Pongola. It doesn’t exactly sound romantic or the sort of place that has you rushing to pack your bags. However, this northern-most tip of South Africa’s largely coastal KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province more than makes up for its slightly strange name and delivers a refreshing and original take on often run-of-the-mill safari destinations.
Located virtually on the border with Swaziland, and a couple of hundred kilometres from the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – a unique and beautiful World Heritage Site – Pongola as a town is about as far from a tourism hotspot as you can get.
Largely unforgettable, this old farming outpost is the closest this region of KZN gets to a major city, but nevertheless provides the gateway to some of the most beautiful landscapes South Africa has to offer, and, if you believe what the archives tell you, is the oldest “national” park in the southern hemisphere.
What is now the Pongola Game Reserve was originally proclaimed a protected area in 1894 by Paul Kruger, before he even thought of a national park. Although nowhere near as large as its equally “ancient” sibling, the reserve occupies an enviable location on the banks of the eerily beautiful Lake Jozini (also known as Pongolapoort Dam), looking across to the impressive Lebombo escarpment and the distant mountains of Swaziland.
When a staunch and pioneering generation of largely Afrikaans and a few German hunters and farmers moved into the area some 200 years ago, it was packed with game of every size and description. And tsetse flies which carried the dreaded sleeping sickness. In spite of this hunting abounded, and by the 1940s the area was largely hunted out.
In the late 1940s the dreaded DDT managed to wipe out the tsetse flies, curing the sleeping sickness problem, but allowing large scale cattle farming to prosper as a result, decimating the landscape. And in the 1970s, the construction of the dam changed the landscape forever.
Fast forward to 20 years ago or so, and we see farmers giving up the thankless job of raising cattle and rehabilitating vast swathes of land to their original condition, converting to eco-tourism pursuits in the process. Enter Dr Heinz Kohrs, local farmer, veterinarian and conservationist whose driving passion was to reintroduce elephant to the region.
Kohrs was ultimately successful in his endeavour, translocating elephants from the Kruger National Park which formed the basis of the impressive herd which now once more roam the beautiful expanses of his property – White Elephant Lodge – within the Pongola Game Reserve.
Like many of his cattle farming colleagues in the area, Kohrs gave up raising beef in favor of tourism, opening White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp some 12 years ago.
The safari lodge consists of a beautiful tented camp with eight luxurious tented rooms strung out like a string of pearls to one side of old and historic converted farmhouse situated on a hill overlooking the lake.
The fabulous and private Bush Camp is equally elegant and offers self-catering facilities in some of the most beautiful “budget” accommodation I have ever seen, with seven gorgeous chalets and fabulous communal facilities including a swimming pool, open-plan kitchen, dining area and upstairs lounge and viewing deck.
What helps to make White Elephant and the Pongola Game Reserve unique is the fact that Lake Jozini is the only place in South Africa where you can take to the water, rod in hand, and go in search of the magnificent “water dog” – the tiger fish.
As an alternative to the usual safari outings in open vehicles – which are always a treat in an environment like this – the ability to go out onto the lake for hours at a time on a marvelous double-decker boat and fish for tigers is truly unbeatable in my book.
I’m not a passionate fisherman, but I do love tiger fishing. And the fact that from a boat you get to see SO much more than on a game drive, with animals constantly coming to the water’s edge to drink, combined with some amazing bird life and picture-perfect views of the lake and distant mountains.
In itself, White Elephant Lodge is beautiful. Add to this its magnificent location, owners dedicated to conserving and restoring wild Africa, incredible views and four of the “Big Five” and you have a winning destination in anyone’s book.