Tembe’s game and birdlife will impress any visitor. Below left, Khulu Khumalo gives a lesson on mahogany.
Tembe’s game and birdlife will impress any visitor. Below left, Khulu Khumalo gives a lesson on mahogany.
Picture: Anita De Villers
Picture: Anita De Villers
The tented camp from the outside and inside.
The tented camp from the outside and inside.
‘It's not Kruger,” someone said. Good, I thought to myself. While Kruger National Park is amazing in many respects, a crushed leopard tortoise on a wide stretch of tar on my last visit left a bad taste.

You won’t see that at Tembe Elephant Park, on the border of KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique. There are no wide tar roads. Just deep, sandy tracks.

Only 4x4s are allowed, which strikes off a list of suspects, keeps the place quiet (only 10 public vehicles a day). If you don’t have a 4x4, you’ll be fetched from the gate.

Tembe Elephant Park has 30000hectares, of which game drives traverse 12000ha. As the name suggests, it’s known for its elephants. So, if you want to see the biggest of the Big 5, they have about 250.

There are 35 lions (a controlled number), rhinos and nyala by the thousands - I’ve never seen so many of them, or monkey oranges, for that matter.

Red and grey duiker abound and we spotted kudu, giraffe and impala, though zebra are scarce as they don’t favour dense foliage.

Our game drives with guide Khulu Khumalo covered diverse terrain. It was mostly dense sand forest, characterised by Lebombo wattle, with some gravelly ups and downs in a largely flat area.

There are sections of woodland and a large, flat marshland where we shared a sunset with a buffalo herd. Parts brought to mind the Okavango Delta, with huge termite mounds all over - minus the waterways.

The diversity probably escaped the tourists, so I was glad that Khumalo took time to point out the prolific birdlife (there are more than 340 species).

We saw African goshawks, brown-crowned tchagra, cardinal woodpecker, bearded scrub robins, red-capped char robin (Natal), golden-breasted bunting, brown snake eagle, African harrier hawk, cisticolas including bulbuls, wood doves, bateleur eagles, African stone chats, lilac-breasted rollers and crested francolin.

Smart-crested guinea fowl in their spotted suits roamed the lodge.

Khumalo also talked about plants and their uses, such as spike thorn, to treat cataracts, or the Swazi (Maputaland) ordeal tree.

He amused us with the lesser ordeal meted out by his father using cocktail ants when a certain herdboy allowed one or two of dad’s cattle to go astray.

Game drives are early morning and afternoon affairs, with a return to the lodge for late breakfast, a laze or massage, lunch and off you go again. In summer there’s a pool area to cool off in. In winter it doesn’t get too cold except at night, bearing in mind accommodation is under canvas.

Canvas does not mean sacrificing luxury. There are six Tusker suites - one-bedroom safari tents on carpeted concrete with two single beds and space for another bed - as well as six family suites with two queen beds and space for two more single beds. The Tembe suite rests on a wooden platform and has two queen-size beds.

Each has a covered veranda, en-suite facilities and an outdoor shower. It’s upmarket and, as far as I know, the best value-for-money Big 5 reserve in South Africa.

The dining is not haute cuisine, though the Tembe wines are not too shabby and well worth it. What is exceptional is the crew, led by tall, cool and gentlemanly Tom Mashaba.

Partly owned and fully managed by the Tembe tribe, they are proud of their natural heritage. One morning, alone and out of site in camp, I smiled at their banter as they went about their duties - an excellent sign of an establishment in fine fettle.

I was alone because I skipped a drive to the main hide, Tembe’s bush Imax. In the quiet of the hide, nature’s Groundhog Day played out - huge tuskers clacking ivories at the watering hole. Cue nyala and sundry plains game. Cue lions, with ensuing action sequences (ignored by the ellies), ruffled feathers and monkey and bird alarms.

The 24-hour webcam has a worldwide following and affords unusually good night-time viewing.

Call 0312670144 or visit http://tembe.co.za