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A journey I will never forget

By Paul Hopkins

It's breath-taking. Being up so close and personal to the largest elephants in Africa – indeed, in the world – and watch their antics as they eat, drink and are merry as only these wonderful creatures can be.

The bull is proud but a little lost because he knows his is a matriarchal society and the cows are in charge. The mothers slurp insatiably from the hole and then, their thirst momentarily quenched, encourage their young to dive in.

The continuous banter of the herd, the flapping back and forth of their large ears, the constant, playful motion of their tremendous trunks. Happy as the day is long: just like any family who's been well-fed and watered.

And to think these wonderful creatures were almost wiped out save for the savvy of the local people and the vision of a Durban business man.

It is just after lunch, when the Africa sun is at its most intense, that we arrive at the hide, a camouflaged dig-out in the sand forest that allows you to watch animals unobserved.

From the hide I look across, about quarter of a kilometre, to the large water hole: a banded mongoose, with its large head and short muscular limbs, scampers across the grass. A Nyala ram with his females and hornless young saunters onto the scene.

Then, as if from nowhere, with a slow, graceful but determined gait, they arrive down from among the tall trees. These are Tembe's elephants. Some scientists believe they are genetically different from others in South Africa. For these are the last naturally-bred population in Kwa-ZuluNatal (KZN), in north-east South Africa, as all other elephants have been introduced into the sub-continent from other parts of Africa.

This is an area once known as The Ivory Route which for many years linked the ivory traders of Mozambique and Zululand. It is where the largest elephants in the world roamed. Today, more than 220 of these gentle giants remain and thrive in their ancestral home.

Just below the hide are pools of mud where these magnificent creatures bathe and play. Nobody breathes a word for human sound may disturb them and rob

us of a chance to watch the elephants at their most natural.

The Tembe-Thonga people have historically lived and ruled over the territory stretching from Maputo Bay in the north, to Lake St. Lucia in the south.

They were divided by their colonial masters who, in 1875, redrew the border that separated Mozambique from South Africa. Today Tembe people still live on both sides of the border.

Always a people at one with nature and its animals among whom they have lived for so long, the Tembe agreed in 1983 to set aside 30,000 hectares for conservation. This today is Tembe Elephant Park but in the early days the elephants still roamed freely between KZN and Mozambique that by 1989 one in four bulls had been attacked and wounded by poachers on the Mozambique side of the open reserve, in a bid to steal their much-prized ivory. So a 19km fence was erected to keep in the elephants and protect them. Conservationists believe there was no alternative.

Many of the elephants today still bear their wounds. One has a hole in his trunk from a poacher's snare, water gushing out of the wound as he manages to drink from the water hole. Another has a limp.

All you can hear on this hot, arid afternoon is the silent clicking of cameras and the slurping of elephants at the water hole below us. It's thirsty work for all concerned.

When they first came to Tembe these elephants, particularly the ‘walking wounded', were an angry lot.

With great memories, as we know, their other human-like qualities include ‘holding grudges'.

The reserve was not open to the public for some years to allow the elephants to settle down. Now, a quarter of a century on, this is the best up-close-and-personal viewing of these ancient animals you are likely to get.

In 1989 a Durban businessman took over the old camp run by the former KZN Department of Nature Conservation and transformed it into a luxury tented lodge built on stilts to minimise disturbance to the forest. This is electrified but at night you can hear the elephants feeding close by.

It is entirely run by the local community, and the Tembe people have a half-share in all profits. Many of them can remember their childhood there; one of them tells me he was bicycling home from school when he was surprised by a large bull elephant but managed to escape into the bush.

Later we take a game drive in the failing light and cool of the evening in hopeful search of lion. Impala flit across the road like Olympic gymnasts, while warthogs strut their stuff with their comical gaits, watched by the kudu with its noble bearing and gracefully spiralling horns.

The lions are eluding us and it's now dark. A lone, young bull elephant crosses our path, barely visible in the black-green night. He's out on his own, looking for the lads to go sparing with and drinking with and chew the intoxicating marula tree before he finds a young wan to breed with and sow his wild oats. Remind you of any one?

His mammy is at home with his sisters and young brothers and her word is law. Cow elephants and their daughters remain very close all their lives — which can be for 80 years and up. Talk about our lone young bull's long-suffering with the mother-in-law.

Still no lions and then, a radio call to our jeep, a couple of U-turns and we, after much too-ing and fro'ing, find them settling down for the night. A lioness and her two daughters. Beautiful felines with the proudest of faces, a haughtiness that only good-looking females can carry off.

At one time there were no lions here, until the reserve introduced four who soon became 20 but are now back to 14.

Ranger Tom Mahamba, also the reserve's manager, explains: ‘‘Six escaped, despite the fact there was no obvious signs of a break-out. But they kept getting away at night and returning during the day. Local people reported them in all sorts of places. We knew they had the taste for roaming near to where people lived and would not be satisfied with just living with the rest of the pride”

This gentle Tembi man, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Nelson Mandela, looks away from me and continues: ‘‘So we had to take the decision to put them down. It's what's called good conservation.''

The long day's brush with elephant and lion leaves me exhausted, so I skip dinner and head for the comfort of my tent. The eight safari tents, which take a maximum of 16 people, are spread throughout the forest, within walking distance of the camp fire and eating areas.

Some would say you can feel quite alone, sitting on your deck. But as I switch off the night-light and tuck under the blankets, the sound of silence is broken by a chorus of mixed emotional cries as my neighbours start babbling on into the heat of the night. The cry of a hyena, the bark of a buck. The warthog, in particular, makes a racket as he scurries back and forth past my tent. Elephants call out nearby, the thud of their walk in the wild reverberating against the canvas.

It is perhaps not going to be a peaceful night’s sleep but it is going to be a satisfying one. In this distant world, light years away from the pressures of civilisation, I could easily learn to live with my wild neighbours.

Paul Hopkins flew to South Africa |courtesy of South African Airways

Tembe, about three hours drive north of Durban, offers all the trappings of a luxury private lodge at affordable prices.

Nightly accommodation per person sharing, including all meals, two game drives a day, all teas and coffees and VAT, costs from £99 to £113, depending on accommodation and season.

Off-season deals can run as low as £54. Children under 15 are half-price, babies under two free. Stay for four nights and get the fifth night free.Rates may vary slightly. For more information visit or

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