Across 5,000 acres of undeveloped bush in the heart of Zululand, Natal, Thula Thula Private Game Reserve offers a heart-warming safari in South Africa with the wildlife that freely roams through it
As the low winter sun glints on the bonnet of our Land Rover, there is a tangible thrill of electricity in the air. It’s not just because Francoise Malby-Anthony, the formidable ex-Parisian now at the helm of the game reserve, is sitting in front of us for an on-camera interview. Yes, the striking blonde is a commanding presence and a force to be reckoned with, but something else is afoot.
Indeed, as Francoise regales us with stories about Thula Thula, which means “peace and tranquillity,” impetuous rescue rhino Thabo suddenly appears and heads towards us. The sturdy grey tank of a beast means business. As Thabo – determined to be part of the action – picks up the pace to close ranks, the usually unflappable Francoise appears visibly flustered as she tells head ranger Siya to “DRIVE!”
Thabo is neither malicious, nor vicious. He just loves hanging out with humans. “I think he sometimes believes he is a person,” Francoise tells us later in the boma over a braai (barbecued meats). He may have gotten wind of the fact that we were filming and was hellbent on claiming a starring role, I counter. But Francoise is having none of it. “If you’ve experienced some difficult situations in the past you become more wary,” she reasons.
You come to Thula Thula for a spiritual adventure; a metaphysical experience that draws you closer to nature
Which is clearly why my wide-eyed kids – both safari novices – seem to handle the situation unfolding before them with remarkable sangfroid. Then again, they’d already encountered Thabo the day before, with my five-year-old daughter nonchalantly patting his tough, bristly-haired hide as he inquisitively sidled up to her as she sat calmly in the 4X4.
“Thabo is still our problem child,” says Siya. “He has been known to attack vehicles and turn them upside down,” he continues, as the colour starts to drain from my face. In order to make Thabo feel more settled they’ve been trying to get him to mate with Ntombi, one of the other rhino residents, but Thabo is playing hard to get.
You can’t really blame the “little” one-tonne guy (fully grown rhinos can weigh 2,500kg), whose traumatic introduction to this world saw the fragile new-born, still with umbilical cord dragging below him, stumbling around in confusion after his mother was tragically shot by poachers.
Having spent the informative stages of his life around humans, Thabo feels a kinship with them, but his ambition to scale the unscalable heights of humankind are not being indulged; he is, after all, a wild animal and must accordingly behave like one. So while his earlier antics were met with a benign smile – including the time he decided to pay a visit to an American couple’s tent, giving them the fright of their lives before being chased away with a hairdryer – now that he is 10, he is expected to obey the laws of the bush.
Everyone who visits Thula Thula will be enraptured by stories such as Thabo’s. Because every animal at Thula Thula has a name and each named creature comes with its own personality and unique tale. There’s Mabula the show-off pachyderm whose party trick is performing yoga asanas; Frankie, the feisty matriarch of the elephant clan; loved-up hippopotamuses Romeo and Juliet with their charismatic offspring Chomp and Chocolaat; and jaunty Jacob, the leader of the impalas whose harem never stray too far from him.
This is not a commercial reserve where dozens of khaki-clad, camera-toting tourists are squeezed into an assembly of vehicles to hurtle into the wilderness to tick off as many of the Big Five as possible from their lists. You come to Thula Thula for a spiritual adventure; a metaphysical experience that draws you closer to nature – and all who reside within it.
“Our guests always say it’s magical,” beams Francoise. “The experience they have here with our wildlife – especially our elephants and our rhinos – is something beyond what they encounter in other places. To begin with, all our animals have names; we even have an elephant family tree,” Francoise says proudly.
Boutique in the true sense of the word in that it really is one-of-a-kind, it is also delightfully small with just 20 luxury tents
Francoise’s story is as fascinating as many of the animals’ themselves, having first moved to this region 32 years ago after meeting “mad South African” bush lover and conservationist Lawrence Antony in a taxi queue in rainy London. The pair bought land on the Nseleni River in tropical Natal, built seven luxury chalets under the acacia and tambotie trees and opened the lodge in 2000. It would be all too glib to add ‘and the rest, as they say, is history,’ because the journey has been far from smooth sailing, not least with Francoise having to cope with the shocking demise of her beloved husband Lawrence who, in 2013, suffered a heart attack aged 61.
“Everyone kept asking me after Lawrence passed away how I could carry on without him. I do it because of the animals. There is a love and passion that stays with you forever. The elephants come back to see me every year on the anniversary of Lawrence’s death to tell me: “You are not on your own, we are here.”
Her faithful, fervent team at Thula Thula also give her the courage to continue. “Working together as a real unit has made Thula Thula what it is today.”
Everybody has a say, and everyone has to be in agreement, there’s no room for autocracy, she tells us. “I am applying the system used by the matriarch elephant of working for the interest of all, with everyone working in unity on the reserve and our conservation projects, and taking decisions together. We share the same vision and passion: this is what makes Thula Thula.”
The vision includes the re-opening of the rehabilitation centre which has suffered several setbacks, as well as the volunteer academy, which draws in recruits from across the globe. With Thula Thula’s active involvement with its local community, the academy always invites a person from one of the local villages to also get involved. As Siya explains: “Thula Thula is surrounded by five villages with five chiefs, so for each session we chose someone who has been put forward by one of the chiefs. When that individual comes here, he or she is educated about nature and conservation, so that they are able to take vital, potentially life-saving learnings back to the village with them. Education is key.”
There is a proposal in place to introduce cheetahs to the reserve, along with ambitious expansion plans. On August 25 this year Thula Thula celebrated the 20th anniversary of a very special heard of seven “rogue and problem elephants arriving. Today there are 29 elephants and they are at full capacity. With long-term goals solely focused on the wildlife and developing and promoting an environmental consciousness, it’s reassuring to learn that the reserve’s wonderful feeling of intimacy and privacy will be kept intact.
Boutique in the true sense of the word in that it really is one-of-a-kind, it is also delightfully small with just 20 luxury tents in the tented camp, and 14 upscale rooms in the adjacent lodge. For an authentic, primal taste of the bush, the stylishly-furnished tents with en-suite bathrooms – complete with a clawfoot bathtub and separate shower – are the place to be. Your private, tree-shaded deck overlooks an open plain regularly frequented by doe-eyed nyalas. Meals at the tented camp are based around hearty, homecooked, African-inspired dishes, while the lodge embraces fine French cuisine. But, while the accommodation is thoughtfully presented and the food is delicious, it is the whispers of the wilderness that keep guests coming – and returning.
We remain optimistic that Francoise’s matchmaking dreams will come alive and that the next time we visit we are introduced to a spirited Thabo Junior, watched over judiciously by a somewhat mellowed Thabo.
Words by Lyndsey Steven. Photos: Getty Images
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