LONDON LETTER: Paying one’s dues at Thula Thula

On a recent visit to South Africa, I did something I had long vowed to do; pay my dues to the elephants of Thula Thula.

It was arranged by management, as both our brats were with us and they had not seen the herd made famous in The Elephant Whisperer for 17 years.

So… my sister-in-law Françoise, who valiantly keeps the Lawrence Anthony legacy alive at Thula Thula, not only kindly provided a room but sent us out on a game drive with the order ‘find the elephants or else’ ringing in the ranger’s ears.

He did, after co-ordinating radio calls with other rangers in the field. This has to be done in code, as the poaching crisis is so dire that no ranger gives positions of animals on air. With rhino, a sighting is not even mentioned.

Anyway, our ranger cracked the code, which is probably more complex than Enigma in World War 2, and we found the behemoths drinking at a remote watering hole.

First to greet us as we rounded the corner was Mabula, the new patriarch. He’s a magnificent specimen with gleaming tusks. He ousted the previous patriarchs, Gobisa and Mandla, by sheer physicality, even though Mandla is a bigger animal.

Gobisa gave up the leadership contest as he has fallen in love with the matriarch, Frankie, and can’t be bothered with politics anymore.

The herd is now 30-strong. It was an awesome sight to see all gathered at the watering hole, including bulls and askaris – extremely unusual for elephants.

As they wallowed in the mud, squirting water and generally hanging out together, it was a timeless vista of ancient Africa.

My sons – who are now pukka Poms – were visibly moved. This was a galaxy removed from London.

At the same time, I saw a swirl in the water and a be-whiskered barbel emerged.

When I pointed it out, management and the brats scoffed.

‘Trust dad to see a fish when the rest of us are looking at ellies,’ was the contemptuous retort.


It was one of the best compliments of my life.

After drinking their fill, Mabula led them away, stopping a couple of metres from our Land Cruiser.

He towered above and could have flipped the vehicle over in an instant. Instead, he went around, which I thought was very polite of him.

Then came Frankie, then Nana, then ET. Our ranger named them as they filed past, names etched forever in my memory. I mouthed, ‘thank you’.

As mentioned earlier, I’d come to pay my dues. I owe this herd big time. The book Lawrence and I wrote about them changed my life.

The initial seven members arrived at Thula Thula in 1997 facing a suspended death sentence as they had regularly broken out of reserves in Mpumalanga. If they escaped once more, they would be shot as rogue animals.

Lawrence lived with the troubled pachyderms for weeks, camping outside the boma, seldom sleeping as he talked to them, even sang to them, persuading them to stay.

Then came that fateful moment when Nana, the then matriarch, stretched out her trunk to Lawrence, accepting him.

It was the start of a love affair that did not end with Lawrence’s untimely death in 2012.

The older elephants still mourn him, as that viral Youtube video clip of their silent vigil on the anniversary of his death attests.

Before I co-wrote The Elephant Whisperer, we were on the bones of our butts in England as only immigrants struggling in a new country will understand.

I had a low-paid job on a website and management did temp work. Sometimes her tedious day would consist of licking and pasting stamps on envelopes.

I was looking to get a night job to keep mortgage payments current.

The Elephant Whisperer changed that. Although it is no Harry Potter, and I am no JK Rowling, we could at least pay debts and put food on the table.

There is a charcoal sketch of Lawrence hanging on our lounge wall. Whenever I walk past, I mouth ‘thank you’.

Just as I did when Mabula led the magnificent Thula Thula herd past us at the watering hole.

Graham Spence

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