The lush grounds of the Lodge.

South Africa has white lions so I was expecting pallid pachyderms at the White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp. Adrian, the Lodge’s lead ranger, picked me up in their Mahindra safari truck, made in India by the same company that owns Willy’s Jeeps, but about half the price of a Land Rover.  It has no free wheel or 4 wheel drive, they are not needed on the rolling hills and plains that stretch along the 30 kilometer Jozini Lake and Lebombo Mountains in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The security guard at the southern gate along the old Durban Highway sprayed all the Mahindra’s tires for foot-and-mouth disease, which had recently cropped up in the area. (The disease is now under control.) The White Elephant Safari Lodge is a privately owned section of mixed veld forest purchased in 1955 by the Kohrs family, and even though the Reserve is fenced on the southern and western (main gate) boundaries the wire was dropped in 1993 between the Kohrs’ private holdings and the Pongola Game Reserve, the first reserve in all of Africa, commissioned by President Paul Kruger in 1894.

The 100-year-old farm house is used for admin and dining.

Tusker bath.

Adrian and I followed a dusty red sandy track following an elephant monitoring truck that used remote sensing to collect data about the young bull elephants that received expensive vasectomies to control the birth rate in the “space for elephants” program. There are two reintroduced elephant herds on the Reserve, the northern and southern clans.  I asked Adrian if we would see any white elephants. 

There is one albino elephant in the area, but the name of the lodge was changed after an elephant in 1999 knocked over a Mphafa tree (Buffalo Thorn) in the garden of the 100-year-old main farm house that serves as admin and restaurant.  The Kohrs changed the lodge name from Mphafa Lodge to The White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp; also the huge dam that backs up the Pongola River in the Lebombo Mountains gorge was classified a White Elephant boondoggle by the farmers and sugar cane growers in the region.

Elephants at Lake Jozini & Lebombo Mountains.

I meet the congenial Lodge manager, Terry, at the farm house who organized a wonderful lunch on the back verandah overlooking the newly reconstructed infinity pool that seemed to spill into Lake Jozini. 

Tented luxury.

Afterwards, I was shown my bush safari tent cottage nearby, down a serpentine raised concrete walkway.  Hugh zippers unlocked the heavy screen door flaps and I felt I had arrived into the Heart of Africa.

A canopied double bed was pushed together; a cow hide graced the floor; a writing desk was to the right; two wash basins and a claw and ball tub outfitted the bath with an outdoor shower kept private by a smooth bramble fence, like a Zulu cattle kraal. There are eight tent cottages at the Lodge so you know you will have complete privacy and relaxation; children over 12 years are welcome.

I quickly changed into my safari clothes and hat for an afternoon game drive with Adrian. With over 17 years of experience as a guide and ranger I must say that Adrian was one of the most knowledgeable bush guides I encountered in all of South Africa.  We stopped at the lake for a sundowner of coffee and tinned biscuits (cookies) before the Golden Hour.  Adrian kept talking about the Golden Hour and I am here to bear witness to the unusual light phenomenon. 

Giraffes enjoy the Golden Hour.

The rolling landscape and geography and the lake sheen and shimmer provided by the dipping winter sun made the gray thorn trees and bushes seem to ooze amber color that bled from the heartwood and baked the bark into a bushy ceramic glow that made them appear as if on fire. This was the Golden Hour.

During the Golden Hour the giraffe herd bun bathed in the glow of acacia trees.  “The top of acacia trees always point north,” stated Adrian.  He wheeled the safari truck around a bend and pointed out warthog homes, huge holes in the red earth. We spotted a young Marshall Hawk in a dead tree and grazing kudu, nyala, wildebeest and impala. The reserve has 19 resident white rhinos which we attempted to find over the next couple of days.  The Golden Hour made the green euphorbia plants appear as resilient flutes of molten metal pushed out of the sand.

That evening a sickle bush fire in the outdoor boma near the farm house set the stage for the enveloping black velvet, but only after I discovered a warm bath drawn in the porcelain tub by a mysterious but never seen attendant.  Adrian and I dined on fine South African sparkling wines and delectable golden baked plate-sized butterfish, straight out of South African estuaries not many miles away on the Indian Ocean. Because the Lodge has its own gardens and fruit trees and bakes its own breads daily, everything is exceptionally fresh.

A Golden Hour is also enjoyed in the tented bath.

There are 19 rhinos on the Reserve.

The region had been experiencing a draught spell, but that evening as I lay in bed a localized rain storm cracked with thunder and lightning before a brief deluge.   Then the skies opened with a full moon and the cicadas played in full discordant symphony.  Suddenly I heard a guttural gurgling sound like a bath tub draining, and the next morning Adrian told me it was fighting impala males rutting for an accepting female.

I had no need for an alarm clock, Adrian was my timekeeper every morning as he called reveille at about 5:30 a.m.  Breakfast was golden made-to-order omelets and a big pot of coffee and fresh breads.  Morning and evenings are prime times for spotting rhino and Adrian packed a high powered rifle in case we went on a walking safari.  Many safari drives are called “sausage factories” because the guests are run through as if on an assembly line.  The only sausage at the White Elephant Safari Lodge was served at breakfast.  Adrian always provided an insightful and educational safari experience.

A White Backed Vulture.

I am happy to announce that the morning also provided a Golden Hour, not quite as intense as in the evening, but the bush turned into a paint-by-numbers canvas.  A White Backed Vulture sat in a dead tree waiting for the morning light to warm his wings so that he could ride the easy-to-glide thermals.  The rain made the sand track a deeper shade of blood. “Always look into the sun when looking for tracks,” stated Adrian, “you can see them by their shadows.”  He stepped out of the truck near a hoof print and scrapped his shoe next to it.  “A print is fresh if the scrape is the same color.”  We hopped up on an old rail road bed and followed it for a short distance.  “See that?” asked Adrian.  I saw only dung plopped out like in a dotted line. 

“A male elephant can drop dung while walking, but a female must stop,” stated Adrian.

Impalas about to pronk.

A black backed jackal spooked up a huge herd of impalas.  Then I saw one of the most astounding wildlife feats, so astonishing I forgot to take a photo.  The impalas leaped like a wave in unison cresting through the bush, running in the same direction with no lead.  “It is called pronking,” said Adrian. Then I heard the call of guinea fowl, but Adrian laughed as he answered his cell phone ring tone. To this day I still recognize their call because of his phone.

We stopped at the remote Bush Camp which has seven thatched huts with a group center (for about 30) for self catering meals. 

The Camp is used by families but also offers accommodations for students that stay at the Reserve to study ecology, conservation, and the habits of elephants; German students recently studied at the Camp.  The Lodge and Camp had no TV or radio in the tents or huts, but there is electricity, low flush toilets, and hot and cold running water, even in the open air Camp bath tub under a knob thorn tree.  There is limited internet at the farm house only.  The Camp has its own resident population of bats in their own high rise condo.

Adrian at the Bush Camp.

Hippo pod and VIP houseboat.

The highlight of the afternoon was a boating safari with Adrian on Lake Jozini.  The Lodge has three smaller excursion boats for sightseeing pleasure and fishing, but also owns half interest in two monstrous houseboats berthed across the Pongola River that rent out for about 10,000 rand per night.  As Adrian motors our beautiful mahogany trimmed runabout out of the small harbor an afternoon squall threatens.  We pass a private fishing lodge on a bluff.  Lake Jozini is well known for its Tiger Fish, the southernmost reach of the prized fighter, but there are also sizeable bass, and in fact, annual tournaments are set on the lake for both species.

Adrian rounds a bend and we putt along the shoreline.  A Nile croc pops its eyeballs out of the reeds to periscope us out while another lazes on the bank; nearby a pod of hippos huffs and snorts out of the depths with the large bull male somewhat off at a distance standing guard duty while the rest of the raft munches delectable aquatic weeds and plants. 

We cross the river as the sky darkens and spitballs droplets.  A huge Giant Egret forages for snails and fish in the reeds in the marshy screed.  We approach the banked houseboat but don’t board her.  If you want a remote party boat adventure contact the Lodge reservations for an exciting time on a magnificent body of water.  The rain picks up with a drum beat and we head back to the dock where another ranger has caught a 4kg Tiger Fish that he gives to one of the Zulu boat attendants to make a soup out of; Tiger Fish are notoriously boney.

Leisurely dining on the back verandah.

Back at the farm house that evening Adrian brought out a silver tray with a decanter of clear liquid and a shot glass and pours me a couple of fingers of Mampoer, which at about 65% proof could take the hair off the hide of a warthog.  Mampoer was once declared an illegal moonshine in South Africa, but now the fermented marula berry concoction can be distilled for private use.  Needless to say, Adrian wouldn’t take a shot and his wry smile hid his knowledge of Mampoer’s effects.

Legacy of a tusker.

Dr. Heinz Kohrs arrived for the evening meal of wildebeest taken from the Reserve a few days before. Earlier in the day I noticed the numerous and different types of antelope horns displayed on the men’s room wall of the farm house; over the sitting lounge doorway  hung huge elephant tusks taken from a bull after being killed by a freight train that runs through the Reserve.  Heinz grew up on the farm his father bought in the ‘50s and he is now a respected and well known veterinarian, thus the Reserve’s interest in protecting animals.  The area is a no fly zone to keep out the poachers and this is strictly enforced.  Heinz has spent an entire night nursing a neighbor’s sick dog back to health, and also recently returned from a conference to stop the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease. The wildebeest sirloins had been marinated in a special sauce made by the culinary staff at the Lodge, and the wild antelope was so tender, with no gamey after taste.  The good life in the bush.

Rare books in the sitting lounge;
the path to tented luxury.

On my last morning at the Lodge the dew point made the cotton candy clouds float above Lake Jozini like a Japanese watercolor as the sun peeked over the Lebombo peaks and finger painted their tops rose.  It was going to be another beautiful Golden Hour.  Adrian and I drove nearly every track of the Reserve to find the elusive rhinos; we came across smelly mittens and fresh dung but the rhinos were on vacation deeper in the expansive protectorate.

Even though the Reserve paralleled the paved N2 highway, it seemed like a remote Arthur Conan Doyle “Lost World” storybook; as I drove out the main gate we saw Mirabeau storks and Fish Eagles.  As my driver pulled onto the macadam I left the Golden Hour behind and entered a drabber world, Durban to the left, Joburg to the right.

I recommend at least 4-5 days at the White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp to soak in the Gold Hour; inquire about their packages:

There is a 6 night “Best of Zululand” bush & beach package that includes visiting the Reserve’s wildlife and conservation projects in the Pongola Game Reserve, a day at Sodwana Bay, deep sea diving the coral reefs off the Isimangaliso World Heritage Park, snorkeling or just relaxing and suntanning. During turtle season take guided tour to see the Leatherback turtles come out on to the beach at night to lay their eggs.  Also included is a trip to Kosi Bay mouth, in Maputaland, to visit the Thonga people and their interesting traditional fishing kraals in the estuary and lakes.

Other packages include a 3 day walking safari; 4 night birding package; 4 night elephanting package; and a 5 night fishing package. Nearby is the horseback riding safari reserve called Pakamisa, or extend your stay in the region at the nearby Ghost Mountain Inn. The White Elephant Lodge is within close proximity to many renowned Zululand game and nature reserves, including Mkuze Game Reserve, Ndumo Game Reserve, Tembe Elephant Reserve, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park.

For more info on White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp packages, contact Stephanie in reservations.

Adrian walks in the Golden Hour.

White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp
Tel: +27 34 413 2489
Office hours: 8:00-16:00, Monday to Friday
After hours cell: +27 82 945 7173
P.O. Box 792
Pongola,  3170 South Africa
Representation in Germany and Europe
The Spatz Family - MSC GmbH
Facebook - name: White Elephant Safari Lodge & Bush Camp

— Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the author and courtesy of White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp.