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TTembe Elephant Park is a critical link in a planned transfrontier park on KwaZulu-Natal’s northernmost border with Mozambique and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). This area is home to some of the largest jumbos in southern Africa, and for a very long time they were among the most feared. Now they welcome visitors.
Tembe Elephant Park began as a small, unpromising reserve in 1983 and has since become something of an inspiration. It has also become a crucial lynchpin in the planned great Lebombo Transfrontier Park between South Africa, Mozambique and Eswatini (Swaziland). This initiative of the Peace Parks Foundation seeks to restore natural, rather than man-made boundaries to conservation areas, creating parks that conserve whole ecosystems across national borders.
The 1980s were difficult years for many people in this area because of the civil war raging in Mozambique, which borders South Africa and ‘the Mountain Kingdom’, as Eswatini is poetically known. The park was declared as a bulwark protecting the last free-ranging herds of elephants that were migrating back and forth across borders fleeing bullets and explosions.
But the park could only be opened in 1991, because the elephants were so traumatised by the warfare that the safety of tourists could not be guaranteed. The brave ecotourists that visited the park in the early 1990s returned with eye-widening stories of elephants charging them in thick bush. But there were no injuries, and gradually the elephants calmed down.
They now number more around 200 and remain awe-inspiring – among them are the largest elephants in southern Africa.
Until recently, the Tembe park had three of South Africa’s biggest tuskers, but now only one survives: a bull called iSilo with tusks 3 metres long, believed to be the largest in South Africa.
The habitat at Tembe, in the far north corner of KwaZulu-Natal, is subtropical and tropical. It protects rare sand forests, thick woodland, wetlands and verdant pans. The rest of the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino) are also here, along with 340 species of birds.
Some birds are at the very southernmost point of their range. Here you can see Rudd’s apalis, the plain-backed sunbird, the African broadbill, the steppe eagle and the swamp nightjar.
The park is managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, but the Tembe people who live in the area benefit from tourism because the comfortable tented lodge here is half-owned and run by them. Their dancers will come, on request, to sing and act out folklore from their history, making their culture come alive for you. Any money collected for such events goes towards buying school uniforms for the children in the local community.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tembe Elephant Park
Tel: +27 (0)31 267 0144
How to get here
From Durban, take the N2 north towards Mkuze, about 350km away or three hours' drive (Mkuze is good place to fill up). From there, continue north on the N2, and take the Jozini road after about 15km, and drive another 20km to Jozini. Cross the dam wall and drive for another 72km. The park is well signposted. Leave your car here. You'll be picked up by someone in a 4x4.
Best time to visit
Summers are really hot and oppressive here, while late autumn to early spring (from April to September) are much more pleasant.
Things to do in the area
Ndumo Game Reserve, Kosi Bay, Lake Sibaya and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, with its glorious centrepiece Lake St Lucia, are all within 50km of Tembe Elephant Park.
Length of stay
Stay at least two nights and squeeze in a third if you can.
What will it cost?
This is considered one of the cheapest full-service luxury lodges in South Africa. Depending on season, expect to pay from as little as R1 550 per night per person, including four meals and game drives. The longer you stay, the less you pay – the top price for a short stay in high season is R2 860 single per night.
What to pack
Sun protection is mandatory all year round, as is insect repellent against bugs, day and night. Despite being in a malaria area, regular anti-mosquito spraying keeps the risk low, although you may want to take prophylactic medication anyway.
Where to stay
Tembe has luxury tented accommodation.