The Elephants of Tembe


We arrive at Tembe Lodge in the dark, a long line of Boundless Southern Africa Expedition Land Rovers carrying dusty travel worn pilgrims of adventure, to a circle of canvas chairs around a blazing fire and the singing welcome of the smiling community staff. There’s elephant dung on the sand tracks that lead to safari…

We arrive at Tembe Lodge in the dark, a long line of Boundless Southern Africa Expedition Land Rovers carrying dusty travel worn pilgrims of adventure, to a circle of canvas chairs around a blazing fire and the singing welcome of the smiling community staff.

There’s elephant dung on the sand tracks that lead to safari tents discreetly placed between giant sand forest trees. Elephant trumpet, the night jars keep a steady tune, and there’s the cry of a bush baby as it shyly takes a glance at the ring of humans, their faces lit by the firelight as wildlife poet Gary Albyn recites the episodic saga of Manzovu, Place of Elephants – an astonishing poem that tells the story of a time when elephants ranged across the timeless plains of Africa.

The Tembe Elephant Park is situated in the sand forests of Maputaland on the Kwazulu-Natal, South African boundary with Mozambique. It is 300 km2, (30,0000 hectares) and comprises a mosaic of unique sand forest, woodland, grass plains and swampland.

By request from the local community the park was proclaimed to protect the last remaining herds of free-ranging elephants in South Africa, elephants that once moved seasonally between Mozambique and Maputaland, but in recent years have sought refuge in the dense sand forest. Said to be the largest elephants in Africa, some of them still bear the old wounds and scars of attempts by poachers to either trap or shoot them. The opening of the reserve to the public was delayed in order to allow these animals to settle down and become used to their new-found protection.

We feel honoured to be here. Tembe is known and appreciated by only a select few visitors. Restricted access to the park means that few people have the opportunity to experience the majesty of Tembe’s elephant population. There’s a certain ‘soul’ about Tembe and one often senses the presence of elephants in the surrounding bush long before they amble out into the open to quench their thirst and wallow in the mud baths of the Futi swamps.

A significant event in the planning and development of this park is a special agreement between Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the local Tembe authority. It was agreed upon that people living in parts of the Sihandwane area, now incorporated within the boundaries of the park, would move out and establish new homesteads and fields nearby. In exchange, they would be permitted regular entry to prescribed areas in the park to harvest reeds and other materials for hut building and other purposes.

This utilisation of natural resources extends to the local people receiving a percentage of the revenue earned through tourism with the park and the community owned Tembe Elephant Lodge providing much needed employment and micro tourism projects for residents adjacent to the park.

Guests of the Tembe community we’re here to link Transfrontier conservation areas across Africa. Fortunately the future is bright for our magnificent elephants and the other wildlife of Tembe. This visionary initiative to restore the elephants’ ancient territories incorporates conservation areas in Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa. The herds will be given unprecedented freedom to roam, grow and thrive where they have not been for centuries.

By the light of a torch along a meandering footpath, a star filled sky overhead and a little wobbly from all the ‘campfire cheer’ I zip open my tent to find this letter on my bed:

Welcome! You have entered an extremely friendly and peaceful territory, Maputaland. This territory was named after my great-great-grandfather, Mabhudu. British government officials could not spell this name correctly. Instead of writing the name as Mabhuduland, it was written as Maputaland. I am greatly honoured though to be named after my grandfather, who was one of the greatest heroes that Africa has ever produced.

This territory that you have entered is characterised, not only by its natural beauty, but also by its people who are humble, friendly, very peaceful and shy. A shy attitude is a symbol of showing respect, and must not be interpreted for anything different from that. This kind of attitude by the people of Maputaland is a result of a very strong and principled traditional leadership and discipline, which has been transferred from one generation to the next. It is for this reason that this territory and its people pride itself for being genuine, and unique.

I therefore take the opportunity to welcome you in my territory. I want to believe that by the time you have returned to your own country, you will have discovered the unique experiences that are found nowhere else, but in Maputaland only. In my welcoming you, I also have two requests to make: Firstly, when you get back home, pass my greeting to your people. Secondly convey my personal invitation to your people to also come and have a taste of the friendly and refreshing spirit of the Tembe people and their natural habitation.

Inkosi Mabhudu Israel Tembe – Monarch of the Tembe Tribe

Earlier that day Inkosi Tembe had personally welcomed us with teams of traditional dancers as we’d crossed the Pongola into his territory. The Tembe Elephant Park is a link to unspoilt ancient Africa, not only its birds and animals, but its people too. While Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the KwaZulu-Natal conservation service manages precious biodiversity of the area, its ancestral  custodians, the Tembe Tribe, introduce you to the real wilderness, and the richness of their own culture. That’s what tomorrow is all about.

So much to look forward to! We’ll have a cultural community day with the Tembe people, there’s great excitement. A team of 4x4MegaWorld adventurers have already arrived to prepare a soccer field, goals, nets, whitewashed lines, whistles, Boundless Expedition shirts, a team from Grindrod Ltd, the Durban based shipping and logistics company, have arrived to hand over a sponsored 40″ container library and environmental centre, complete with roof, shelves, air-conditioning, doors and windows, all part of using this Boundless Southern Africa Expedition to link communities to conservation. And there’ll be an art competition. The theme? – well that’s obvious, it’ll be the Elephants of Tembe. – We’ll keep you posted.

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