It’s 5 a.m. and I can’t sleep. As the bush outside awakens, I hear it come to life and am excited for another day in paradise. I sit on the porch of my lodge watching the sunrise over the African savanna, as bats retreat in a frenzy and night turns to day. Over 350 species of birds herald a chorus beyond my terrace as the animal kingdom stirs and the bush orchestra amplifies in a vibrant crescendo. Thula Thula is a magical destination, an exotic oasis brimming with life and a stunning reminder of the beauty and order of our natural world.
The beloved home of the late conservationist Lawrence Anthony, Thula Thula literally translates as "peace and tranquility", and sits in the lush rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, a two hour drive from Durban, South Africa. This is a special place, not just because of its immense beauty, Five Star accommodations, or the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see exotic, endangered species in their natural habitat. These 5,000 pristine hectares set the stage for the creation of the Zulu Nation at the Nseleni River, and it is the oldest private game reserve in the region. The ancestral hunting ground of the legendary Zulu King Shaka, it was to Thula Thula that Lawrence brought seven rogue elephants in 1999, rehabilitating them as their last hope for survival, and forging a deep bond that inspired his book “The Elephant Whisperer.”
This stunning private reserve is home to myriad indigenous rehabilitated wildlife including white rhinos, crocodiles, hippos, giraffes, zebras, leopards, monkeys, impalas, hyenas and wildebeests, and as anyone who has ever been on safari will tell you, it is an inspiring experience to be in the presence of these creatures. As soon as we arrive and despite an almost 30 hour journey from Los Angeles, we head straight into the bush on an evening game drive with our phenomenal trackers, Promise and Victor. Encountering zebras, giraffes, and impalas within hours of arriving in South Africa is surreal, but sundowner drinks standing on what feels like the top of the world takes my breath away.
After a cold beer and some snacks Victor and Promise have us back in the Land Rover on a mission to track down the elephants before dark. It’s not as easy as you might think considering the size of these beasts, and it is a chance encounter with the herd on their hunt for water that brings us face to face. To say that being charged by a seven-ton elephant (who is thirsty and aggravated) is exhilarating is an understatement, but thanks to Promise’s deft maneuvers, we are reversing down the track at a rate of knots, and the elephants get to the dam with no harm done. Once back on the road, there’s one more stop-off before reaching Safari Lodge, and a quick yet intimate meeting with their white rhinos Ntombi and Thabo, before dinner.
Beyond the beauty and tranquility of this private game reserve and wildlife sanctuary, is a 360-degree approach to sustainability and conservation. The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization as founded by Lawrence, provides spectacular Eco Safaris for small groups to Thula Thula, helping to fund important conservation work, as well as other initiatives such as recycling and educational programs in local schools. One of the special opt-in excursions offered on an Eco Safari is a visit to the neighboring village of Buchanana, to volunteer at a children’s pre-school, which I would highly recommend. To meet these beautiful, affectionate and inquisitive children, most of who are orphaned and eat only one meal a day as provided by the Anthony family, has a profound impact that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Also on the activity list, a not-to-be-missed visit to the local Witch Doctor who rumor has it is never wrong. The jury’s still out on my reading, but watching this man perform his ritual is an experience I’ll not soon forget, and I’m still hoping he’s right about my future!
Aside from the twice-daily bush drives, other activities available whilst in residence at Thula Thula include mountain biking, bush walks, yoga retreats, and a culinary experience which is a delight to the senses. Cordon Bleu-trained chef Francoise Anthony fuses her French heritage with Zulu cuisine, designing a menu inspired by local products with a Parisian twist. Some of my favorites include the divine three cheese and pesto feuilleté on tomato compote, the piquant grilled calamari peri peri on olive polenta, and refreshing sorbet granité made with fresh mango, pineapple, and red berries, all not to be missed. If dining al fresco under the stars at Safari Lodge isn’t your thing, then perhaps a traditional braai in an enclosed corral is more your speed. Cooking out in the bush surrounded by wildlife is an adventure, combining cast-iron pot cooking, barbecue and if you’re really lucky, accompanied by a Zulu lullaby sweetly sung around the campfire.
Whatever your preferred accommodation, it is available at Thula Thula. From luxury-appointed lodges overlooking the reserve, to the Luxury Tent Camp where private outdoor showering is a morning ritual, you will find it here. And with two swimming pools and plenty of hammocks, there is ample space to chill and take it all in, if your busy safari schedule allows.
With the illegal rhino poaching industry on the rise and the local species facing increasing threats to their survival, Thula Thula employs a team comprised of people from the local community in an effort to empower them and assist them in sustaining their daily lives. It’s a system that’s obviously working, as their warm and welcoming staff soulfully enhances my stay, guaranteeing me the most magical experience of a lifetime.
ECO SAFARI AFRICA