Return to Thula Thula

By Myrtle Ryan

Durban - When the renowned Lawrence Anthony, often called “The Elephant Whisperer”, died, the herd came to his home to bid him a final farewell.

The magnificent, spacious family tent. Picture suppliedThe pool at the tented camp. Picture suppliedTime to cool down and sip a sundowner. Picture suppliedThese orphaned rhinos never move without their guard. Picture supplied

But they did not forget the woman he loved, his wife Francoise Malby-Anthony. So when two new calves were born, on both occasions the elephants took them up to the house to show her the latest additions.

These same elephants were to provide some excitement during our game drive. Torrential rain the previous night, meant that even the 4x4 was slip-sliding over the muddy terrain, occasionally spewing the gooey substance over some of the guests, who regarded this as part of the adventure. One even said it was his most exciting game drive ever, by comparison with the usual staid saunter down the road, especially as we later had a puncture and had to be fetched by another vehicle.

As we negotiated our way to the bottom of a hill, we spotted the elephants on the opposite bank, where we saw the youngest baby peeping out behind mum’s legs. Well, to be more truthful, we saw a small grey shadow, as his mother shielded it from us interlopers. How to proceed from here, though? There was no way we could return via the way we had come; up the slippery, steep hill, nor could we take the road through the herd.

A quick call to the lodge, and another ranger was despatched with the key to our escape. He unlocked a gate in Thula Thula’s boundary fence, and we drove out.

On another drive, we saw two adorable young orphaned rhinos, contentedly lying down together. Though this seemed a scene out of rhino heaven, there was another darker side to the picture. An armed guard sat nearby, a reminder that rhino poaching is rife. When they moved, so did he. At night two armed men guard their precious charges.

Thula Thula, near Empangeni, is in hilly, bush terrain. After good rains it was showing its best green face and living up to its Zulu name for peace and tranquility. The Enseleni River, which runs through the reserve, is part of local history. The river is where King Shaka and his father, Senzangakhona, first met (Nandi, his mother and Shaka fled when he was young).

We stayed at the Luxury Tented Camp, a far cry from being under canvas in the olden days, checking into one of the enormous family tents. Two three-quarter beds, side by side, are swathed in mosquito netting. The spacious bathroom, with Victorian bath, shower, double handbasins and toilet, is partially shielded by a movable screen. The other bedroom, behind a panel screen, has two single beds. Most of the tent sides are made up of gauze windows, so cooling breezes can flow through. At night the canvas flaps can be dropped, or left open for those who so wish. The draped ceiling and attractive canvas frieze below it, give the impression of being in some sheik’s luxurious desert tent.

Early in the morning we sat on the stoep, watching monkeys, listening to the birds, then worked off some calories in the swimming pool. Meals are taken indoors in the public area in inclement weather, and outside on the deck when the sun shines. At night, we sat around the campfire, watching the “bush television”, as Francoise calls it. We went for an informative walk in the bush, accompanied by a ranger. Among the interesting creatures we encountered were the snoring puddle frog (we thought he was having us on!) and the clicking stream frog.

The tented camp, beneath trees, and undulating lawns, brings a feeling of a bush experience. Offering traditional South African food, it is popular with locals, especially as it allows them to bring their children.

Some of the other guests told us Lawrence’s books (Babylon’s Ark, The Elephant Whisperer and The Last Rhinos) were what had prompted them to visit Thula Thula.

One evening we dined at the main lodge, at a long table, formally laid out next to the camp fire. Over dinner, Francoise told us about the making of the Coronation Fund Managers television commercial, which highlights Lawrence’s work with the elephants.

“They flew somebody up from Cape Town especially, to tell me how to pronounce words like ‘herd’ correctly,” she laughed. She drops the ‘H’ in typical French fashion and her delightful accent and flair are part of her charm.

Sadly, she spoke about the life of Numzane (Sir, in Zulu) the orphaned elephant, whose mother and sister were shot shortly before he was relocated to Thula.

“Right from the start he had a wonderful character,” she said. “He dug his little front feet in, and stood firm, even though he was rejected by the rest of the herd. He had such a sad life,” she continued, mentioning how Numzane had been forced to live alone.

Eventually he became aggressive and had to be put down. Then it was discovered he had an abscess on his trunk. Everyone was traumatised by his untimely death.

Despite the fact that Francoise was involved in the marketing and day-to-day running of the lodge and camp, while allowing Lawrence to remain in the spotlight, many expected her to go back to France after his death.

“We started this together, this is my home. I am staying,” she said.

One of the interesting activities is French cuisine cooking lessons, conducted by Francoise for group bookings. “Even the men have great fun,” she said.

Asked how she and Lawrence met, she said she was standing at the head of a queue for taxis at the hotel they were staying in London. The man controlling the taxis asked if she could share with a man at the end of the queue, as they were going to the same destination. She looked at Lawrence, then said a firm “No.”

“He looked like an American,” she remembers. They shared a taxi and, with his charm and warmth, Lawrence soon won her over.

When her husband died, she scattered his ashes next to the dam where he spent many hours. She also brought Numzane’s bones there, as he had been one of Lawrence’s favourites.

There the friends lie together, and it is clear the herd has visited, as they have moved the elephant’s bones around. No doubt, they will often return to remind the two they have not been forgotten.

Contact: Thula Thula on 035-7928322; 082 259 9732;; e-mail: [email protected] - Sunday Tribune