busy waterhole

Tembe Elephant Park: Home To Big Tuskers

South Africa’s Maputaland is one of the most popular vacation areas in the country due to the phenomenal wildlife and the tropical beach towns. The safari destinations in this area stand out not only for their excellent conservation skills but also for containing some of the rarest species in the southern hemisphere. Tembe Elephant Park offers a unique experience of elephant encounters, as implied by its name. What makes the elephants in Tembe different is their ginormous sizes and massive tusks, which earned them the name `big tuskers`. Aside from these giants, Tembe offers a chance to see various animals via affordable tour options in a lush backdrop all year round.  

Tembe elephants under a tree Steve Slater License: CC


Before the establishment of the park, elephants used to migrate across the Mozambican border between the two countries. Towards the end of the 20th century, the civil war in Mozambique started to threaten the wildlife. Elephants were the number one victims of violent poaching because their tusks were valuable assets in making accessories and weapons. Concerned about the future of the species, the government-bound Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Tembe Tribal Authority facilitated the transfer of 200 elephants in 1973, along with many other animals. The park didn’t open until 1991 due to the long rehabilitation period that the elephants had to go through.

The park borders Ndumo Game Reserve and covers an area of 30,012 ha. Together with Lubombo Conservancy in Eswatini, and Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique, it forms the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area. The majority of the land consists of wetlands and thick woodland, with occasional rare sand forests.


The park is home to all the big 5, but elephants are the most abundant members. There are currently 250 elephants in the park, most of which are exceptionally large. In fact, the biggest tusker in the southern hemisphere lived in Tembe until death in 2014.

Busy waterhole Steve Slater License: CC

Other common animals in Tembe include buffalo, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, nyala, and hippo. Tembe is also abundant in many species that are considered rare elsewhere in Africa, including red duiker, suni antelope, and samango monkey.

Old man giraffe Duncan License: CC

Although black and white rhinoceros are both present in the park, you can barely spot them. Of the predators, you can occasionally see lions, leopards, cheetah, and hyena. Wild dog is a recent addition, so they are still relatively rare.

Lion cubs at rest at Tembe Steve Slater License: CC

Due to the vegetation containing scrub, acacia, and sand forest, there are more than 340 bird species in the park. African broadbill and Rudd’s Apalis are tropical birds, and Tembe is the only place you can see them in South Africa.


Like all the other game reserves in KZN, Tembe Elephant Park combines game viewing with marine excursions.

The Kosi Lake System is a heaven for birds, turtles, and marine animals. You can join guided diving and snorkeling tours and visit nearby places like Rocktail Bay, Kosi Bay, and Black Rock. Depending on the season, the park organizes turtle-viewing tours to Lake Sibaya and the surrounding rain forest.

The game drives have a particular focus on elephant tracking, as it is the park’s highlight. Three routes are highly-populated by elephants. The game drives try to cover all three routes in their Elephant Coast Itinerary. These guided tours also include a picnic lunch as a game-viewing hide called Mahlahesa that overlooks a waterhole. Besides the daytime tours, Tembe Elephant Park offers the option of night tours for viewing elusive animals like leopard and hyena.

Elephants James Sanders Licence: CC

Tembe Elephant Lodge is the main accommodation site in the park, with catered amenities, an outside braai area, swimming pools, and even a conference center.

Climate & Best Time To Visit

KZN experiences a subtropical climate, with a hot and humid wet season, and a mild dry season.

From May to September is the dry season. The days are quite warm with temperatures around 25 to 27 degrees, but the nighttime can be cold.

The wet season is between October and April. Although the rains are common, they seldom take more than a few hours in the afternoon. The temperature range is between 19 and 31 degrees during this time.

Although the park is ideal for visiting all year round, you must visit during the dry season if you want to see animals clustered around the receded water resources. However, you must also remember that morning and evening safaris can be very cold, so you will need to pack warm clothes. On the other hand, the wet season offers better bird-viewing with the arrival of migratory birds. You can also see baby animals at this time of the year.

Elephant in water Maciej Licence: CC

Getting There

The closest city to Tembe Elephant Park is Durban, which is 410 km away. King Shaka International Airport receives regular flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as other African countries. However, flights from overseas will usually have a stopover in Johannesburg, which is 550 km from Tembe. You can rent a car at the airport to drive to Tembe but you must keep in mind that only 4×4 vehicles are allowed in the park. Some tour companies arrange pickup at the airports or well-known hotels in the big cities.

King Shaka International Airport, Durban, SA hiroo yamagata Licence: CC

Tips & Things You Might Need To Know

  • Self-driving is allowed in Tembe, although it is limited to a few vehicles per day. You can only do self-driving with a 4×4.
  • The park is very close to Ponte de Orro, a lovely coastal town in the southern tip of Mozambique. You can book day trips to Ponte de Orro for dolphin encounters in the ocean, but you need to have a valid passport and documentation to obtain a visa on arrival.
  • If you are self-driving, you must try to drive near the waterholes between 11 – 3 pm as the elephants tend to be more active during those hours.
  • Northern KZN is in a low-risk malaria zone. The risk is much higher in the wet season, so you need to consult a pharmacy’s travel clinic to enquire about the risk factor. Also, you can buy DEET insect repellents for extra protection.