Budding photographer and young Portfolio ambassador, Erin, shares her amazing experiences of her time with her family at Thula Thula, a private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Along with being known for its peace and tranquillity (a direct translation from its Zulu name, in fact), Thula Thula is synonymous with one thing: abundant elephants. It’s a special place, one made even more so when seen through a lens – here are Erin’s thoughts.

What is the one thing on every young photographer’s wish list? Wildlife, of course… and the closer the better. After some research and some tough parameters – such as “where can we go to escape the cold Cape Town winter?” and “where can I find as many of the Big 5 as I can?” – KwaZulu-Natal was the no-brainer. After I read The Elephant Whisperer, the choice was even easier: Thula Thula Private Game Reserve near Empangeni was booked.

Safari outfit: check. Binoculars: check. Biggest lens I could lay my hands on: check! Bye-bye winter, hello sunshine. It was an easy drive to Thula Thula from Durban ─ straight up the N2 in two hours. A warm sub-tropical welcome was waiting for us and my 9-year old sister, Freya, and I were wildly excited as we had to abandon our car and pack ourselves and our luggage into the Land Rover that would take us to the lodge – mini game drive already….awesome!

 

It was now really quite warm and the blue pool looked amazing, but lunch looked even better. Three courses later of delicious flavours and generous portions and we were ready to have a short break before our first real game drive. The beautiful honeymoon suite at the main lodge had been kitted out to accommodate our family of four – we had plenty of space and everything we could have needed. All four of us could have fitted into mom and dad’s bed alone. Freya and I updated our diaries and I sorted out my camera gear so I did not miss a thing. Ok, ready!

 

After a cup of tea and (some) biscuits, we headed off at 3.30pm. The drives leave slightly earlier in winter as the sun sets around 5ish. We all enjoyed a few zebra crossings and a cool sighting of a baby giraffe – only a week old and already 2 metres tall! My sister was in a state of excitement as elephants have always been her favourite and the thought of seeing real ones was almost too much to bear.

After about half an hour, we spotted part of a 31 elephant herd – and they were running! No problem to Shando, our ranger, as we set off in pursuit. We positioned ourselves on the path and they crossed in front of us. Zoom lenses were redundant – I could not believe how close the elephants were. Shando named each one. It felt so personal and I was able to recognise the elephants from the book. My sister’s eyes were like saucers. We followed the herd and each sighting was better than the last. It’s a good thing I had brought spare memory cards for the camera.

 

Game drives also have refreshment breaks and we stopped on top of the hill for a drink and some snacks. The views were lovely and we checked the landscape for the tell-tale dust cloud raised by the ellies. The drive back to the lodge became a night drive and we glimpsed hyena. Amazingly Khaya, our tracker, found a chameleon in a bush, in the dark. Now that’s talent.

We had dinner in the boma, even though it was quite cold by then. There is a big table and a big fire – thankfully. I experimented with mushroom Vol-au-Vents and fish curry. Francoise, the owner of Thula Thula, is a trained chef and designs all the menus. No complaints from me! Freya loved her three cheese and pesto pastry.

 

We all slept very well and woke up ready for our morning game drive. Today we hoped to see the rhinos – and we were not disappointed. Thula’s two white rhinos are magnificent. Thabo, the male, has a habit of approaching vehicles and my mom’s face was a picture as he came alongside her.

Later that morning we were going on our first bush walk. I’ll admit that Freya and I had been really nervous about this bit. Scary stories of charging elephants and lone buffalo had us a bit worked up. Khaya led the walk, armed with a stick, so if he wasn’t nervous, we had no reason to be either. It is a real treat to see the small things like funnel web spiders and genet tracks. Even the bone-white hyena spoor was interesting. We strolled alongside giraffe, admired the vultures and tried to see the wildebeest we could hear grunting in the bush. After two hours of walking, breakfast was very welcome.

That day, we moved to the tented camp. Lunch there is served buffet style, communal and relaxed. The tents are amazing. Very cosy, very comfortable and I was super impressed to see a claw bath in the tent.

 

Our evening game drive offered yet another spectacular elephant encounter. The rangers are great at positioning us to get the best views and the greatest pictures. Thula’s elephants allow visitors closer than other places, truly making it an ideal place for a first-time safari.

By now we had fallen into a pattern of eating delicious food, bush walks and game drives with lovely relaxing breaks in between. Before we knew it, we were on our last game drive. We went off in search of the rhinos again. They were very playful in the cooler, windy conditions and decided to chase our vehicle! Andrew, our ranger, managed to get us away with some nifty driving, while we hung on laughing hysterically. Definitely not a drive any of us will forget.

Before we were to leave Thula Thula I had a very important job to do. I was one of a group of girls from Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School who had raised money to support Rhino protection. We had decided to donate the money to Thula Thula’s Rhino Orphanage. I was very privileged to be able to hand over the funds to Francoise as well as Axel Tarifa who runs the orphanage. We saw first hand the work they are doing and know that the funds will go directly to saving vulnerable animals.

 

Thank you, Thula Thula for sharing your wonders with me. It is the perfect place to have your first safari experience and then hopefully to return to re-engage with nature at its best.