Have you ever been two feet from the largest mammal in the world, with nothing between you but air? I now can say I have, and he looked me in the eye, flopped his ears, and ambled past to go eat more leaves. We had a moment.
This incredible experience was at Thula Thula Game Reserve. The reserve was founded by a man named Lawrence Anthony and his Parisian girlfriend, Francoise Malby, in 1988 to protect a herd of 7 unruly elephants. Currently, the heard boasts 27 elephants through breeding, as well as acquisition of other misbehaving elephants. Lawrence managed to form relationships with these difficult elephants and transformed them into a strong, peaceful herd. He wrote a book called The Elephant Whisperer detailing the experience. I have not read it, but my friend Dan gave me the summary in the car on the way to the reserve and it is a phenomenal story.
We were excited to maybe see a few elephants, but we did not know what else the reserve contained and had no clue what to expect. There were seven of us yachties, representing four boats, all visiting Southern Africa for the first time. We climbed into the open safari vehicle and began what would become a memorable day.
First, we went to the local village and met the Sangoma, which is the village healer. My dad will detail that experience since it was powerful and deserves a post of its own. Then, we stopped by a small hut on the way back to the park where a woman was making bracelets out of tiny beads. She literally had to pick up the correct color bead with the needle to get it on the thread. It took her 45 minutes to make one and she sold them for 25 rand each, or about $2. Several of our group purchased them, then we returned to the park to start the game drive.
We took off down a dirt path, with brown dust flying up behind us and dispersing into the wind. We immediately passed Zebras and Impalas, but our guide did not slow down. I hadn’t even been to a zoo in years, and seeing exotic animals in nature was incredible to me. He heard my protest and said that there would be plenty later. There were.
We turned right down another track along a muddy, brown pond as the elephant herd rumbled down a nearby hill and flooded into the field next to us. One of the bulls decided to say hi and approached our vehicle. He stood in front of the windshield with his fifth leg swinging around (it seriously was the size of my leg) before brushing past us. He looked powerful, and a little nudge would be all it took to flip our vehicle. He decided to go for a drink in the pond with one other elephant, so we watched them for a bit and continued the safari.
We cruised around and saw a giraffe in the distance. We approached her and she hardly even looked at us. She looked preoccupied, like her head was in the clouds. 200 meters away was a family of giraffes, a female, male, and baby. The male giraffe was darker, which we learned, is what happens when they age. Our guide explained that they have oversized hearts to circulate the blood through their long neck against gravity. If they fall down when they are old, they will not be able to get back up and the pressure on the heart will eventually cause it to fail. We were able to see them on high alert since a herd of antelope crashed through the bush nearby. It reminded me of the scene in The Lion King and I thought there was going to be a stampede. That caused the giraffes to run for about 50 meters, which demonstrated that the old man still moves well, kind of like my dad.
We saw Zebras, Elephants, Impalas, Wildebeest, and Giraffes. I was thrilled, but the day was not over yet. We went to a lake and saw four Hippos in the water near the opposite bank. Most of them were staying cool, with only their ears out of the water, but one got up higher and smiled for my camera. Our last animals were a female and baby Rhino in a field. We could not get close to them and the horns were sawed off to discourage poaching. It was upsetting to see that they had to take those measures to keep the Rhinos alive, but the park had to shut down their Rhino orphanage several years ago after two of their Rhinos were poached. It is a massive problem in the region.
After the tour, we had an amazing three course meal at the lodge. I had watermelon and feta salad, chicken curry, and home made ice cream for desert. The conversations were good, the drinks were flowing, and spirits were high. We would have stayed longer, but we had to return to the marina to support our friends on Charm whose children were presenting a “kids show”.
Their kids were home schooled and rarely present in front of a class/group of people, so the parents invited the whole marina and had the bar open early. Another boat, Niobe, joined too. The six kids presented acts ranging from flute covers of pop songs and science presentations about plankton, to magic tricks and gymnastics. We were impressed and entertained, and I learned more animal facts that day than any other day of the trip.