An Elephant In My Kitchen: Without water, life stops

When Lawrence and I first bought Thula Thula and built the lodges, I never understood his fixation with rain. To me it was a nuisance, because game drives aren't much fun for guests in a downpour, but over time and many droughts, my very French outlook began to change.

One particular year it had been steaming hot without rain for months on end. The dams had dried up, the sun scorched the veldt and killed off the grass, leaving nothing for our wildlife to eat or drink. Animals belonging to local villagers were skin and bones.

Neighbouring reserves began to consider culling as a last-ditch attempt to save at least some of their game. The earth was so arid that clouds of dust hovered everywhere.

There is no such thing as piped water in rural areas and we're all dependent on boreholes or municipal water deliveries. Disaster struck when the government official responsible for coordinating water deliveries disappeared on holiday without making alternative arrangements. From one day to the next, Buchanana, the small village where the families of most of our employees live, had no water. The people are so poor that buying bottled water was an unthinkable luxury. We had a borehole and emergency water storage facilities at Thula Thula but they had nothing. Coming from Paris, it was a huge shock to see people I knew and loved panicking about something as basic as water.

I went with my reserve manager Vusi to meet with the village elders. Children played in the dirt outside the sturdy brick meeting room and the sun baked on the tin roof. It was hotter inside than out.

'If we don't get water soon, we won't be able to control the people's anger,' Mr Khumalo warned.

'How much do you have left?' I asked.

His thumb and forefinger formed a circle. I glanced at Vusi. This was catastrophic.

'We'll give you everything we can,' I promised.

'I'll bring some down myself with the truck,' Vusi said.

'I'll phone the municipality. They can't all be on holiday,' I said.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find an official who would take responsibility for delivering water to the village. My calls rang unanswered, my messages weren't returned. No one was contactable.

The villagers rioted, burning tyres, blockading roads. Our guests couldn't get in or out. We shared whatever water we had. In desperation, I phoned the newspapers and it was only when images of the villagers' plight went viral that someone sat up and took notice. Within two hours, a convoy of seven trucks of water arrived: barely enough for a few days, but it was a start.
I never looked at rain the same way again. Without water, life stops.

The problem for us is that weather has become so unpredictable, we can't rely on KwaZulu-Natal's summer rains anymore and my greatest fear is that one day, water shortages will become as big a problem for us as poaching.

Our orphanage was particularly dependent on water. We needed water to keep the orphans' rooms hygienic and sterile. We needed it to top up drinking troughs and mud wallows, and to cool down the young animals when it was hot. There were days when the carers didn't bath or shower so there would be enough water left over for the orphans.

More recently in 2016, our dams were so low that our hippo family – Romeo, Juliet and baby Chump – had left their favourite spot at Mkhulu Dam and trekked to Mine Dam, the only dam that still had enough water to cover them. I was worried sick it would dry up too.

At last, in the middle of the night, I woke to the wonderful sounds of a downpour. I cuddled my poodle Gypsy against me and listened to the rain battering my thatched roof and clattering on the terrace. To this day I love the sound and smell of new rain.

It poured for forty-eight glorious hours.

Dust turned to mud. The air smelled clean and green. The Nseleni River flowed. Our dams and waterholes glistened. The world felt softer. Nature replenished herself, as she always does. By the third morning, the violent cloudbursts turned to soft drizzle and I went outside to savour the hazy mist of droplets.

Right in front of me, walking towards the house on the other side of the fence, was the herd.

Matriarch Frankie was in front, followed by our beloved retired matriarch Nana and her daughter Nandi. The youngsters and babies were in the middle and big boys Gobisa, Mabula and Mandla following at their own leisurely pace. Every single member of the herd was heading towards the pool of rainwater that had formed near my house during the storm. 

Mabula began to dig up the ground with his powerful tusks, churning and stirring the sand into mud. Two little ones, Natal and Themba, copied him but didn't realize they didn't have tusks and ended up with thick mud packs that beauty salons charge fortunes for.

The entire herd tumbled about in abandon, flinging sludge in magnificent arcs. Again and again they made eye contact with me, as if wanting me to know how happy they were. They had 4,500 hectares of mud pools to choose from and they came to the one outside my home. I pulled my dressing gown around me, deeply moved by their joy and so grateful to them for sharing it with me.

Nana sat on her massive rear, trunk high, spraying mud over herself. I noticed that her breasts were still full of milk – clearly her son Lolo had not yet had his morning suckle. Although he was four years old and had been eating vegetation for a while already, he still suckled regularly but right then, food was the last thing on his little mind as he hurtled after Natal and Themba and piled on top of them in a joyous goulash of baby elephants.

* This is an extract taken from An Elephant In My Kitchen by Françoise Malby-Anthony, the sequel to The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. Published by Pan Macmillan South Africa.