When Lawrence died, he had been in discussion with the amakhosi about an additional piece of land, bordering Fundimvelo, perfect for the expansion of Thula Thula. I took over the complex negotiations, navigating Zulu customs and land rights, government regulations, and conservation issues—all of it conducted in English and Zulu. It was quite a learning curve for a French-speaker who just wanted to get on with making her little piece of earth a sanctuary for wildlife. Now, seven years later, in 2019, we had yet to finalize the negotiation, but I remained determined to move forward, towards Lawrence's dream.
I often visit Mkhulu Dam of an evening, as the sky turns pink and gold and the hippos grunt and snort, making rings and ripples in the sunset reflected in the water. It is hard to believe that this dam, alive with birds and insects and animals, dried to hard, cracked mud in the terrible drought that began in 2013 and continued for three long years. Our hippos, Romeo and Juliet, and the crocodile Gucci, left Mkhulu Dam, led by their incredible survival instinct to the far side of the reserve where one little dam still had a bit of water.
The rains came, as they always do, and brought life quickly back to normal. The dam filled up and our hippos, crocodiles and other wildlife returned to their home. The whole reserve felt alive and bountiful, the plants and animals thriving. I marvelled again at nature's resilience, and the example it offers for us humans. If you can just hang on long enough, the rains will surely come.
Mkhulu Dam is a favourite place to visit on a game drive. Guests go on two drives a day, one in the early morning, and the other in the late afternoon. The rangers take them out into the bush, tracking and observing the animals—the elephants in particular, of course—and sharing fascinating facts and exciting tales. The guests always leave saying they have learned so much.
These drives really are the highlight of a trip to the bush. There's a great sense of freedom and excitement as you set off in an open vehicle, never knowing exactly what the day will bring. No two drives are the same. But there will always be something thrilling, or amusing, or surprising, something that will touch your heart or soul, make a perfect memory or photograph.
Every drive ends with a picnic stop somewhere—hot coffee for the morning drive, cocktails for sundowners. Mkhulu Dam is a good spot for such a stop, particularly if the elephants have come down to the dam for a drink, or to cool off in the water. The ideal elephant sighting is for the animals to be undisturbed by human presence. 'I want to see them as they are, doing what they would be doing even if I wasn't there,' says ranger Victor. 'This is the experience I want for our guests too, the feeling of simply being here in this moment with these elephants, right now, in this beautiful place.'
Occasionally, I will join the rangers, and end a busy week watching the sun go down over the bush.
One day in particular stays in my memory. It was almost as if the elephants knew it was Friday afternoon, time to kick back, relax, hang out with friends. The whole family had taken a stroll down to their beloved Mkhulu Dam. As had we humans—well, we'd taken a drive, rather than a stroll, and parked alongside the dam.
It was a gorgeous, soft evening. The hippos surveyed us from the water, just their eyes, ears and nostrils visible. A mother francolin cackled at her chicks to follow her into the long grass. A pied kingfisher hovered above the dam on a blur of beating wings and plunged into the water, emerging with a tiny, wriggling tilapia fish.
The elephants were at their most charming and photogenic. Marula took a gentle promenade along the water's edge. The youngsters were in good spirits, splish-sploshing about, kicking up the mud with their feet.
Our guest had come all the way from America to fulfil a long-held dream of seeing Thula Thula and meeting the elephants she had fallen in love with from afar. A keen amateur photographer, she couldn't stop taking pictures—I think her fingers must have been sore from pressing that shutter. And they were indeed very beautiful.
Like proud parents, we surveyed our happy herd and discussed them. The rangers at Thula Thula know each elephant, their name and history, who their parents are, which are their siblings. They know their personalities and moods. They can tell when they are relaxed, when they want to be given some space, if they are feeling playful, or just curious. 'Haven't the little ones grown?' I said to Khaya, our youngest ranger. 'I can't believe how big Tom is.'
'She wouldn't fit into your kitchen now Madame,' he said. 'Not even through the door!'
As a newborn baby, Tom had wandered away from the herd and under the electric fence, and found her way to my house—and subsequently became the star of my first book An Elephant in My Kitchen. Seven years later, she is a beautiful, feisty young lady who likes to practice flapping her ears and looking fierce to try to give you a scare. Tom also loves the sound of her own voice—she has a distinctive trumpeting sound—and is quite a noisy little elephant.
'And what about my boy, isn't he handsome?' said Vusi, pointing proudly to his own namesake, little Vusi, just a year older than Tom.
'Aw, of course,' I said indulgently. 'Your Vusi is a very beautiful little elephant.'
'Maybe he takes after the other side of the family,' said Khaya, jokingly. The rangers love each other like brothers, but they do like to tease each other.
'You can only see the scar from the snare on his face if you really look. It has healed so well,' said Vusi, his binoculars up to his eyes.
At just a week old, the little elephant had been caught in a poacher's snare. It wrapped around his mouth and he couldn't suckle. His mother, Marula, found Vusi, who was doing his rounds on the reserve, and gently pushed the little elephant towards him. Human Vusi got the message and called our vet, who managed to remove the snare.
Vusi is a lucky elephant. He would have starved if we hadn't helped him.
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel by Meredith Bagby.