Tembe Elephant Park

This is the second post of our trip to north KwaZulu Natal. After our first day in Ndumo, it was time to go and explore the Tembe Elephant Park.  Firstly, we saw more birds at Tembe and secondly it is a beautiful park. Again it does not lend itself to good photographic backgrounds, The bush is dense but beautiful. There are some wonderful pans in the park which are ideal drinking spots for the game. Tembe’s roads are very sandy and some parts have deep sand. You will need a 4×4 to get around, which of course is part of the fun. The public only has access to the southern part of the park with the northern most access being to the Poweni hide. There are some 340 birds recorded in Tembe. The bush is thick which does make it exciting because you never know what you will meet when you will come around the corner, it could be a large Elephant. This park has some of the largest Elephant in southern Africa. Our experience was that they were relatively placid and not remotely as aggressive as those in Kruger. We have great respect for these intelligent giants so never pressed our luck but rather gave them right of way. On occasion this meant reversing back up a very narrow deep sand road through the bush which was scraping both sides of the vehicle – no room to turnaround.

“The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”

– Johannes Kepler (German Astronomer, 1571-1630)

There are two hides in Tembe, Mahlesela and Poweni. Both are in very good condition and were great from an observation point of view being high up but were a long way from the actual pans. Perhaps good for Elephant but not for bird photography. Again they are good for observation but not for photography. Tembe has numerous pans away from the swamp which still had water in mid-winter. The next image is of Mfungeni pan early in the morning. We did not see any game around this waterhole the few times we visited it but the area looked to have loads of potential. It was just a question of timing.

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One morning, driving further up the road from Mfungeni pan along the Maziswana road we were fortunate enough to see this Cuckoo Hawk. I tried to get around to get a better shot but it was not obliging. This was a first for me.

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My knowledge of Larks will probably make you smile, but I think this is a common Rufous-naped Lark. The colouring, geography, and brown eye band are my markers.

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Down at the southern end of the Muzi swamp, we came upon this Yellow-throated Longclaw. It was drenched in the morning dew, looked frozen and was singing its heart out.

“Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

– Hans Christian Anderson

Tembe AM 21-Jun-14 0090

The southern part of the Muzi swamp is accessed via an east and west road. The east road is best to travel along in the early morning as the sunlight is directed onto the swamp. The west road has a lot of bush between it and the swamp and is not nearly as open as the east road. Further up the east road, we found this Black-crowned Tchagra. It must have been its territory as we saw it a couple of times in the same area. Tchagra is an onomatopoeic name. Tchagras are closely related to boubous and bushshrikes but are slightly smaller. They have the sharp, small hook at the end of their beak characteristic of the shrike family. This is an exquisitely beautiful bird but almost impossible to get a clean background because like boubous they like to skulk in among the lower branches of thorn bushes and scrub.

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Along the east swamp road we came across three juvenile Black Shouldered Kites. All  screeching with youthful urgency. One young Black Shouldered Kite had caught a rat and was very protective over its kill. It flew into a really heavily thorned acacia so that its siblings could not come a join in the feast. It made short work of the rat, just tearing it into pieces and eating everything, feet and tail included.

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At the northern part of the east swamp road, it crossed the swamp as an embankment with a concrete causeway. We stopped on the embankment to watch Grey and Black Headed Herons hunting in the swamp waters. Despite a surface layer of thick green algae, the Herons seemed to be successful.

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We often saw Crowned Hornbills which were distinguishable by their red bill with a yellow base to it matching their eyes. Although the Red-billed, Monterio’s and Bradfield’s Hornbill also have a red beak, the Crowned has a deeper casque to its beak than the other three. You don’t find the Monterio’s or Bradfield’s Hornbill in this part of the world. The Crowned Hornbill is a tree loving species which prefers riverine and coastal bush and lowland savanna.

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Just after the park’s reception area at the entrance to the park this is just the kind of sign you would expect in a game park.

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“From the recycling miracles in the soil; an army of predators ridding us of unwanted pests; an abundance of life creating a genetic codebook that underpins our food, pharmaceutical industries and much more, it has been estimated that these and other services are each year worth about double global GDP.”

– Tony Juniper, sustainability and environment adviser, ‘What has nature ever done for us?’ (2013)

On the west part of the Tembe National Park is the kuDukuza and kuPhisi forests. These are dense sand forests and provide refuge for one of the last free ranging Elephants in southern Africa. Tembe’s African Elephants used to range between Mozambique and Maputaland but conflicts have resulted in these Elephants seeking refuge in the sand forests. Some of the largest tuskers in South Africa can be found in this park.

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The road skirted the periphery of the duDukuza and kuPhisi sand forests and the parts we drove along were very beautiful. This was one of my favourite parts of the park.

“The world’s forests are a shared stolen treasure that we must put back for our children’s future.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

We took one of the four days of our trip to drive down to Kosi Bay Estuary. You drive to within a kilometre of the SA-Mozambique border post before turning right onto a sand road to the park. Be sure to get a permit from the adjacent Kosy Bay Inn at the top of the hill just before the park entrance.

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We scouted around for a while to see if we could see Crab Plovers or a White Backed Night Heron (unlikely during the day) or any Flufftails but no such luck. We heard Crowned Hornbills but did not see any birds beside Little Egrets sitting on the sticks of the fish traps waiting for a meal.

“It is the marriage of the soul with nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to imagination

Henry David Thoreau

The next image is of the fish kraals or traps in  the Kosi Bay Estuary. They made interesting patterns against the blue water. The entrances to all the fish traps were facing away from the estuary mouth.

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We did not spend much time at Kosi Bay estuary after a walk along the beach because we saw very few birds and the wind was blowing quite hard.

“The earth has music for those who listen.”

– William Shakespeare

Back at Tembe we saw  many Nyala. The sand forest seems to be ideal habitat for them, especially with the swamp in the east part of the park.

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The Nyala is most dimorphic of any antelope in southern Africa. The male has charcoal grey hair on its body. Two manes, one on its back and another under its throat and stomach. The hair on its stomach and tops of its legs is long and at the elbow its colouring abruptly changes to a short golden hair. The female is a rusty-red with white vertical stripes on its body.

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Nyala do not seem to be territorial but they can be extremely aggressive. On my cousin’s farm up in Zimbabwe (before it was taken), I saw a Nyala bull approach a Sable on a sand road. The Nyala bull arched its back  and its back mane stood up vertically making the Nyala look bigger. There was no fight and also no competition as the Sable unfazed just strolled passed.

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One of the highlights of being in Tembe was to see the Crested Guineafowl. These are extravagantly dressed Guineafowl which live in lowland riverine forests. They have a tuft of short black feathers adorning their heads and their body and wing feathers merge into what looks like an elegant, well-tailored coat from their neck to their legs. They do not venture out into grasslands and fields like the Helmeted Guineafowl.

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“Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature. She shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Elephants in Tembe have calmed down as they have a sanctuary where they are not harassed. There are around 200 Elephants in the park.

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On our way to duDukuza forest we stopped at the Ezinaleni pan. In fact, there are a series of pans in the area. This is a wonderful deserted place to sit and have lunch and be quiet. We saw Woolly-necked Storks and many Nyala and Impala around this water hole.

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A pair of Woolly-necked Storks were roosting in one of the big trees behind the pan.

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This was not a productive photographic trip from a bird and animal perspective but the area is very beautiful. If you want to go to places which are not crowded and are wonderfully peaceful, Ndumo and Tembe will suit perfectly. I suggest getting a local bird guide to show you around, the bush is thick and you will need some guidance as to what and where to look. If you are interested in trees this is the place for you.

“From a distance the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.

From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.

From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.

It’s the voice of hope,
it’s the voice of peace,

it’s the voice of every man”.

 lyrics for ‘From A Distance’ sung by Bette Midler

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun



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