Tembe, Temperatures and Training

Tembe, Temperatures and Training

Words by Sharlene Versfeld

Photo by Donovan Hulett

(Published in Sunday Tribune - November 5, 2017)

Sharlene Versfeld is a Durban-based communications consultant and nature guide, who completed her training this year with Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela’s legacy Wilderness Leadership School. Here she recounts her on-site training at Tembe Elephant Park in Northern Zululand earlier this year.

It was hot. Desperately hot.  The kind of heat that you cannot run from.  Searingly hot.  Dry too. Bone-dryingly hot. The one that requires your commitment to submit. Completely.

And so was my introduction to Tembe Elephant Park. Hot. I had gone there twice in March and April this year. A week at a time to take part in the practical sessions to train as a nature guide.  I was one of 12 students ranging from an “almost” retired 60-odd year old to two “just-out-of-school” 18 year olds. We were a mixture of women and men from a variety of backgrounds, speaking three different languages, enrolled in one of the Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela’s legacy Wilderness Leadership School’s training programmes.

Part of the training required our becoming intimate with a particular area, learning how to conduct an interpretive guiding experience using our fellow students as guests, and finally doing an assessed game drive.

A little known slice of African heaven, Tembe purports to have the last wild free roaming elephants in KZN prior to it having been declared a reserve park in 1983 at the behest of the Tembe people whose ancestral home it is. The Tembe tribe had cohabited with the wild elephants but had on-going problems with their crops being raided, and they negotiated with Ezemvelo to fence off the elephants into the park and the community that had being living within the park boundaries agreed to be translocated outside the park. 

The park is on the legendary Ivory Route where ancient elephant pathways are etched in the spectacular dense sand-forest and grasslands. These forest floors of white sand, are themselves more ancient than the paths that crisscross upon them. Geological indications show that more than 130 000 years ago this was an ocean bed. And rising majestically from out of these ancient ocean beds are some of the most magnificent tree species I have encountered including massive Pod-Mahoganies, Marulas, Lebombo Wattles and Torchwood trees.

Tembe is located on approximately 30 000 hectares in Tongaland, bordered by Northern Zululand in the south and Mozambique in the north, Ndumu Game Reserve to the west and by the iSimangeliso Wetland Park to the east. It boasts being the home to some of Southern Africa's largest tuskers. (hundred pounders) as well as to the smallest antelope the elusive and shy little suni.  

Co-managed by the Tembe clan together with Ezemvelo Wildlife, Tembe is probably one of the country’s best-kept reserve secrets. Which is not a bad thing, as it means that, unlike Kruger, there’s never a rush on a good sighting. All the roads are sand or gravel, which means only four by four vehicles are allowed into the park, and there is only one place to stay within the park, the Tembe Safari Lodge, a tented camp owned and run by members of the Tembe people, which enjoys good patronage all year round.

Tembe is like no other park I have been to. Ever. Situated in one of the last remaining sand forests on earth, the park has a spectacular mix of forest, grasslands and woodland terrain. This means that a fabulous variety of fauna and flora can be experienced in a mere day’s drive. With some 340 species of bird including the Lemon-breasted Canary, Narina Trogon, Neergaard’s Sunbird, African Broadbill and Eastern Nicator and countless other species make it a birder’s dream. Two well-placed hides - Mahlasela in the South-East and another, Ponweni, mid way up the park also in the east, both provide spectacular vistas for game-viewing. The Muzi Swamp which starts just south of the park, stretches north to the south of Maputo Bay in Mozambique where is flows as the Rio Futi river into the Indian Ocean. The swamp, bordered on one side by sand forest and on the other by grasslands and a palm woodland, provides opportunities to see elephant taking cool mud baths, or herds of buffalo wallowing and grazing, as well as waterbuck, nyala and impala, with a spectacular variety of birdlife that can take advantage of the mixed vegetation the area provides.

The park is home to the Big Five, but those leopards, were, as usual for me, elusive, and we never managed to spot one in the two weeks we spent there. They were there. We did see evidence in spoor – so that must count for something.

As we were on a training mission, you can well imagine, our eyes were wide open to try spot, remember and interpret what was going on all the time. This meant that while the mammals were not so forthcoming in presenting themselves to us, we had to get down and spot the blind-worm, cocktail ant nest, Monarch butterfly and its poisonous Milkweed habitat, the termite mounds and the fascinating world that exist within them, tree monitors, wild hibiscuses, and dung beetles. Oh and thank god for dung beetles! On my final assessment I must have channelled that one lone chap who presented himself to us on the sandy road, rolling his food ball.  And then later also on my assessment, a whole fleet of them was busily de-constructing a fresh elephant dung mound. They are seriously cute, and great to talk about too!

With only ten vehicles allowed in the park on any one day, we very seldom came across another vehicle unless it was one belonging to the Lodge. It felt like true wilderness. Our own little slice of heaven.

We stayed outside the park at Bhekula Sand Forest Lodge, a facility, teeming with birdlife and butterflies, currently under renovation, and will be run by the local Tembe people as a full service lodge with game drives when it opens. It’s only a 5-minute drive from the park gate, is well-appointed and rather magical with walkways linking each three bed unit to a communal area.  So watch this space.

All round Tembe offers a unique wildlife experience. An intimate one, where the silence of nature is only broken by the sounds of the birds and animals, and the majesty of trees rising from ancient sand; and the open skies proffers a glimpse into a past time for which our souls continue to long.


The Wilderness Leadership School is hosting open information mornings for their January 2018 intake for the Nature Guide Training Course (FGASA Level 1) at Bishops Diocesan College Library in Rondebosch, Cape Town on Saturday, 11 November from 10am to 12noon and at the Wilderness Leadership School, Stainbank Nature Reserve, Durban on Saturday, November 18 from 10am to 12 noon. Contact to book a seat, or for more information.


Wilderness Leadership School:

Tembe Elephant Park: Info and accommodation and bookings -