Tembe Elephant Park has always been on my bucketlist of must-see places to visit in Southern Africa. Have you been there? Let me know in the comments.
On my internet travels I have come along this lucky lady, Yvonne, who has made Tembe Elephant Park her home.
Yvonne, you currently live in Tembe elephant park. Tell us your life story and how did you end up to live in such a beautiful place? I was born and raised in the Netherlands. My parents took me travelling all over the work and when I got older I travelled alone. By the time I was 24 I have visited over 50 countries. I have been in so many places, but Africa wasn’t one of them (except Egypt).
In the year 2012, I decided it was time to see Africa. I went for almost six months and this was my itinerary; One-month’s volunteering at an orphanage in Mitchells Plain (Cape Town), one month’s volunteering with animals, three weeks in Cape Town, a two months overland camping tour through nine African countries, and ended with three weeks at the beach. The month volunteering with animals I did with the Wildlife Act, they placed me at Tembe Elephant Park, KZN. How little did I know, my life would change forever. In Tembe I met Leonard, the elephant monitor and research technician. We had a lot in common and we got along so well. I’ve heard so many
overseas love stories, but I never thought mine would be one. Our feelings were stronger than the
fact that it was a silly and crazy idea. I came from Holland, was a manager at a cinema, always people
around and busy and I fell in love with somebody who lived in the middle of the African bush! We had a great month, with no options of staying longer because everything was booked and paid for. I went on with my trip,
but we stayed in contact. We decided it would be cheaper for me to fly back from Kenya to South
Africa, instead of going to Holland first. So my brother and friend went home and I went back to
South Africa. We spend 3 weeks in the city, to see if we also liked each other with other people
around in a not so romantic setting and we did! I was pretty broke after my Africa trip so I went
home for 6 months to earn some money. After six months, Leonard came to visit Holland, to see
how I lived and to meet my family. After those two weeks, I went with him to see if I could live in the
bush, and guess what? Nine years later I’m still here. We still live in Tembe and enjoy it very much. In
October 2018 our love has been completed with the birth of our son Owen.
I would call Tembe Elephant Park one of the lesser-visited parks in South Africa, what does in your
opinion make Tembe unique and a must-visit destination, what do you love about your life in the
Tembe is unique in many ways. We don’t have many visitors to the park a day (besides the lodges),
which means that there are very few tourists in the park. Most of the time we have animal
sightings for ourselves.
Tembe is a 4×4 park, you can only drive around in 4×4 and even with 4×4, I’ve seen people get stuck.
There is just no place like Tembe, we’ve got the big 5 and basically any other animal you can think of
except for cheetah. Our elephants are very gentle and their ivory is insane! The roads are all sand and
with a lot of bends. You can drive around the corner and you will see an elephant. Most people that
come to Tembe, fall in love with the place and they agree; there is no place like Tembe!
So if you would like to go to a reserve with very few tourists that have a little bit of everything, animals
but also nature; swamp, sand forest, open areas, closed woodland, grassland and more, then Tembe
is the place to be!
What is your day-to-day life in Tembe like?
Things changed a lot after my son was born. Before he was born I would help a lot with things in the
park. Anybody needed a field assistant? Sure, I like to get my hands dirty! Or I would go with Leonard
on his elephant sessions! Lots to do! Now with Owen, I can’t do those things anymore. We are still
very blessed that we are allowed to go with along when things like rhino work and elephant work are done.
For example, giving an elephant a collar or relocate them. So basically we can go along, as long as it isn’t a potentially dangerous activity. They always try to include Owen and me as much as they can. We are
not just blessed with the place we live in, but also the people Leonard works with within the park. Owen
is only two years old and he has touched snakes, lions, elephants, rhinos, and much more. I don’t think
there are many children his age in the world who can say that. He might not remember these first
years, but I’ve got plenty of photos to show him when he’s older.
On a regular day, I’m a stay-at-home mom. I do things that other stay-at-home moms do as well,
spend time with my son! Of course, my camera is in the kitchen because you never know when something cool shows up at the birdbath. When Owen and I play outside I always have to be aware
of my surroundings. Lions and leopards can be anywhere. We have an electric fence around the
house, but we still need to be extremely careful and never let our guard down. But it’s not just the
big animals, I always have to be careful in and outside, snakes, scorpions and dangerous spiders can
“Rule in our house: you check the toilet, your shoes, and your bed before using them!”
When Leonard is done working or in on the weekend we will go for game drives, both Owen and I like to
go with Leonard and see what we can find. Owen is our little tour guide and tells us everything.
What are the challenges that you face living in a game reserve?
Living in a game reserve is something special, something very unique. Very few people can say they
do that. I know I live in an amazing place, wouldn’t change it, but it’s not all glamorous. Living in the
bush can be very lonely. We work and live with the same people, for me, I interact with about 5
people, that’s it. Due to Covid-19 we also haven’t had volunteers for over a year. So no other people,
just my partner, and son. We braai once a week with these 5 people and besides that, it’s just me and
my family. Other people who live in cities will have friends and family close by, we don’t, it’s just us.
A good example for me is; our son is two years and four months old and Leonard and I haven’t done
anything, just the two of us, since he was born. We’ve got nobody to watch him and we also have no
place to go for date night!
In total there are probably about 50 people working for the park, in different places, so I don’t get to
I’m not a South African, which brings many challenges as well. I’m here on a life partner permit, with
this, I’m not allowed to have a paid job. I can once I have my permanent visa, for which I applied 3
years ago and I’m still waiting. So I haven’t had a paid job for over 8 years, which is difficult for me,
coming from a job with so many responsibilities and hard work. I think that was the biggest change
for me, not being able to earn my own money!
Being away from everything is also something you really need to get used to. The nearest decent
supermarket is 37km away in Manguzi. If I want to go shopping for clothes or non-food-related items I have to
drive three hours to Richards Bay. The same goes for a haircut; a three-hour drive to St Lucia. Those things were a big adjustment for me, coming from a country where you can walk or cycle to most places.
Being pregnant in the bush was also a fun one. Lucky for me I haven’t had any weird food cravings,
because it would have taken me about 1,5 hours to get pickles! But also the doctor visits were a
challenge, our doctor was also 3 hours away (not amazing to drive 6 hours when you’re at the end of
your pregnancy)! I was quite worried about having our son along the highway, lucky for us the
gynecologist wasn’t. He took one look at Leonard and said: “don’t worry, if that happens just pull
over the car, you can deliver your own baby, I’ll help over the phone”. Very reassuring, but also the
people in Tembe had a birth plan for me, which I spare you the details of! For months we had a car
full of bottles of water, towels, blankets, scissors, and so on. Luckily Owen was born inside the
hospital and not along the highway!
What is one of your most memorable encounters in the park?
This is always a difficult question to answer. I have been living in Tembe for over 8 years. I have had
so many great sighting, special encounters, and scary moments while living in the bush. Being on foot
and seeing an elephant is always a scary one. Only then you actually realize how big these animals
are, but even being chased by an elephant when you are in a car is scary. When such a big animal
comes straight at you with a speed of 40+km per hour you are so happy you are sitting next to a man
that can reverse quickly!
Something else I will never forget; I was working at one of the camps with somebody else. A big male
Nyala was standing right on the other side of the fence, just a few meters away from us. We heard
something looked up and a lioness came full speed at this Nyala, took him out, and together they
landed in the fence. The fence went down and there we were. Frozen to the ground, not sure what
had happened and what to do next. Lucky for us the lioness dragged it away. We waited for a few seconds and quickly pulled the fence back up. Needless to say, but I needed a bit of time before I could continue my work!
Those are the scary moments, but there are way more awesome things I will never forget! Any
encounter with an animal where the mother is willing to show her baby is a great one. I love all
animals big and small, I enjoy all animals. So I think the whole 8 years in the bush were great! I can’t
just pick out 1 or 2 favorite things. Things that really make me smile; seeing the new wild dog
puppies, elephants enjoying the pans when they are full again, seeing the small mammals. When I’m
trying to think about the best things I have seen, I draw a blank. I can’t simply pick one! I enjoy every
day in the bush! Every drive shows us something nice, something special. 9 years ago I didn’t just find
the love of my life, I found it all; my home, my family, my everything! Tembe is my home and a
Where can people find you to follow your story?
I’ve got so many photos and so many stories to tell. For the past 9 nine years, I’ve been taking photos
and they go onto a hard drive and that’s it. I felt really sad about that, I’m seeing so many beautiful
things, I want to share that with others who share my love for nature. So about a month ago I started
my own Facebook page; Yvonne in the bush. I use this page to share my photos with whoever likes to
see them and with every post, I try to give some information. Let other people know what there is to
know about all these beautiful animals!
I have Instagram as well, but I don’t write stories there, just a wildlife photo each day!
To Follow Yvonne:
NOTE: All the animals in the photos are sedated to have veterinary work done on them.