Three days ago we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump in the car and cross the border from the warm Mozambican ocean and head to the South African bush. After hitting up Kwangwanase (Manguzi) for some groceries and some local fresh vegetables, we headed inland for half an hour to our old home, Tembe Elephant Park.
South Africa is well known for its wildlife reserves by tourists who browse the internet looking for things to tick off their holiday bucket list. Nothing could be more appealing than having the Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and the ever elusive leopard) right on your doorstep. Tented camps have become major draw cards for luxurious stays in the African bush, with these lodges providing amazing dining and nights under the stars, where you can sit in front of the bush t.v. - a crackling log fire. An evening spent like this couldn't be more perfect. Tembe supplies all this and more. The entire atmosphere of the lodge is one of African warmth and hospitality, where you feel most welcome. The love and value for the bush and the wildlife shown by the staff is contagious to all those who are lucky enough to experience this park and lodge.
Tembe was our home for four years in the early 2000's. My Dad, whose background is in conservation, was working closely with the Park management and the surrounding communities in pursuing community conservation options where the communities reap benefits from expanding the park's borders. Tembe is an interesting game reserve in that the land that the park is on, is owned by the community. There is a co-managment agreement whereby KZN Wildlife, a government organization, manages the reserve on behalf of the Tembe people. Historically, the land used to be marginal cattle grazing land, but now it produces sustainable revenue for the community mainly via eco tourism in the community-owned and run Tembe Lodge. The lodge is staffed and run mainly by local community members.
The Tembe Lodge was fully booked but my dad was offered the opportunity to stay in the Bhekula Sand Forest Lodge. Bhekula Lodge is situated just outside of the Tembe park boundaries (across the road) on 4000 hectares of community land. But due to lack of attraction (no Big 5) compared with Tembe, it never got off the ground and has basically been a 'white elephant'! The Bekhula community have recently approached Tembe Lodge and asked them to take over the management of Bhekula, and my Dad was asked to give it some constructive criticism. The end goal is to have Bhekula Reserve being incorporated into the Tembe park, along with other land that the community want to add in for Elephant Range Expansion. The result of this initiative is to expand elephant range while simultaneously creating permanent jobs in an area where jobs are very scarce.
We were a little apprehensive as we approached Bhekula, not knowing what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised with the accommodation and facilities!
The attraction of a visit to the Tembe reserve is found not only in the amazing wildlife and unique landscape but also in the local community who have worked together to create something beautiful. The Elephant Range Expansion Project is run by the Tembe Elephant Park Development Trust, with the goal of adding land into Tembe Elephant Park, thereby giving this incredible gene pool opportunity to expand. Tembe elephants are known to have excellent genetics, with some of the biggest bodied and largest tusked elephants in Africa. It is imperative for these elephants to have the opportunity to breed rather than be under a contraception program- which is their current status!
On the short trip from the Tembe gate to the Lodge to get the keys for Bhekula Lodge, which we ended up having to ourselves the whole trip, we bumped into our first elephant.
The first morning saw us waking up to an extremely misty morning. The mist hung thick and low and gave the whole landscape a rather eerie feeling. The spiders were out in full force and the webs, drowning in dew drops, hung suspended between branches, catching the sun as it made a weak attempt to break through the grey blanket.
Our days started before the sun was up and we watched the sun rise each morning while following fresh leopard and lion spoor with bated breath, as we traversed along the sandy tracks.
When our fingers started getting cold we would stop at a water hole and dip Ouma rusks in coffee and listen to the bush, along with trying to identify as many different types of birds as possible.
When our tummies started growling louder than the lions, it was time to whip out the skottel and fry up the eggs and bacon at one of the picnic spots.
We followed game from dawn till dusk and the experience was always rewarding. Whether it was elephant bulls fighting for dominance at a waterhole, a lion chasing down an Nyala, getting charged in the car by a breeding herd's matriarch elephant or simply just seeing the beautiful Nyala and their babies browsing, it is always a privelege to see such magnificent creatures up close and in their natural habitat.
The benefits of Elephant Range Expansion are limitless, getting land back to how it was 100 years ago and providing a way for the local communities to live without having to poach animals for food because those animals are bringing tourists, who bring money. You thus have the safest situation for the park and animals, where the community fights for the protection of the wildlife. This is not how it works with most game parks - the park management usually having to keep the jobless, destitute, and hungry local communities who often live adjacent to the reserves, from poaching in the park. However, here in the Tembe model, we have the community fully involved and protecting the reserve and animals for their own benefit.