors – from the Big Five and excellent birding, to bushveld camping in luxury tented bungalows and delicious cuisine. Tembe Safari Lodge, inside the park, is co-owned and managed by local Tembe folk who know exactly how to make you feel like honoured guests in their special place. On arrival we were met by one of the guides and driven in an open game drive vehicle to the main lodge, where the entire complement of staff welcomed us with a warm traditional song. What a lovely touch that was, as were the beautiful bushveld decorations that adorned our bed!
Game drives are part of the package and you get loads of them. Two a day – each taking three to three and half hours depending on what animals show up along the way. That’s a lot of time spent out looking for animals.
In between sightings, our amazing guide, Carlos, regaled us with tales of his youth when he was a herd boy. He knew every plant and tree in the area; from the Lala palms that the locals use to make copious amounts of wine (a very laborious process, I might add), to a leafy creeper that can be rubbed to make a shampoo. His knowledge of the birds and animals was excellent. We even learned that the Crested guineafowl is known locally as a “Bob Marley chicken” because of its resemblance to his wild hair style and marijuana-induced red eyes.
But Tembe is not just about any animal – it’s about a very special kind of elephant called a “tusker” which is a descendant of the huge tusked ellies that roamed the Ivory Route in the days of Jock of the Bushveld. The pride of their herd is a magnificent old elephant called Isilo whose tusks reach almost to the ground and weigh about 55-60 kgs each. Unfortunately, at about sixty years of age, Isilo has past his prime and doesn’t look as robust and well-covered as the other elephants, but when your eyes are drawn to those enormous tusks you can only stare in awe and imagine what this beautiful old boy was like in his heyday. The staff have great affection for Isilo and happily forgive him his trespasses when he causes damage by coming into the lodge area.
The terrain in the park is a combination of dense sand-forest that is home to the delicate little Suni, the smallest antelope, and open grasslands where buffalo and rhino can be seen grazing.
Magnificent sunsets are toasted with sundowners and dawns are greeted with hot coffee and rusks whilst examining tell-tale prints in the sand that give up the secrets of who or what padded past during the night. Our hosts, Tom, the manager, and Carlos, our guide, shared meals with us and we came away feeling quite enriched by having learned more about them and this lovely place in the sun.
Our three days at Tembe was my birthday treat and it certainly was very special. It was made more memorable by the staff who baked me a beautiful birthday cake and sang to me after dinner. Thank you to Rob and the Tembe Safari Lodge for such a wonderful birthday celebration.