BY BILLY SUTER
EXCITING times lie ahead for Francoise Malby Anthony, charming owner and managing director of Thula Thula, the popular Empangeni game reserve and safari lodge now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and soon to launch a conservation drive involving volunteers.
This 4500-hectare reserve, as any wildlife lover will tell you, is the one made famous in the bestselling book, The Elephant Whisperer, by Francoise’s late husband, conservationist and author of three books, Lawrence Anthony, who passed away in 2012.
That 2009 book, co-written with Graham Spence, told the true story of a herd of wild African elephants marked to be shot for dangerous behaviour until Lawrence intervened, gave them a home on his reserve, formed a close bond with them and watched them flourish.
The Elephant Whisperer was all about the forging and success of that bond which has since seen the seven-strong herd grow to 29, and become increasingly popular with tourists from all corners of the world.
It was as a result of an ongoing worldwide fascination with the herd and Thula Thula that Francoise decided, soon after Lawrence’s death, to think about writing her own book.
She has now done so, in collaboration with Paris-based friend and author Katja Willemsen, and has called it An Elephant in My Kitchen. The title is inspired by a young elephant that strayed from the herd in 2014 and ended up at Francoise’s front door, where she fed the little fellow, called Tom, until he could be returned to the herd.
The ever-smiling blonde, in her honey-lined, soothing French accent, summarises her book as a positive story, a tale of soldiering on in the face of adversity.
When her husband passed away, Francoise was short on cash, dealing with poachers threatening the reserve’s two rhinos, and one of the reserve’s elephants was charging Land Rovers on game drives and spooking guests, according to promo material for the book.
There was no time to mourn when Thula Thula’s human and animal family were depending on her, the promo says, adding that the book is not only a tale of survival but one also filled with charm, amusement and poignancy.
“So many people would enquire about what happened to me after Lawrence’s death,” says Francoise, inviting me into Thula Thula’s reception area, where she snuggles into a couch as three of her pet pooches frolic around her.
She had tended to always be in the background in the early days, she says – behind scenes marketing the reserve and conference centre, the eight lodge units and the eight units in the reserve’s luxury tented camp.
Francoise throws up both her hands: “I was often told by visitors and fans of the book that they thought I might have packed up and headed back to France. I was surprised at that – Thula Thula is like a baby to me.
“So I decided to tell my life story and what has happened to the lodge and the herd in the years since Lawrence passed.”
She further describes her book as one about passion, adventures and emotions within the challenging reality of the world of conservation – a reflection on what the herd taught her about love, courage and survival.
It is to be launched on July 16 in London, where UK publisher, Pan MacMillan, was quick to a strike a deal with Francoise. This was after she had sent Pan MacMillan a copy of her first chapter, at a time when she was contacted by the publisher regarding plans for a fresh printing of Lawrence’s acclaimed book.
On August 1, Francoise’s book will be published in South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Sri Lanka, followed by a November 1 publication in America. A version in German has also been confirmed.
“Much of my input was via endless Whatsapp voice messages to Katja, whenever I got a thought or remembered something I wanted mentioned,” recalls Francoise with a laugh, pointing out that she has lots on her plate in the next few weeks.
She gently shoo-shoos one of her dogs away from a coffee table and gestures to brochures there promoting her “new baby”, the reserve’s July launch of the Thula Thula Volunteers Academy. Francoise rates it as a must for anyone with a lifelong dream to work in the wild African bush and make a difference to conservation.
“Anyone from eight to 80, provided they can walk and work,” she says with a grin, when asked who the programme is aimed at.
“It’s all about the behind-the-scene action; about educating and inspiring,” she adds, rattling off a list of some things one can expect: “Game reserve management, anti-poaching issues, the eco-system, alien plants, research projects, basic survival skills, rehabilitating animals… .
“It will all be covered and programmes can be adapted so that we could, for example, cater for team-building groups as well as individuals, and cater to specific needs or requests”.
The Thula Thula Volunteers Academy programme will launch unofficially on June 1 with a small “guinea pig” group of eight people who will spent three weeks on the programme. It will then be fine-tuned before the big official launch on July 1, for which there are already four bookings.
Volunteers will experience one to six weeks of living in the African wilderness, sharing experiences with others, growing their skills and making a difference. Programmes will vary slightly throughout the year, as the challenges involved in wildlife conservation are constantly shifting and certain issues may receive more focus than others.
Thula Thula plans a well-rounded programme aimed at covering both the needs of the reserve and surrounding community, as well as providing a comprehensive, hands-on learning experience for the volunteers.
“During their stay with us, volunteers will see themselves as ‘assistant conservation managers’, as all the work done and data collected by them will be utilised by Thula Thula for conservation on the reserve.”
The Thula Thula Volunteers Academy is situated adjacent to the reserve’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, in a secure fenced area, with a great view over the whole game reserve and Mkhulu Dam, the favourite spot of the elephant herd.
Currently a maximum of eight volunteers can apply per session, one of the volunteers being from the local communities on a complimentary basis. Accommodation will be basic but comfortable, in eight double tents entirely lit by solar lanterns and with a seperate ablution area.
Accommodation and basic food items will be provided during the stay, for which the cost is R1000 a night, or $100, 100-pounds or 100-Euro. All profits, after expenses, will go towards conservation projects.
A recommended stay would be two weeks, but one can choose to stay from a few days (or a weekend) to up to six weeks. For more information mail email@example.com
Besides all of this, Francoise also has her hands full running the popular lodge, which offers eight luxury, air-conditioned units, yummy French cuisine for supper, hearty breakfasts and lunches, and two daily game drives with knowledgeable and friendly guides.
A short drive away, alongside a river, you will find the reserve’s luxury tented camp, offering eight individual units. Don’t expect stretcher beds and torchlight, though… this is a classy away-from-it-all in comfy beds with fine linen, and a turndown at night with mints on the pillow. There is no air-conditioner, but a powerful fan is available in tents should the perspiration run.
My partner and I spent the weekend in the best of the tented units, No 7, which is a four-sleeper family unit under quality canvas wrapped around a wooden deck overlooking the river and hills. A slice of heaven, offering both a claw-legged bath and open-plan shower with a room divider screen.
On offer at the tented camp is a 3.30pm daily game drive and an easy, 7am bush walk with guides.
Meals when we were there, a weekend following two days of torrential rain, were around a large table with other guests, in the communal lounge, pub and dining area that overlooks a circular outdoor pub on one end and a communal pool on the other.
We had a great buffet dinner and breakfast there on the Friday night and Saturday morning, and a good buffet lunch on the Saturday afternoon,
More memorable, though, was the Saturday supper in the boma, a stone’s throw from the outside circular bar, where we chatted and ate in front of a large fire in the centre of the boma. The menu included a great choice of braaied meat, oxtail stew and curried calamari, followed by hot malva pud.
The game drives are a big highlight of a relaxing weekend at Thula Thula and guides Siya and Muzi are a delight, Siya (thankfully) proving particularly adept at manoeuvring game-drive vehicles through the thick mud left by recent downpours.
A pleasant two-hour drive north of Durban, in Zululand, Thula Thula Private Game Reserve offers not only those majestic, famous elephants – we saw the herd twice during the weekend, getting extremely close – but also game such as buffalo, nyala, leopard, giraffe, wildebeest and rhino. There is also an abundance of bird life.
The reserve is in a malaria-free zone and for those who want to arrive in style, note that there is a private, 750m grass airstrip on the property.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW……………………
Thula Thula Game Reserve and Safari Lodge, with its centuries of cultural and wildlife heritage, takes pride in tracing back its origin to the private hunting grounds of King Shaka, founder of the Zulu Empire. The first historic meeting between Shaka and his father (Senzangakhona), which set the stage for the creation of the Zulu nation, took place at the Nseleni River at Thula Thula. The Zulu name Thula Thula literally means peace and tranquillity.