Travels in South Africa: en route to Thula Thula - elephant sanctuary January 2020

Before the pandemic.  I travelled - a distant memory now, but so glad I went, the memories of my adventures stayed with me throughout lockdown.

The 7-hour flight to Cape Town in economy seating was marred by a woman sitting next to me, who in the narrow seats was freaking out every time my arm brushed against her.  As I kept dozing off, this was impossible.  The stewards couldn't move either of us because the flight was full.  Those were the days eh?  No full flights now. A friend went to Majorca recently - 20 people in an aircraft with seating for 180.  Anyway, I got very little sleep as you can imagine.

I'd booked myself into a backpack hostel in Cape Town called The B.I.G, in  Greenpoint. There's about 25 backpack hostels in CT - variable in quality and price.  Most are fine, some cater more to the younger age groups with BBQs (called 'brais' in SA), loud parties etc.  The B.I.G, which I'd not been to before, turned out to be 5 star - lovely,, warm friendly atmosphere, variable age groups, comfortable communal spaces, quiet,  great for solo travellers.   At the beginning, I 'd booked into a female dorm(4-6 bed), but for the first few days they put me in a luxury double room all to myself, at no extra cost. The weather was warm and sunny (about 26C), the sky shone blue all day.  The hostel was a kilometre from the huge ultra-modern shopping mall, boating/yachting dockland area of CT called the Waterfront.  

I quickly discovered that an Uber to the Waterfront with its smart cafes and bars cost approximately £2.  After a few days at the BIG, relaxing and beaching,  I booked an internal flight via Mango airlines to Durban where my Norwegian friend Tor has an apartment, close to the main beach.  He usually goes out there, taking a break from his work based in Norway, around Xmas/ New Year. I'd contacted him via FB, the week before I left the UK.

 In Nov 2019, I'd read a book called The Elephant Whisperer, by Lawrence Anthony.  It was a brilliant story about how the guy rescued and put together a herd of wild elephants, most of whom had been destined to be shot because of difficult behaviours - generally brought on by trauma caused by the terrible things done to them by poachers and other 'human' beings. 

After reading the book, I did some online research and found that the sanctuary he'd founded, was still going strong and being funded by tourism at the luxury end of the tourist industry. His widow Francoise Maltby, was carrying on with running the place.  To stay there for any length of time would have been outside my budget but I decided to book for 2 nights as that would include two drives a day through the bush to see the elephant herd. Francois had founded an orphanage for baby elephants and rhino whose mothers' had been killed by poachers.  She too wrote a book about this titled An Elephant in My Kitchen

So I had booked for  2 nights in a lodge at Thula Thula for the weekend after my arrival in Cape Town.

From the UK, I contacted Tor to see if he was going to be there in January and if so could I stay with him in Durban?  Yes, not only was he pleased to have me come to visit but said he'd come and pick me up from the airport and drive me to Thula Thula the next day.  He had a hire car.  I was delighted - I'd only decided to go to SA after UK Christmas, a very last-minute decision.  It was as though all the pieces of the jigsaw were falling into place to make this a memorable adventure.

I did warn him that Thula Thula was a good two hours drive from Durban, but he insisted he was happy to do the drive.  Ha ha!  I think if he'd known what a bumpy ride on remote roads the latter part of the journey was, he might have withdrawn the offer.   

My flight arrived in Durban at 7 pm to torrential tropical rain, and there was Tor and his friend Josein waiting for me in Arrivals. The rain had us sprinting for the car with umbrellas up.  With my bag-on wheels safely stowed in the boot, we went in search of a good curry in central Durban. Tor's friend Josein came too, a guy from Malawi, who I soon discovered was, like many Africans,  a strongly practicing Christian (unlike myself and Tor). He was staying with Tor while looking for work - Tor travels all over Africa for his job - he is a senior part of an NGO that deals with sexual health in Africa, so has many friends around the whole continent. 

As you may know, SA is renowned for its violent crime, so whenever I travel there, I'm very careful where I go and who with.  Durban has a very high crime rate and, in central Durban, you frequently see groups of boys on street corners, many of whom are glue-sniffers.  

The street we went to was well known to Tor and seemed quite safe to walk about in, with restaurants and bars on both sides.  The rain was still torrential and rivers of water were pouring down the gullies on both sides of the road, but it was hot and humid.  Durban(unlike Cape Town) is always warm with a semi-tropical climate. The restaurants were all closing as the rain had driven off their customers, but we found one and had a passable curry.  

Tor with a Durban Indian curry called Bunny Chow - half a loaf of white bread - 

all the bread scooped out, filled with curry and a roll of rice on top.

We returned to Tor's flat, to find another lodger asleep on a couch at the back - Sidney, who I met the next day when he returned from his shift doing admin in a local petrol station. He was severely disabled, his body bent and twisted as he walked, but bright, inquisitive and interesting to talk to. He too was from Malawi. He had vacated the second bedroom (a large king size bed)and changed all the sheets for my arrival.  How kind.

Tor's flat is two streets from the main beach, next to the police station. You constantly see police cars and police in uniform coming and going outside, although Tor didn't seem to feel too reassured by their presence.  I remembered what we thought of the SA police in the 70s, not remotely like the British police - SA police take no prisoners.  

Tor's flat is large and open plan but a typical bachelor pad - the lounge had large sofas to sprawl in, the bathroom black and silver, two large bedrooms with giant double beds, decoration quite sparse - plenty of beers in the fridge, not so much food.

Next day, after me cooking us all a slap-up breakfast of egg, chips and beans (Tor had gone out to the shop next door for supplies)  we set off for Thula Thula. The rain of the previous evening had cleared and the sky had  returned to its usual blue, bar a few drifts of clouds, here and there. Tor was driving initially, then he swapped places with Josein who drove the rest of the way.We stopped for sandwiches and crisps halfway there - it was motorway for the first hour and a half. Then it was smaller and smaller roads, trying to follow scraggy signs and Google maps.

Eventually, we pulled up in front of a wide lawn and a large lodge about a hundred metres away.  Suddenly I felt nervous to be leaving the safety of Tor and Josein.  We walked across to the large reception area in the lodge. Firstly I was disappointed to learn that Francoise was away in India.  After reading her book I'd set my heart on meeting her.  But it was not to be.  Then I wanted Tor and Josein to come and settle me into my lodge, so they'd have a chance to look around.  But no, we were told that the Zulu game ranger was going to drive me to the lodge and Tor and Josein couldn't come. I waved them off feeling slightly apprehensive, what was next, what would my lodge be like?

The drive to the lodge was on a winding track and took about 20 minutes and I soon saw why Tor and his hire car would not have been permitted to go there.  Small groups of kudu leapt across the road in front of us, we saw zebras grouped under tangled small trees - this was the bush, we were in the bundu and the low lying bush-shrubbery and small thorny trees all along the track was teaming with life.  We were driving in an open-sided jeep with a bar frame around us, more suitable for this terrain.  My Zulu driver and I spoke little on this rattling drive, except he kept pointing out large birds of prey roosting in trees along the way..  I was so fascinated by the surroundings that I was totally absorbed in looking.

We pulled up again in front of a wide sweep of  lawns with a scattering of large trees.  There were the lodges in a kind of wide semi-circle on the grass.  I could see some lovely elegant kudu (gazelle-like) grazing on the far side, behind the lodges. We'd stopped by a wooden frame with steps, presumably to aid people alighting from the jeeps, but I just jumped out next to the jeep. 

Fifty yards away on my left was a larger lodge which turned out to be a communal area with a bar and seating for about 50 people.  My driver pointed me in that direction, with my wheelie case, and told me to be back here at 4 pm for 'a game drive'. Wow, already I thought.  Looking over I saw a Zulu woman in a headscarf emerging from the large lodge and walking towards me with a welcoming smile. She walked me over to the lodge on my right about 50 metres away, where I would be staying.  It was very large inside - a 4 poster bed with mosquito nets, draped from a frame high above the bed and a  a big wardrobe on the right - a large ensuite bathroom with bath, shower and toiletries all laid out.

It certainly was at the luxury end of the market. My friendly Zulu assistant said that she'd be laying out lunch for me in the main lodge, so to make my way over there as soon as I'd settled in.  I put out a few things from my small case and then wandered across to the main lodge.  Inside there was a long and well-stocked bar on my right and wooden tables and chairs across a big room with a thatched ceiling. There were pictures of elephants and Zulu shields and spears on the walls. 

Nono led me outside to a large veranda where a table was laid out with crisp white table cloth and silver cutlery.  The veranda looked out across the lawns to a wooded area, where monkeys screeched and crashed about in the branches. I was to sit there in splendid isolation.  There were no other guests about, to my dismay.  When I questioned my 'assistant' about the lack of guests she told me it was the end of the season and last week there'd been 50 people there - they'd all gone 2 days before my arrival. No more were booked until next week when a large party of Americans was arriving. 

I didn't want to sit outside on a large table on my own so got her to bring my cutlery inside to the lounge area.  

'I don't like monkeys much,' I told her.  'They're very noisy and will steal things from you in a flash!'

'Yes,' she agreed  'I don't like them either.'  Soon we were chatting away like old friends.

She handed me a very elaborate menu, but I'd had a sandwich in the car and wasn't that hungry - so chose a macaroni pasta cheesy dish, which arrived after 10 minutes. - it was simple but tasty.  Nono stayed and chatted for a while - she lived in a village nearby, was a single parent with a teenage son.  She'd worked for Francoise (and Lawrence) for 20 years. I recalled reading her name in Francoise's book, so was pleased to meet her. 

It was now 2.30 and I decided to go back to my lodge for a siesta before the game drive at 4 pm. It had clouded over and had become cooler (about 22C), I would need to change from shorts to jeans and take a long-sleeved cardigan I thought.  I climbed onto the huge bed, threw a shawl over myself, set my alarm and fell asleep. 

To be continued - Meeting the Elephants.

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