Tembe Elephant Park is a place of magic. Nestled in the northwest corner of KwaZulu Natal on the Mozambican border it is unknown even to most South Africans. Covering over 300 square kilometres it is not enormous, but the park is plenty big enough to visit over a long weekend and still not see it all. There are no lodgings within the park and all visitors must enter in guided game-viewing vehicles. Except for us.
Months ago our friend Kenneth had invited us to the park with the Land Rover Owners' Club of KZN. The club had special permission once a year to drive our own vehicles and stay in the staff accommodations at Pongweni Camp as a fundraiser for the park. I haven't had this much solitude in a game park since my first Land Rover expedition at age 6, crossing the Kalahari with my parents.
Kenneth wanted to leave Durban early since he would be driving his 1956 Series One Land Rover (zero to sixty same day) and we didn't want to miss the welcome dinner. We had 480km to cover and our diesel Defender 110 was not exactly sporty, either. Circumstances conspired against us, however, and we didn't hit the road until 10:00. We took a detour to Pinetown to pick up a new battery and alternator: one of the park rangers' Defenders was dead and we were the last hope for resuscitating it. Although we would be late arriving we at least would be admitted with our precious cargo. In typical Kenneth fashion he wasn't worried in the least: "It always works out." And he's right.
Much of the drive was along the N2 highway, although it was nothing like any interstate freeway in the U.S. Jenna and I agreed that it was some of the spiciest driving we'd ever done. The myriad hazards demanded constant vigilance. Our pair of Rovers traveled well below the speed limit and as such followed the local convention for overtaking. For much of the way the N2 was one lane in each direction. Slower traffic moved onto the shoulder to let faster vehicles pass. In theory this sounded simple, however it was fraught with complications. The shoulder was frequently occupied by stopped minibus taxis, pedestrians, cyclists, pineapple sellers, shredded tyres, cattle, goats, broken-down cars, creeping lorries, and dogs. Sometimes cars impatiently overtook us two abreast, facing down oncoming traffic. Meanwhile, exactly the same thing was taking place on the other side of the road. Consequently the N2, originally designed as a dual carriageway, had organically transformed into a 5 or 6-lane highway that rivaled Road Warrior for vehicular mayhem.
With much relief we turned off at Hluhluwe for fuel and a calmer leg of the journey on back roads to the park entrance. The warm afternoon sun glowed on the villages we passed, bright smiles lighting up on the faces of the children walking home from school in their uniforms. There is something special about the Series One in how it invites curiosity and friendliness from those we pass. People recognize it as a vehicle from a different time, open to the world around it and not isolating its occupants with tinted glass and air conditioning.
Sure enough we arrived late at the entrance and sure enough the staff had stayed to admit us. We proceeded directly to the Inspection Camp to install the new battery in Bergert's Defender 90 and were greeted with much enthusiasm. Light was fading as we pressed on to Pongweni Camp, which was still an hour's drive through the soft sand tracks of Tembe. Kenneth hastily rejected Jenna's suggestion that we consult the map: "Who needs maps?"
Half an hour later we had passed a signpost for the second time and realised we were clear on the wrong side of the park. With Jenna navigating by headlamp we managed to reach Pongweni in complete darkness moments before dinner was served. This was another fortunate adventure, as night driving is typically not permitted. We took seats around the fire, still vibrating from the bumpy journey, and enjoyed a delicious meal.
As a welcome to the club the rangers had prepared us a huge poitjie stew. This is a South African bush tradition: cast iron cauldron filled with layers of chopped vegetables and meat cooked slowly over coals, served blazing hot with mealie pap (thick corn porridge). Ours was made from nyala, an antelope prevalent in the park. I've eaten a lot of poitjies in my time and hands down this was the best. Chilled beer, steaming stew, flickering firelight beneath the southern sky among fellow Land Rover enthusiasts, this is about as good as it gets. Jenna and I went to sleep in our tent listening to lions roar outside of camp.