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By Anna Griffin, Editor in Chief

It’s 5 am and I can’t sleep. As the bush outside awakens and I hear it come to life, I am excited for another day in this magical paradise. I sit on the porch of my lodge watching the sun rise over the African savanna, as bats retreat in a frenzy and night turns into day. Over 350 species of birds herald a chorus beyond my terrace as the bush orchestra amplifies in a vibrant crescendo. Thula Thula is an inspiring destination, brimming with wildlife, and a stunning reminder of the beauty and order of our natural world.

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The beloved home of the late conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, Thula Thula translates as peace and tranquility, and sits in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, a two-hour drive from Durban, South Africa. This is a special place not just because of its immense beauty, 5-Star accommodations, or the once-in-a-lifetime experience to see exotic, endangered species in their natural habitat. This stunning, pristine reserve where Anthony brought seven rogue elephants in 1999 as their last hope for survival inspiring his book, “The Elephant Whisperer,” is home to many indigenous wildlife including white rhinos, crocodiles, hippos, giraffes, zebras, leopards, monkeys, impalas, hyenas and wildebeest.

COCO_ECO_SAFARIAs soon as we arrive and despite a 30-hour journey, we head straight into the bush on an evening game drive with our brilliant trackers, Promise and Victor. Encountering zebras and giraffes up close and personal within hours of arriving in S. Africa is surreal, but sundowner beers standing on what feels like the top of the world takes my breath away.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 5.00.39 PMSoon we are back in the Land Rover on a mission to track down the elephants before dark. It’s not as easy as you might think considering the size of these animals, but a chance encounter with the herd on their hunt for water brings us face to face. They are aggravated by our presence and before we know it, we are being charged. To say that having a thirsty, angry, seven-ton elephant coming at you is exhilarating is an understatement, but thanks to Promise’s deft maneuvers, we are reversing full-speed up a track and out of the way, and the elephants get to the dam with no injuries sustained. Once back on the road, there’s one more stop-off to meet Thula’s white rhinos, Ntombi and Thabo, before dinner at Safari Lodge.

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The experience is a culinary delight as Cordon Bleu-trained Chef, Francoise Athony, fuses her French heritage with Zulu cuisine, inspiring a menu inspired by local ingredients with a Parisian twist. Some favorites include the divine three-cheese and pesto feuillete on tomato compote, the piquant grilled calamari peri peri on olive polenta, or the refreshing sorbet granite made with fresh pineapple, mango, and red berries. If dining al-fresco is more your style, a traditional braai featuring cast-iron pot cooking and barbecue is not to be missed, and eating out in the bush around a camp fire, being sung a sweet Zulu lullaby is a moment to remember.

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Beyond the beauty and tranquility of this private game reserve and wildlife sanctuary is a 360-degree approach to sustainability. The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization helps to fund important conservation efforts, as well as other initiatives such as educational and recycling programs at local schools. One of the special opt-in excursions is a visit to the local town of Buchanana, to volunteer  at a children’s pre-school. To meet these beautiful, inquisitive, affectionate children, most of whom are orphans and only get one meal a day  provided by the Anthony Family, has a profound impact that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Also on the activity list is a not-to-be-missed visit with a Witch Doctor who rumor has it, is never wrong. It turns out he is pretty accurate with his predictions, but it was a special experience  just to watch him perform his ritual.

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Other activities at Thula Thula include mountain biking, bush walks, and yoga retreats, and whatever your preferred accommodation style, it is available here. From luxury-appointed lodges overlooking the reserve, to sleeping in a luxe tent camp and showering outside in the wild , you can experience your safari your way.

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With the illegal rhino poaching industry now at crisis point, Thula Thula employs and trains a local team in an effort to empower them and assist them in sustaining their lives. It’s system that is obviously working as their warm and welcoming staff soulfully enhances my stay, guaranteeing me the most magical experience of a lifetime.