Review: Thula Thula Safari lodge

2012-09-04 06:53
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Photos: Thula Thula Private Game Reserve

Close encounters of the elephant kind at the Thula Thula Private Game Reserve leave you feeling rejuvenated.

Nothing makes you feel more alive than when you think you’re almost dead – I learned this during my stay at Lawrence Anthony's private game reserve in Zululand.

An incessant trickle of water made its way from the hood of my rain poncho onto my chin. Drip, drip, drip was the only audible sound, other than the tyres of the safari vehicle sloshing through the muddy, wetness that was Thula Thula private game reserve on our first evening.

This was not what I had in mind. But the weather, being the weather, had a mind of its own – especially after playing havoc across the country in recent weeks. Even the nearby city of Durban, usually a tropical haven in winter,  had had a dusting of snow.

“What on earth were we expecting to see on this grey evening?” I silently asked myself.

Game drives are about as predictable as the flip of a coin – it often boils down to luck, sprinkled with the abilities of your tracker. It’s safe to say that no two are ever the same. In fact the only thing that’s guaranteed is a bushveld bum massage. Famed Elephant Whisperer and the late owner of Thula Thula Lawrence Anthony didn’t succeed in finding Nana and her clan when the herd broke out on a similar night to this.

What made us think we’d be any luckier?

We pushed on for what seemed like an hour across a large portion of the 4 500ha, malaria free game reserve. Less than 2 hours drive from Durban, it’s situated in the heart of Zululand, just outside Richards Bay and Umfolosi Game Reserve. Steeped in tales of triumph over adversity, I should have known being rejuvenated in this particular bushveld would take on an entirely new meaning.

Suddenly Sanele our game ranger perked up, saying he had spotted something as he pointed into the distance. My husband and I, along with a Canadian woman who was treating her god son for his 18th birthday (all boys deserve a god mother like this) agreed out of what must have been sheer desperation.

We quickly made our way closer, when suddenly any doubt of what he had spotted vanished. Out of the grey shadows Gobisa - a 6-ton, 37-year-old bull elephant brought into the reserve in 2010 to be a patriarch to the younger males of the famous Thula Thula herd - loomed mightily before us.  Sanele positioned us a safe distance away and switched off the engine. 

Gobisa - his name means to bend - he had a bent tusk that fell out. He was also brought in to bend the males of the Thula Thula herd. Photo: Selene Brophy

We marveled as Gobisa, who had turned his full attention to us, curled his trunk and flapped his ears in the soft rain. While we humans have a tendency to want to snuggle in front of a log fire with a glass of red wine when the rain comes down (my thoughts drifted back to the lovely lapa back at the tented camp), for elephants it’s a heaven-sent pampering experience on their rough and tough skins.

“He is in musth,” Siyabonga our tracker cautioned as three female elephants made an appearance on the scene.  In what seemed like a split second, the docile flapping of the ears turned into a fully-fledged charge.  Who knew such a big beast could move so quickly!?

All profanity that followed aside, it felt amazing to witness it first-hand.

Our ranger turned on the engine and made a be-line for safety. As luck would have it, we became entangled with a bush. Our laboring engine roared back at the charging elephant.  Adrenalin pumping, I tried to convince myself that Sanele was doing it as a scare tactic; for the elephant that is. Just at the crucial moment when Gobisa seemed only a few metres away, he managed to free the vehicle, complete a u-turn and speed us out of harm’s way.
From a safe distance of about 100m Gobisa continued to make his presence felt as the rest of ‘his women' came over the hill, along with a number of playful baby elephant in tow. The silence around us seemed to amplify their slow motion. We sat in the 4x4, sighing with relief and awe.

How our ranger had convinced us to brave it and join him for that late afternoon game drive was beyond me. But I’m glad he did, as it was the most invigorating part of a unique bushveld stay.

Still running on the excitement of charge, we took drinks at the watering hole, home to three crocodiles and an insane amount of birdlife. We all agreed we had never felt more alive, and it felt anything but cliché. But this was clearly all in a day’s work for our guides Sanele and Siya.

The tranquil scenery before me, the odd cry from a bird piercing the kind of silence most of us desk jockeys in open-plan offices are simply not unaccustomed to, I stood there taking it all in and enjoyed my glass of wine far better, albeit slightly damp, at the place where the Elephant Whisperer’s ashes had been scattered in amongst bones of elephants who had gone before.

The Thula Thula watering hole. Photo: Supplied

Back at the Lapa for dinner, I was reminded that most activities are a communal affair when staying at a safari lodge. When you almost get stampeded by an elephant bull in musk, sharing a buffet dinner table is nothing.  Each of us took turns in giving our version of the encounter to a delightful American veterinarian and his wife – whom I’m sure didn’t find our excitement as delightful. We joked that the tale would get taller and more elaborate by the end of the weekend.

But with each itinerary experience – be it the invigorating early-morning guided, bush walk that gives you unparalleled insight into nature; a three-course Franco-Zulu (French and African fusion cuisine) lunch under the direction of the lovely Françoise Malby-Anthony whose personal, hands-on approach to the running of this reserve and all her guests makes you feel chosen, all the way through to the Zulu-dance boma dinner on our final night – the thing that united almost each guest was the tales of Lawrence Anthony. This is possibly the only game reserve I’ve stayed at where South African guests outnumbered the international ones.

Near or far, bush people or not, each seemed to have responded to his whispering to conserve our beautiful land and her animals – to understand that trust is earned and the reward is unquestionable loyalty – watch this video to see what I mean.

And a tented camp experience is something I’d recommend all South Africans do - soon - before we are outnumbered by the international set. Each night we crept into a toasty bed thanks to electric blankets and awoke from the deepest of sleeps to the sounds of nature – unlike you would experience in a bricked enclosure. I could just image the delight of kids staying in this sort of structure during summer with all the flaps flung open – moms and dads need not worry though since it has all the luxury conveniences you wouldn’t necessarily expect when staying in a tent.

Tented accommodation that makes you feel at one with nature. Photo: Supplied

Whether you are an adventurer at heart or a nature lover by design – a stay at Thula Thula leaves you feeling alive, while its peace and tranquility is able to silence the rumblings within even the most harrowed city soul.

Wildlife & Activities:

Thula Thula is home to a diverse African wildlife population, including elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard, giraffe, zebra, nyala, hyena, crocodile, kudu, wildebeest and a spectacular variety of other indigenous species, great and small. Birdlife is prolific with over 350 identified species, including raptors and vultures. The reintroduction of a family herd of elephant in 1999 marked the historic return of these great creatures to the area for over 100 years.

- Game walks are guided by experienced trackers.
- Game drives are conducted in open landrovers by professional rangers.

Day visitor activities available on request:

Game Drive (2-3 hours - times on request)
Breakfast and Game Drive (09h00 – 12h30)
Game Drive and lunch (10h00 – 14h30)
Game Drive, lunch and visit to the Zulu Village (10h00 – 16h00)
Game Drive and dinner (16h00 – 22h00)
Children under 8 years old pay 50% of the adult rate for day activities.

Thula Thula Booking Package deal

2 NIGHTS: 1 Night Luxury Elephant Safari Lodge (Deluxe Room) & 1 Night Luxury Standard Tent: R 3600 per person
3 NIGHTS: 2 Nights Luxury Elephant Safari Lodge (Deluxe Room) & 1 Night Luxury Standard Tent: R 5550 per person

The rate includes:

LUXURY TENTED CAMP Package Includes:   

Luxury Accommodation  
All Meals (Traditional South African Home Cooking)  
Daily Morning Bush Walk   
Afternoon Game Drive   
Tea& Coffee in your Room   
Bottled Water in your Room on Arrival   
VAT at 14%   
Package Excludes:
Curio Purchases
Bar Expenses
1% Tourism Levy


Luxury Accommodation   
All Meals (Franco-Zulu Cuisine)   
Daily Late Morning Bush Walk  
Morning & Afternoon Game Drive  
Tea& Coffee in your Room   
Bottled Water in your Room on Arrival   
VAT at 14%   

Package Excludes:
Curio Purchases
Bar Expenses
1% Tourism Levy

Single rates + 30%

More specials, including their ‘stay longer, pay less’ specials can be found on the website -

Getting there:

Transfers are R1,800 per trip, the vehicle fits 4 passengers, so R1,800 for 1, 2 or 4 passengers.  Transfers are outsourced by a 3rd party service provider, and take approx 2 hrs from King Shaka Airport.  

From Johannesburg (6-7 hours)
Take the N17 out of Johannesburg towards Mpumalanga. Drive past Ermelo and Piet Ritief on the N2; take a turnoff to the R33 towards Paulpietersburg / Vryheid. At Vryheid, take the R34 to Babanango / Melmoth. Drive past  Melmoth, when you get to Nkwalini, turn left to Empangeni (R34), drive for 36 km and take a second turnoff left to Heatonville. Follow the road for about 10 km crossing 3 railway tracks. After the 3rd track, at the T-junction turn left onto a dirt road, follow the road upward for about 8 km, and turn right for 2 km to Thula Thula and arrive at the gate. NB. From the Heatonville turnoff the road is signposted.

Take the N17 out of Johannesburg towards Springs, join the N2 highway towards KwaZulu-Natal through Mpumalanga. Drive past Ermelo, Piet Ritief and Pongola. At the Richards Bay/Empangeni turn-off, take the R34 to  Empangeni. Drive through Empangeni following the direction of Nkwalini / Melmoth, then turn right towards Heatonville. From Heatonville follow the directions as above. NB. From the Heatonville turnoff the road is signposted.

From Durban (2 hours)
Take the N2 North bound to Empangeni. At the Empangeni turn off take the R34 to Empangeni. Drive through Empangeni following the direction of Nkwalini / Melmoth. Take a right turn towards Heatonville, cross 3 train tracks. After the 3rd track at the Tjunction turn left onto a dirt road follow the road upward for about 8 km, then turn right for about 2 km and arrive at the gate. NB. From the Heatonville turnoff the road is signposted. From the Drakensberg Area (4-6 hours) Drive back to the N3; follow the N3 towards Durban, past Howick / Pietermaritzburg. Drive past the Pavilion Shopping Complex. Take the N2 North and follow directions as Durban above.
NB: From the Heatonville turnoff, the road is signposted.

Thula Thula has a 700m airstrip on the property for light aircraft.

The gate to the reserve closes at 17h00. Late arrivals should call 035 792 8322 or 082259 9732 or 083 787 9991.


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