Tembe Elephant Park:

November 2013 Visit


Tembe Elephant Park is located in the extreme northeast part of South Africa in Maputaland of the KwaZulu-Natal province, bordering Mozambique, along the Old Ivory Route, an ancient African migratory path and lucrative trading trail.


Created in October 1983, the Park was opened in 1991 as a collaborative community effort between the ancient ancestral custodians represented by the Tembe Tribal Authority under Inkosi (i.e., "Chief, who lit the fire") Israel Mabhudu Tembe since March 2001, and the Royal Council located in Manguzi and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the provincial government's conservation service.  Their goal of biodiversity conservation is to be achieved through managed intervention. The long-term vision is to join into a hoped-for Usuthu-Tembe-Futi Transfrontier Conservation Area to promote a return to animal migration.  The Park has achieved its short-term objective, which was to preserve one of the only three original elephant herds in South Africa.


A 300 square kilometer (70,000 acres) fenced area (in 1989 the northern boundary was closed, bringing an end to animal migration) to exclude human intrusion into this area for natural resources such as pastures, agricultural planting of yams, the harvesting of ilala palm (for wine and baskets) as well as elephant ivory and, moreover, to protect the original elephants and the reintroduced lions.  An internal, but highly permeable perimeter fence (see note below) surrounds nine full-board unit accommodations in fourteen upscale tent cabins with tap water and outdoor showers, wireless internet with a web camera in the reception area and a small communal pool.  The enterprise provides needed employment opportunities for local people as knowledgeable guides/drivers and spotters/trackers, armed anti-poaching rangers, road inspection crews, security personnel, and resort support staff (Tom Mahamba, tourist manager and Ernest Robbertse, CEO) in an otherwise high unemployment region.


The park consists of a rare, dense sand forest ecosystem and a mixed woodland ecosystem, along with an open to closed grasslands ecosystem with some swamp (and pans.  The dominant indicator species is Newtonia hildebrandtii for sand forests.  One will see other trees such as black monkey tree orange


Driving along double-track, two-way, sandy trails, the Park offers daily early morning and late afternoon game drives (three hours long with tea time breaks) to see the park (in other words, one is back in time for second breakfast at 9AM and then lunch at 2PM before going out for the second drive).  Note the highly worthwhile Mahlasela Pan Hide option between breakfast and lunch.  Although occasionally billed as a trophy hunter's Big Five park, which raises high expectations, but may only deliver false hopes or promises (since we didn’t see a leopard), there is a lot to see including: roan antelope, antlions, dung beetles, thick-tailed bush babies (around the camp), cape buffalo, bushbuck, chameleons, common as well as the red duiker, elephants, giraffe, iguana, impala, kudu, lions, lizards, vervet monkeys, slender mongoose, Nyala, ticks, white rhinoceros, warthogs, blue wildebeests, and Burchell’s zebra plus 63 species of birds.  We also saw a rat and gray tree squirrels (imported from America by Cecil John Rhodes) in the Company Park in Cape Town and elsewhere in the Cape, angulate tortoise, rock dassies, baboons, and African (aka jackass) penguins.


These indigenous species can be distributed into five categories: common (such as Impala and Nyala as well as the "free ranging" and last indigenous African elephant herd which includes some large tuskers, notably 65 year old Isilo); frequent (any of the hooved creatures already named); occasional (leopard tortoise); infrequent (4 lion, 2 males and 2 females, reintroduced in 2002), and rare (suni, 14 critically endangered wild dogs reintroduced in January 2011 but which have declined to 9 by 2013 and the red chested cuckoo).


Observed interspecies interactions: 1) impala, Nyala, and waterbucks mixing in forest and at water holes; 2) oxpeckers on impala, zebra; 3) car crushed by elephant; 4) cattle egrets with cape buffalo


Observed intraspecies interaction: 1) two male Nyala licking heads and necks and then locking horns, 2)


Note on secure parking area: if you don’t have a four-wheel drive (and high clearance) vehicle, you are required to park in the “secure” parking area.  Sometime during our stay, an elephant reaching for the fruit of a black monkey orange tree, leaned into our car, crushing the left front fender.  We have insurance and, so, usually don’t take the additional coverage.  In South Africa, it may be a wise idea to do so, since the rental agent said: “elephant? Happens all the time…”





(using Travel Maps’ South Africa GPS Map,

v1.2 of September 2013 for Garman Devices):


Mega Fail!  We bought it primarily to navigate to Tembe Elephant Park Lodge (instead, it took us to Tembe Masizwane Lodge, their competitor’s camp, many kilometers away) and around Johannesburg (it doesn’t even have the Apartheid Museum among its attractions, and which is notorious hard to locate—all the guide books says you will get lost).  After staying at Tembe, we tried to use it to navigate to Sowano Bay; we arrived, but the GPS indicated another 1.7 kilometers of road.


And, we tried to use it in the Western Cape of South Africa as well. When it does work it provides useless instructions like "continue on road" without indicating the road you are on (which would be reassuring to know you are on the right route). When it does say “Continue on Highway N2,” we were actually on R326.  Again, on R44 to Capetown via Gordon’s Bay, it will say “Continue on Main Road.”  And, even worse is at perpendicular t-intersections, it will advise “Continue on road.”  If it was a slant t-intersection, I would understand.


Among its other major failures was one afternoon—totally wrong directions to the town of Oudtshoorn, which had us arriving late, late at night.  Furthermore, if you want to drive the AA’s recommended Garden Route, it doesn't know the town of Mossel Bay and when you do arrive there try asking for food and it lists local places as being in Krysna (another town nearby) when they are clearly in Mossel Bay.


The biggest software glitch occurred after plotting in a trip, already on the N2 west to Heidelberg. Part way there it got stuck in a recalculating loop which I perversely let go for 20 times. Then I turned it off.


I think you can understand our intense frustration, trying to use this product





James Percy FitzPatrick, Jock of the Bushveld (Cape Town: New Holland Publishing Pty Ltd., 1991).  –Written about the late 19th century sub-tropical woodland ecosystem, it is also a wonderful dog story.


Johan Marais and Alan Ainslie, In Search of Africa's Great Tuskers (Johannesburg: Penguin, 2010). –Features several of Tembe Elephant Park residents.


Alan Patton, Cry the Beloved Country: A Story of Comfort in Desolation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948).  –A must read to understand the socio-political aspects of SA.


Tembe Elephant Park, Annexure VI: Executive Summary of Integrated Management Plan 2007-2012. –To understand the vision, mission, and goals.


APAAT Tembe Protected Area Report (28 October 2010). –To understand the mission and goals.


Roelf J. Kloppers, "The History and the Representation of the History of the Mabudu Tembe," MA Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2003. –Best discussion of the history of this area.


Fr. Mayr, "Zulu proverbs,” Anthropos 7 (no. 4, 1912): 957-963.  –You will hear various sayings from your guides.






Revised: 26 January 2014; created: 23 November 2013.