The female lion languidly laid down right in the middle of the track, staring defiantly at us. It was clear that she knew this park was hers and we had no other options but to sit and watch or turn around. Of course when you are on a safari game drive, you are more than happy to sit and watch the magnificent animals, so we engaged in a lovely early morning photo shoot with the female lioness and two juvenile male lions. They were content that we posed no threat and went about their daily routine, wonderfully backlit by the rising sun.
This was a really special encounter during our two days of game drives at Tembe Elephant Park. Tembe is a large Big Five park run by South Africa National Parks all the way up in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. It stretches through a variety of ecosystems, with the majority being sand forest. This dense scrub brush is perfect for large, tough hided animals, such as elephants, as it provides excellent food sources and plenty of cover. The drawback from a tourist’s perspective is that it provides excellent cover.
Tembe has over 250 elephants, including the only tuskers south of Kenya and Tanzania. Tuskers are elephants whose tusks weigh a combined 50kg or more. Between these modern day tusked mammoths and herds that frequently grow to 40 or 50, we thought we would be in elephant viewing heaven. Sadly, with the exception of a nice close encounter with a bull’s butt and a couple of bull elephants play-fighting near a water hole, we saw almost nothing of the herds up close.
We did come across Kwazi – a youngish male elephant who likes to wander into the only camp inside the park. He learned this behavior from Isilo, the granddaddy tusker who only recently died. The electric fence blatantly does nothing to stop him coming into the camp in the early evening where he rummages through the trees for food and occasionally drinks from the pool! It is such a common occurrence that they have had to minimally electrify the pool overnight to discourage him drinking it all!
The camp is lovely and rustic, and comfortable in a way that mixes bush and luxury camps. The tents are equipped with comfortable beds, outdoor showers and a nice little porch for reading, napping or sitting and listening to the bush. An evening fire in the middle of the communal bar and dining area is a magical place to relax with a drink and chat about the animals you saw that day.
It was actually at the fire where we had our closest animal encounter when a rather large hairy black spider decided to climb up my leg! One of the staff members saw it and swept it off my leg before I could even see it – but Cora saw it and warned me not to move seeing how large it was. We asked the member of staff about it and he said it was poisonous, but didn’t know the name. We aren’t sure whether that was true or not, but regardless it was a nice reminder that even when you don’t see the big animals, you are constantly on nature’s turf in these types of places.
We met some really wonderful people on our drives and around camp, including Scott Ramsay who is currently undertaking a year long project documenting many of South Africa’s protected places called Year in the Wild. Scott’s incredible journey is taking him to close to 50 truly special places. He publishes articles and photographs regularly of his adventures driving, flying, canoeing and walking around these magnificent reserves. It took an immense amount of control to not drop everything and join him on these explorations and we hope to cross paths again with him someday soon.
We also met a lovely woman and her two adult sons on a long delayed trip of a lifetime. They shared our lion experience that one morning and we talked about life as an expat, travel junkie and photographer and how it leads you to these weird, wonderful and ad hoc experiences with people you would never otherwise meet. It is always so motivating and affirming to meet people who share such closely related passions as us. Even if it is a fleeting encounter it still leaves you enriched about the human spirit to cast off the shackles of routine and experience something different.
So although we didn’t experience the majestic elephants of Tembe as we had hoped, we had a lovely time relaxing and appreciating the beautiful natural surroundings of this place.
Here are a few more photos from this wonderful segment of our adventures in KZN.