In northern Zululand you will find Africa’s oldest wildlife reserve. In 1894 Paul Kruger proclaimed the Pongola reserve a protected area. It was only the second in the world following Yellowstone National Park.
The reserve has seen many turbulent times. The Boer War followed the Zulu War. The ‘golden age of hunting’ came and went decimating animal populations. Following the First World War in an effort to control the tsetse fly all game was methodically slaughtered. The tsetse fly remained making livestock farming near impossible and farmland was referred to as a ‘white elephant’. After the Second World War chemical warfare was introduced and the tsetse fly was finally wiped out.
In 1970 construction of the Jozini Dam began creating a reservoir covering 150 square kilometres. This was the start of yet another chapter of the areas turbulent history. The dam proved a near pointless venture as it did not serve the purpose it was intended for. It was labelled a ‘white elephant’.
Almost one hundred years since the reserves proclamation a new era began. In the early 1990’s the reserve began to come back to life. A variety of game was reintroduced and then in 1997 two family herds of elephant were bought in.
In 1999 within the southern section of the Pongola reserve, on the shores of Lake Jozini and framed by the Lebombo Mountains, the White Elephant Safari Lodge opened its doors. The newly refurbished lodge was originally named Mphafa Lodge, meaning Buffalo Thorn tree. However when the largest Mphafa was felled by a huge bull elephant the lodge was renamed.
Colonial is a term often used to describe lodges in Africa. The White Elephant fits the term better than most. The ‘old refurbished farmhouse’ is set in a well kept garden where the grass and cycads are the only green, oasis like amongst the dry surrounding winter bush. The only other hint of green is the corrugated tin roof which slopes over the lodges large verandas. Inside there is a warm feeling created by the low beamed ceiling and choice of furniture and fittings. Off white walls, dark brown floors, leather furniture and bright coloured throws and cushions. Photographs of times gone by are mixed with original paintings of the reserves big game. Muskets, tusks, hunting trophies and animal skins complete the scene.
My tent is a short walk from the main lodge and looks down across the lake and beyond to the mountains. Red and yellow flowering aloes are in stark contrast to the arid bush. Sunbirds feeding on the aloes gave additional flashes of colour.
The tents are mounted on raised permanent bases and inside are beautifully laid out and decorated. A mosquito net hangs from the ceiling surrounding the white linen covered bed. Again there is a warm feeling provided by the red and orange cushions on the bed. Lanterns and candles after dark create a wonderful atmosphere.
Alongside the game drives within the reserve the lodge offers ‘game cruises’. I knew there was water within the reserve as the Pongola river flows into Laze Jozini there. However I have to say I was stunned by just how much water there actually is.
Both in the water and on the banks was a hive of activity. Within minutes of launching we were passing several pods of hippos. As we slowed to view them white egrets hopped from hippo head to hippo head as the huge animals bobbed up and down in the water. Giant egrets stood on the waters edge alongside spoonbills, goliath herons and marabou storks. The bird life was prolific. Fish eagles perched and observed our passing. Flocks of cormorants and African darters stood on the off white branches of dead trees which stood proud of the water in shallow coves.
African Jacanas fed in the shallows only a few meters from several crocodiles basking in the late afternoon sunshine. One enormous Nile crocodile that looked to be in excess of 4 meters lay flanked by several smaller reptiles. Our pilot and ranger Adrian managed to track down an even larger crocodile which lay alone on the grassy shore. It was easily the biggest I have ever seen. Lying with a smile full of teeth and a nasty looking wound just on his cheek.
As we cruised it was not only birds and crocodiles that we glided by. Hundreds of animals were grazing on the lush green grass and drinking at the rivers boundary. Water buck, impala and reedbuck were among the small herds and individual animals that looked totally relaxed by our presence.
Before reaching the jetty one animal that was not pleased to see us was a large lone bull hippo. He grazed alone with the setting sun silhouetting him. As we passed he grunted and made a dash back into the river. As he hit the water he created a wake that we felt the roll under the boat. We kept a safe distance and headed back to the jetty and beyond to the White Elephant Lodge.