On Jul 3rd, 2022 I finally set foot in Thula Thula, the very game reserve that inspired my journey with wildlife conservation. I got to meet Francoise Malby-Anthony, the owner of the game reserve and author of An Elephant In My Kitchen, and all the animals I had adopted. While there were many things that were special about Thula Thula (including the amazing food, cute dogs, and variety of wildlife), my favorite part was meeting the world famous elephant herd. Here are some of my most special moments with them.
Up close with Brendan
It was a bright and chilly morning on our second day at Thula Thula, when Brendan, youngest son of Frankie (late matriarch), ambled up behind our vehicle, looking for more leaves to chew on. Even though he isn’t fully grown yet, at just 14 years old (the same age as I am), Brendan is a massive elephant. He is already nearly as tall as the fully grown bulls, and he will continue to grow until the age of 25.
We were alone with Brendan for a few minutes before the rest of the herd came up behind him. Then Brendan did something strange. He turned his huge body perpendicular to our jeep, as if to block the path between us and the approaching elephants. We wondered why he was doing this, when Muzi, our Ranger told us that this was Brendan's Barricade, to protect us from the baby elephants approaching the jeep. Baby elephants are very curious and very playful, and they haven't yet learned how to engage with humans. When they see visitors in the safari jeeps, they want to come very close to check us out. Then they try to investigate the humans and the jeep, and use their trunks and massive heads to butt the jeep, as if to size it up. Brendan knows this is not good "elephant manners", and so he used his body as a barricade between us and the young elephants, so that everyone stayed safe. It was amazing to see how intelligent Brendan is, and how he was kind enough to protect us and the jeep.
Brendan very close to the jeep.
Brendan barricading the younger elephants.
Gobisa Gets Close
A little while later, we had a close encounter with Gobisa - the former dominant bull elephant. Gobisa is another enormous elephant, who has only 1 tusk - the left one. This tusk is very long and quite magnificent. An interesting fact about elephants, is that just like humans are right handed or left handed, elephants are right tusked or left tusked. If an elephant has only 1 tusk (like Gobisa), then obviously that is the tusk they use. But if an elephant has both tusks, you can tell which is the dominant one by looking at the wear and tear on both tusks. The more worn out the tusk is, the more likely it is the dominant one.
On this outing, I was sitting at the front of the jeep, when Gobisa walked up. Everyone in the vehicle held their breaths as this awe-inspiring giant slowly lumbered past, literally inches from us. And then suddenly, Gobisa stopped.....right next to me! For what felt like eternity, Gobisa just looked at me with his beautiful, amber elephant eye. It must have been just a few seconds but at this close proximity to a 6 ton tusker, time slowed to a standstill. Then, very slowly, Gobisa raised his trunk and started sniffing, getting closer and closer and closer until he almost touched my face. Muzi, whispered to all of us to be very still. The calm, yet inquisitive demeanour of Gobisa, gave me the courage not to be afraid but actually enjoy every second of this very special moment - being kissed by Gobisa.
Gobisa Walking Up to the Jeep
Gobisa Getting Close
I had read all the stories of the incredible intelligence and empathy of African elephants and the Thula Thula herd in particular. But it was only when Gobisa decided to get to know me better, that I really felt the amazing connection humans and elephants can share, if we take care of each other and respect boundaries. This was the closest I have been to an African elephant in my life, and I know I will cherish the memory for the rest of my life.
Susanna v. Vusi
One afternoon, we saw the herd in a low lying plain. The plain was flat and open and we got a great view of the entire herd in action. That's when something really funny happened. Susanna and Vusi, both young male elephants bursting with energy, started mock fighting. Young male elephants mock fight for fun and also as training for future battles with other bulls for territory and females.
Susanna is a very brave elephant who escaped twice from poacher's snares. And yes, there's a cool story on why a male elephant was named Susanna - but we will save that for another time. Vusi is a very small elephant for his age, but is super confident; maybe too confident, challenging any and all elephants - no matter their size. This time, he chose Susanna as his target.
Susanna was amused that Vusi chose him. Susanna is the larger elephant calf and knew he could beat Vusi. But he also knew that if the mock fight got too intense, Vusi's mother, Marula (the new matriarch) would intervene and scold them both. So Susanna had a cunning trick up his sleeve. He would let Vusi charge him, and fight him a few minutes with their trunks and tusks interlocked. Then, as Vusi would pull away, Susanna would take a few steps back, away from the herd. Vusi would think Susanna is retreating and would charge again. Susanna would lock tusks and trunks for a few minutes, and then retreat a few more steps. Susanna cleverly repeated this process over and over, till Vusi and he were far enough away from the herd and Marula. Then, they finally got to fight... for real. With no mothers around!
Susanna and Vusi mock fighting
Nana Takes Charge
One afternoon, we saw Nana, the original matriarch of the Thula Thula herd, with all the elephants milling around her. Gobisa noticed our jeep and after having checked me out very closely once, he decided he wanted to say hello again, and excitedly started to lumber towards our Jeep. However, this time Nana must have realized that Gobisa was in far too excited a mood, and in his enthusiasm, may unintentionally hurt us. Nana is probably the calmest elephant in the herd, and definitely the wisest. Despite her advanced age, when she saw potential trouble brewing with Gobisa, she quickly and purposefully walked to intercept him. She caught up with him about 10 meters away from the jeep and she stood facing him, his lone tusk behind her ear, as they appeared to have a long chat. After she successfully calmed him down, they both slowly approached the vehicle from the back. Gobisa laid his massive head on the top of the vehicle, and they started to slowly roll the vehicle forward and backward. It was so thrilling to have both gentle giants close and interacting, but now in the calmest and friendliest of ways. Nana then came from the front of the vehicle and touched our game driver’s hand. The herd then slowly streamed by us like a massive grey river as we sat still, reveling in the beauty of the moment and wishing it would never end.
Gobisa and Nana
A Fitting Farewell
I left Thula Thula five days later, my heart filled with elephant stories. Muzi drove us up to the main lodge, where Francoise and some of the Thula Thula team lives. There, we said our final goodbyes to Francoise, Kim, Christian, and Muzi. However, someone unexpected also came to say goodbye to us. The elephants.
As we looked up from the house, on the hillside opposite the entire herd walked in a symphony towards the beckoning horizon. Up close, the elephants looked huge, big enough to flip the jeep if they wanted to, but from here, they were just grey ants across a vast, green expanse. However, big or small, you could still sense the power that these creatures held. As they moved across the landscape, I received the best farewell from Thula Thula I could ever have asked for.
Farewell from the elephants