By Craig Lewis
STANDING head to head, each with one eye trained warily on our vehicle, the motionless pair of black rhino are the epitome of alertness in the split-second before the hulking duo bustle back into the sanctuary of the surrounding bush.
This would prove to be the first, but incredibly not the last such sighting of these critically endangered animals during a recent weekend’s stay at the White Elephant Safari Lodge in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.
The relatively recent introduction of these magnificent animals to the area offers an ever-diminishing opportunity for visitors to view black rhino in their natural habitat, and forms part of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project – a partnership between the World Wildlife Federation and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
Back in 2006, landowners in the Pongola Game Reserve agreed to amalgamate their properties to create a large enough tract of land to meet the programme’s strict criteria, with Ezemvelo donating the rhinos that were then released into various parts of the reserve.
The conservation, protection and population expansion of these animals is clearly a top priority, and many have been fitted with radio transmitters, while their movements are constantly monitored.
The presence of black rhino is naturally a major trump card for White Elephant Safaris, which is situated within the Pongola reserve, but there are certainly a number of other attractions.
Overlooking the expansive Jozini Dam, White Elephant offers both land and water-based activities all year-round, and the self-catered Bush Camp is a hotspot for avid fishermen.
On the weekend of my stay, guests from the Bush Camp landed 45 tiger fish, the largest weighing 6.5kg, which only served to support Jozini’s growing reputation as the best tiger fishing destination in South Africa.
We kept it simple, though, and opted for a sunset cruise on the Pongola river, where we were able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the various wildlife that ventured to the teeming water’s edge in the early evening.
With the majestic Lebombo Mountains towering in the background, we drifted mere metres away from snorting hippos and stealthy crocodiles, while on the nearby river banks, a pair of jousting reedbuck seemingly fought for our attention.
Another way to get up close and personal to the array of animals that frequent Jozini Dam is to venture out on a guided canoe ride, which particularly provides an opportunity to view a wide-variety of birdlife from a unique vantage point.
And with an early wake-up call each morning, there is very rarely a dull moment at White Elephant, with their highly popular rhino and elephant tracking activity offering a potentially once-in a lifetime opportunity to encounter these massive mammals on-foot.
To assist in roughly determining their location, head ranger Adriaan Crous made use of a fascinating telemetry device that picks up the signal emitted by selected transmitters.
“This is how the process works,” Crous explained after taking an initial reading on the day he took us out. “We first pick up a signal and then move into the area it’s coming from, and once we’ve got a stronger signal, or possibly even a visual sighting, then we’ll carefully move in on foot.”
There are no guarantees in the bush, though, as we soon found out when the elephants managed to elude detection, while it was considered to be too risky to pursue the notoriously short-tempered black rhino on-foot after we had spotted a young male in thick undergrowth.
Yet not long after, we virtually “bumped” into another trio of black rhino, quite understandably prompting Adriaan to rhetorically ask: “Where else in the world would you be able to have two sightings such as that within the space of half an hour?”
Boasting nearly two decades of experience, Adriaan was a fascinating guide to have on all of our excursions, offering interesting insights into the various habits and social structures of the diverse wildlife.
However, he didn’t pretend to have all the answers, and on one of our tranquil bush walks, we stumbled across pieces of perfectly cylindrical concrete slabs, which left us puzzling about the origins of these pillar-like structures.
There is plenty of history in the area, with one of the most famous archaeological sites in Southern Africa able to be found in a cave on the western face of the Lebombo Mountains, where both human and animal fossils were found when it was first excavated in 1934.
Pongola was also the first game reserve to be proclaimed in Africa towards the end of the 19th century, and since the mid 1950’s, the Kohrs family have been one of the leading protagonists in the fight to preserve and protect this 31 000 Ha conservation area.
In recent years, leopard have begun to re-emerge in the area, while in 2002, four spotted hyenas were successfully re-introduced to the Pongola reserve.
Along with his parents, veterinary surgeon Dr Heinz Kohrs still lives in the original homestead on Leeuwspoor, where the establishment of White Elephant Safaris first took shape in 1999.
Interestingly, the lodge had originally been named Mphafa after the reserve’s largest Buffalo Thorn tree, but a large elephant bull had the final say when he pushed the tree over, effectively enforcing an apt name-change.
Now a five-star destination, the Safari Lodge offers eight luxurious and secluded two-sleeper tents, and many of the personal touches — such as the already-run foam bath that awaits your arrival after the afternoon activity — ensured we felt right at home. But that’s not to say we weren’t tempted by the indulgent outdoor shower.
The main building is decadently decorated in traditional African style, and is in fact believed to be blessed by an angel after a family who had leased the property in the late 1940’s insisted they had seen an angel on the front veranda. Or so the story goes…
Nowadays, the deep verandas that surround the main building serve as the scenic venue for breakfast, brunch and supper, with guests able to pre-order from an a la carte dinner menu before heading off on their afternoon activity.
A perfectly prepared fillet steak with green peppercorn sauce was the pick of my stay, although the tender oxtail came a close second.
Not far from the main building, White Elephant’s intriguing research centre can be found, where visitors are able to gain insight into the on-going rhino and elephant research.
Pongola’s elephants were re-located to the reserve from the Kruger National Park in 1997, and a particularly unique activity called “elephanting” is run by passionate researcher, Heike, who monitors these colossal creatures for hours on end every day.
Many of the elephant bulls have been vasectomised as part of a project to manage the population growth as an alternative to culling, and Heike’s research is focused on collecting data to determine the long-term effects of this form of birth control on the elephant herd.
After an introductory discussion at the research centre, guests can then head into the field with Heike to view the elephants, as well as learn more about their habits and social structures.
As affable Safari lodge manager John Nieuwoudt explained, it’s all about the “eco-experience”.
“There is no doubt that we become more possessive and passionate about what we’ve got in nature when we understand the balance that exists between people and animals. The research centre sets White Elephant apart; everything is documented and made available because we want our guests to be actively involved.”
And although South Africans are frequent visitors to White Elephant, Nieuwoudt said the Safari Lodge was also a particularly popular destination for overseas guests from various parts of the world.
“As long as we keep having happy guests coming here, who leave saying that Africa is amazing, then I’ll always be confident in the future of South Africa!”