Friday, October 30, 2015

White Elephant Safari Lodge, Pongola Biosphere Reserve – by Jeremy Williamson

In northern Zululand, the Pongola River was dammed, in the gorge where the river breached the Lebombo mountain range. This has created a large body of water on the western side of the mountains, conveniently sustaining the animals in the poorly watered 30,000 ha Pongola Game Reserve.

The dam is home to Tiger fish amongst others, and is the only river / dam where these prized sporting fish are found in South Africa, right on their southern limit.
The dam was built to provide water to irrigate the Makatini Flats on the eastern side of the Lebombo. Well this was never properly effected and deemed a failure – the dam was consequently a ‘White Elephant’ in this respect. The appropriately named White Elephant Lodge however, is in no way a failure, on a recent visit to the Lodge, Lana and I were more than pleasantly surprised with the game viewing, the Lodge and what is offered guests.

Nyala ewe

Burchell's or Plain's Zebra



The Pongola Game Reserve has a wide diversity of species and is part of the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Black Rhino expansion initiative. Here we have a large protected area, with both Black and White Rhino, elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, hyena, warthog (a plenty), baboon and Vervet monkey and an excellent variety of antelope and of course  Leopard. The Jozini Dam , along with the fish, supports hippo, crocodile and a host of birdlife.

Welcome to the White Elephant Safari Lodge - the Lebombo Mountains and Pongolapoort Dam (Lake Jozini)

White Elephant Lodge offer a number of excursions for guests, tracking Black Rhino on foot, elephant research, educational game walks, a game viewing boat cruise, canoeing, fishing and game drives through the bush.

The White Elephant Safari Lodge

A beautiful old farm house now serves as the main White Elephant Lodge, with ‘tented’ accommodation for guests scattered about in the bush below the main Lodge, which houses the communal dining and lounging areas. 

Our comfortable tent

The tents are rather unique in that they are brick walled on a concrete base. The front and rear ‘doors’ are zippered tent type openings with the roof tented, with a shade awning above that. The doors and windows are well insulated against mosquito access, being sealed with mesh screening.

Very comfortable with ceiling and standard fans

Each tent has a private bathroom en suite, with an old styled ball and claw slipper bath. Through the rear door is a canvas screened outdoor shower.

A shaded veranda with comfortable chairs is an ideal place to relax, read and to observe the odd passing animal and the multitude of birdlife flitting between the trees. Right there is ones personal bar and tea station too.

Shaded veranda with bar and tea station on the left
The White Elephant main lodge has a variety of public rooms.

The dining room used when inclement weather prevails

The expansive veranda was cool in the balmy weather and was where we dined.

The grounds are host to some relatively tame antelope which seem to prefer the waters of the Lodge swimming pool for refreshment.

Nyala bull enjoying a drink from the sparkling swimming pool

The Pongola Game Reserve is easily accessed off the N2, some 3,5 to 4 hours drive from Durban and about 5 hours from Johannesburg. Access is through a control gate with limited hours, there is a nominal entrance fee to the Game Reserve, from there it’s an approximate 12 km drive on a reasonably good dirt road to the Lodge.

Lana and I had arrived in time for lunch. In the prelims to one visiting such a luxury Lodge, management inquire of guests if they have any dietary requirements. We mentioned that we were on a high fat, low carb way of eating, but not to fuss too much as we are normally able to eat around the no no food items. Well, we were amazed to have the most delicious “Banting” luncheon served, along with the other meals. Imagine roasted avocado with paprika and crispy seed biscuits. Spiced cottage cheese balls with walnut, others with coconut. Dessert was pineapple and granadilla. Thank you Bonnie.

The beautifully prepared warthog and vegetables for dinner, amazing too! Dessert was Coconut Milk Pana Cotta with a twist of lemon, delicious.Nothing was too much trouble.

A very comfortable, friendly Lodge is White Elephant Safari Lodge, but what about the game viewing?
We went on an afternoon guided game drive in the reserve and came across numerous antelope, some giraffe and when we reached the edge of the bush  leading out onto the grasslands, which had now replaced the high water mark of the dam, we were amazed to see the highest concentration of warthog we had ever seen. The Pongola Game Reserve has literally hundreds. Here is the ideal venue for cheetah, as the management of the reserve seem to be reluctant to introduce lion.

Loads of warthog

Wending our way back to camp, as the afternoon light faded, we came across a leopard and her cub in a Fever Tree - Acacia xanthophloea  She stared at us as we stared back and secured some rather unsuccessful photographs. A very special sighting indeed and she and her cub seemed not in the least perturbed with our presence.

Lana and I decided to freshen up before dinner, back to the tent and to our most pleasant surprise a steaming hot bath awaited our return. Super! 

Balmy autumn it was and dinner was served on the veranda. A delightful meal then back to our cosy tent and the sounds of the night.
Departure for the morning excursion was to be at 06h00. Tea, coffee and rusks and we clambered aboard the game viewer and headed for the White Elephant Lodge boat. This large pontoon boat was a delight. Plenty of room to maneuver and take best advantage to photograph the oh so many opportunities presented.Initially overcast the light slowly improved.

The water bird life was prolific, 

Goliath Heron

whilst the animals on the shore had a completely different take on our presence compared with our landward approach to the wildlife on the shore last afternoon. Then, the game was uncomfortable with our approaching them from the bush, they in turn retreated to the sanctuary of the trees. Here, our presence on the water seemed to not perturb the game at all. Consequently the relaxed sightings were most enjoyable. 

Common reedbuck

Common reedbuck

Zebra and impala


Nile crocodile

This was a particularly good game viewing experience which is not available at too many venues.
The White Elephant Safari Lodge comes highly recommended. The boat excursion was outstanding, it may not always produce such an abundance of animals and birdlife, but Lana and I had a visual feast. 
Two elephant were at the landing stage on our return to the dock, wonderful.

Then the leopard and her cub sighting is something that one is not privileged to see too often in KwaZulu-Natal. One really needs to visit venues such as the Sabi Sand and Timbavati Game Reserves to enjoy regular sightings of these elusive felines.
Our stay in this rather special game reserve was limited  and we departed after a most hearty breakfast and farewells to new friends. For more information and to make a reservation at White Elephant Safari Lodge or their self-catering Bush Lodge contact ourselves on

All photographs taken at White Elephant Safari Lodge by Jeremy and Lana Williamson

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