In photos: Pongola’s elephant dreams

Posted by Teagan Cunniffe on 4 October 2016

Up to 80 elephants sometimes can be seen splashing along the shores of the Pongolapoort Dam, oblivious to the debates taking place regarding their future.

When Getaway’s editor, Sonya Schoeman, her brother, Kilaan, and I visited in June 2016, some had walked across to the Swaziland border and were happily plundering the much greener bush, watched closely by Save the Elephant’s researcher and modern-day Jane Goodall, Heike Zitzer.

We followed this elephant into Swaziland

We followed this elephant into Swaziland

By June 2016, drought had hit this area particularly hard. Pongolapoort Dam was running at under 45% capacity, exposing tree trucks and building structures that had formed part of the valley floor before the area had been flooded. It was one of these cement pillars that smashed our boat in the nose.

Thump. Inertia threw Heinz Kohrs, the owner of White Elephant Safari Lodge, and I forward. The boat rocked, angled half out of the water and then reached a precarious stillness. We were very, very much stuck.

Stuck though, is much preferable to sinking, especially when the dam around you is full of crocodiles and hippos. On the plus side, the middle of a calm, lapping dam bordered by the bulky green Lebombo Mountains isn’t the worst place to be stranded. I watched the sunset paint the landscape pink and purple, birds blending into the sky, while Heinz tried unsuccessfully to rock us off. And then reverse us off. And finally to radio camp for assistance, where we arrived in the twilight to the welcoming lights and wafting smells of dinner coming from the lodge.

While this wasn't Gustav, the monstrously-sized croc that lurks in the dam, his teeth were still fearsome!

While this wasn’t Gustav, the monstrously-sized croc that lurks in the dam, his teeth were still fearsome!

Flamingoes glided above us while we waited

Flamingoes glided above us while we waited

Exposed trees and evening light at Pongolapoort Dam

Exposed trees and evening light at Pongolapoort Dam

This was the start of what was to be an assignment filled with heart-thumping moments, from being charged by elephant to walking in hushed silence beneath giant fig trees. For Sonya and her brother, Kilaan, it was a nostalgic brush with the past; having grown up in this area, they were now catching up on its progress. Of particular interest was this herd of elephants, who now represent bigger dreams for the area.

 

It’s 1968. It’s bedtime and the generators have just chugged to a halt. The night is heavy with darkness and heat and mosquitos, as is usual in summer in this area. A small boy of German heritage wanders out to the stoep and climbs onto a riempie bed set outside and falls asleep. The home is located below the Lebombo Mountains, on a stretch of land that will soon overlook the Pongolapoort Dam: it is still being constructed. Perhaps it’s the heat that leads to fertile fantasies, but early that morning the boy wakes up, his imagination on fire from an enthralling dream: he was taking a drive with his father on the family ranch and there, miraculously, was a herd of elephants. In his dream, they came to the farm from a place high up in Africa. – Sonya Schoeman

We visited this area expecting to write a story of Jozini and the abundance of wildlife and natural beauty in the area. What Sonya discovered was a story of much greater complication and potential tragedy; with no imminent resolution in sight for the lowering of fences in the area, the fate of these elephants has become a great source of debate.

Read the full story in the October 2016 issue of Getaway magazine, on shelves now.

A viewsite near Hlatikulu Forest overlooking the valley and dam below.

A viewsite near Hlatikulu Forest overlooking the valley and dam below.

Luxury tents and early-morning game drives at White Elephant Safari Lodge

Luxury tents and early-morning game drives at White Elephant Safari Lodge

Heike tracking the elephants that crossed over to Swaziland

Heike tracking the elephants that crossed over to Swaziland

Goloden views from Shayamoya Lodge as the sun rises over the Lebombo mountain range

Golden views from Shayamoya Lodge as the sun rises over the Lebombo mountain range

Sonya spying on birds busy by the water's edge, while a curious hippo watched us float past.

Sonya spying on birds busy by the water’s edge, while a curious hippo watched us float past.

Sunset GnT's and birdwatching on the pastel Pongolapoort waters

Sunset GnT’s and birdwatching on the pastel Pongolapoort waters

The perfectly-designed photo hides at Zimanga are first-class, with air con and lights and other comforting bells and whistles. On the land-side though, equally great wild dog and elephant sights are to be had.

The perfectly-designed photo hides at Zimanga are first-class, with air con and lights and other comforting bells and whistles. On the land-side though, equally great wild dog and elephant sights are to be had.

Sonya bought a huge basket at Space for Elephant's craft shop before we headed into the valleys and homesteads nearing Hlatikulu forest.

Sonya bought a huge basket at Space for Elephant’s craft shop before we headed into the valleys and homesteads nearing Hlatikulu forest.

This overgrown, green forest is a tumble of paths and trees. It's worth a visit, but perhaps organise a guide through Ghost Mountain Inn.

This overgrown, green forest is a tumble of paths and trees. It’s worth a visit, but perhaps organise a guide through Ghost Mountain Inn.

Our (very comfortable) Mitsubishi Pajero, which cruised through the bush and flew down the tarmac.

Our (very comfortable) Mitsubishi Pajero, which cruised through the bush and flew down the tarmac.

A herd of goats trailed past while we watched the sun set

Goats trailed past while we watched the sun set from the viewsite.

We stayed at the friendly Ghost Mountain Inn, where guide Bheki Jobe took us through to Mkhuze Game reserve

We stayed at the friendly Ghost Mountain Inn, where guide Bheki Jobe took us through to Mkhuze Game reserve

The Fig Tree walk at Mkhuze Game Reserve has become one of my favourite SA experiences. Patrick Mathe led us through the towering giants, hornbills peering down at us from their arms.

The Fig Tree walk at Mkhuze Game Reserve has become one of my favourite SA experiences. Patrick Mathe led us through the towering giants, hornbills peering down at us from their arms.

Watching skittish wildebeest at a hide in Mkhuze Game reserve

Watching skittish wildebeest at a hide in Mkhuze Game reserve

 

This story originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.

 

Get this issue →

All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.

 






yoast-primary - 1004447
tcat - Conservation
tcat_slug - conservation-environment
tcat2 - Conservation
tcat2_slug - conservation-environment
tcat_final - environment