GAME ON - JSE MAGAZINE

GAME ON

Twenty years into its new openness, SA’s safari lodge industry finds itself relatively well placed to compete on a worldwide scale

GAME ON

Regions, rather than individual lodges, are now on the lips of the international marketers, notably Sabi Sand, Madikwe, the greater Garden Route (ever expanding) and northern KwaZulu-Natal. Trends in decor and management increasingly echo international movements too, with genuine sustainability – of water use, building, waste and staff – the key phrase.

Local community initiatives have matured and there is more real involvement than previously, with a resultant trickle down that is good for conservation as well as local economies. Lodge culture in SA is currently a growth industry, taking advantage of a weak rand and increasing international trade. But, as PwC suggests in their latest hospitality report, operators have learnt from the 2009 crash and the effects of overcharging and ignoring the local market. Prices remain competitive and standards are significantly higher than just a few years ago. The question is, simply, where to first?

Prevailing design trends are notable too. Long gone, thankfully, are the leopard prints and elephant-foot side tables of the past. More surprising is the rejection of minimalism. Ascendant currently is the drive towards elegant sustainability – using found materials and concentrating on natural products in both interior design and construction. While the expensive designers and decorators cash in, some lodges that have been doing it naturally for years can simply sit back and smile.

Tuningi Safari Lodge, Madikwe, North West province
One of those is Tuningi, in the ostensibly private Madikwe Game Reserve. Though hardly new, Tuningi’s star is bright right now, gifted with a sensitive refurbishment to both suites and public area.

The park, established in 1991, has no day trippers – the various lodges operate game viewing vehicles from their locations. In the west of the reserve, Tuningi is stone and thatch with suites as big as they are comfortable. All have views and are set in the rocks, giving them the feel of secret hideaways. The main lodge area is small enough to be intimate but laid out in an innovative way with various separate areas so there is plenty of scope to be private, if the desire is there.

Winding, raised decks down to the waterhole and dinner under a huge wild fig tree lend the place the air of a fantasy retreat. There’s an abundance of leopard sightings, and elephant, buffalo and lion numbers are impressive.

Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Reserve, Mpumalanga
If Tuningi is old-school, no-nonsense Zim-style stone and thatch, on the other side of the country, down in the Lowveld, Leopard Hills is a statement in wood. The lodge, often on international top 10 lists, trades on the fact that it sits atop a koppie and all its suites have good views – not always the case in the Sabi Sand where the riverside tends to be where camps prevail.

All of Leopard Hills makes good use of the views, even the spa, which features plate glass windows so that massage can merge with meditation. The pool deck is exceptional and each suite features its own private plunge pool. The suites are a combination of contemporary and traditional elements with vaulted, thatched ceilings, an accent on space and light.

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Singita Castleton, Sabi Sand, Mpumalanga
Leopard Hills is in the Sabi Sand, one of the oldest reserves in the country. Its genesis dates from the 1920s, and it has rapidly become the nucleus of the five-star safari experience in SA. The lodge’s appeal hinges on its proximity to the Kruger National Park, the sheer volume of game and its history. Sabi Sand was settled by a handful of families and many of them are still represented there. One is the Bailes family. The Singita Castleton lodge, not far from Leopard Hills, is the original residence of James Bailes, grandfather of the owner of the Singita franchise, Luke.

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The farmhouse has been reconfigured by Boyd Ferguson of Cecile and Boyd. Their signature safari-chic style accents the heritage of the building while paying homage to the gods of ultimate luxury. It has all the Singita touches – astonishing contemporary design and uncompromising sumptuousness. The combination is powerful indeed and Castleton must rate, along with Kirkman’s nearby, as one of the most indulgent ways to stay in the Sands.

The main house, with its verandah, hosts the rest of the camp, made up of six individual cottages, within the grounds. The lodge houses 12 guests. The gardens set it apart from conventional lodges, rambling and manicured, a triumph of form and creativity. The informal nature of the lodge means that guests congregate either in the courtyard, on the verandah or in the large farm kitchen.

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Lodge culture in SA is currently a growth industry, taking advantage of a weak rand and increasing international trade

Kirkman’s Kamp, Sabi Sand, Mpumalanga
Yet another founder family is represented not far away at Kirkman’s Kamp. Harry Kirkman, one of the region’s best-loved rangers of the 1930s, used it  as his homestead after he married local beauty Ruby Cass and wanted somewhere to start a family. Today the 1920s farmhouse has been completely renovated, with its trademark wide verandah around the house as arresting as it always was. As with Leopard Hills, the house is used as the main public area and 18 cottages have been built on the property as the accommodation. Rather than thatch they are corrugated iron, echoing the chosen style of the early settlers. Everywhere photographs from the period remind guests of the history.

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Kwena Lodge, Gondwana Game Reserve, Mossel Bay, Western Cape
History of another sort is well represented in a relatively new lodge near Mossel Bay. Gondwana, once a 10 000 ha series of farms inland from the coastal town, tips its hat to the original residents of the area, the Khoisan people. The farms have been converted by one-time Tswalu Kalahari reserve ranger Mark Rutherford, and Kwena Lodge is a delightfully unusual play on traditional Khoisan rounded huts, with circular thatched roofs.

The suites are compellingly designed, with work from some of the best contemporary artists in SA. The rounded rooms and big windows, looking out onto the fynbos of the lower Swartberg Mountain region, are magical. A number of more conventional bush villas have also been built, catering for families and bigger groups.

The reserve itself features the Big Five, though game drives place as much accent on the fynbos and rolling scenery of the Southern Cape as on the lions and elephants.
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By Peter Frost
Images: © &Beyond 2014, Singita Media, Leopard Hills Media