Stepping into the lobby adorned with abstract sculptures of driftwood, I have a 360-degree view of the bushveld, complete with a watering hole. Just outside, there are tables set in a shallow pool of water and daybeds with muslin drapes.
I am at the Earth Lodge, one of Sabi Sabi’s four properties and a National Geographic Unique Lodge, in South Africa’s 65,000-hectare Sabi Sabi Reserve. Unlike most typical colonial style lodges, this one completely blends into its forest home. From nest-shaped coffee tables made of painted branches, and walls that resemble the earth, to metal birds peeping out from behind lampshades and chandeliers of twisted fig wood, the drama of the African wilderness is reflected in every corner. Artist Geoffrey Armstrong’s salvaged wood sculptures and furniture, tribal motifs and knick-knacks like stacks of beads, and upholstery inspired by animal skin decorate the space whose warm metallic colour scheme is a nod to South Africa’s mineral riches.
The wild theme continues to my room, one of the property’s 13 luxurious suites. The dramatic headboard of my bed—a sinuous, twisted cross-section of a salvaged tree—holds pride of place. Nguni hide carpets adorn the floors, and the study table has a decanter of port. Coffee table books, a Nespresso coffee machine and binoculars are provided, along with a painting set. The best part is the en-suite bathroom with picture windows framing the bush, and an egg-shaped stone tub. Sliding glass doors lead to a deck with a plunge pool and recliner chairs, and uninterrupted jungle views. I almost want to curl up and remain in my room, much like the wild inhabitants of Sabi Sabi that are often spotted napping in the afternoons, but dinner awaits.
Talking to General Manager, Stefan Schoeman, over dinner I learn that Earth Lodge’s unique walls were actually born of an accident. “A piece of plaster fell down and caught grass and earth,” he says, “and the designer decided that was the look she wanted.” The final look was achieved by mixing river sand and yellow thatching grass with concrete.
I am also told that there is no proper fencing around the property, which has been purposely built close to the ground to be in harmony with the landscape. “In fact, it blends in so well, that elephants often walk on the roofs of the rooms and warthogs drink from the plunge pools,” adds Schoeman. That night I try to keep an ear out for any elephants that might have wandered on to my roof, thankful for the sturdy columns that hold it up.
Though tempted to stay snuggled in bed, I get myself up and ready by 5.30 a.m.—a visit to Sabi Sabi is most importantly about the safari. Early morning coffee and cakes is followed by a game drive in an open Land Rover accompanied by a game ranger and a local Shangaan tribe tracker. We drive through the bumpy grassland trails, scrub and acacia woodland along the Sabi river spotting herds of zebra, gangly giraffes with their young ones, the blue-and-purple hued lilac breasted rollers, and a herd of Cape buffaloes with ox picker birds perched on their rumps. Amidst the sepia landscape of acacia and marula trees, we tick off the Big Five from our list. But the crowning glory is spotting an elusive leopard, thanks to our sharp tracker who shows us marks in the sand where the leopard has hauled its prey.
Back in the lodge I have to ask for a chaperone to walk from my room to the main lobby area as darkness falls. Candlelit tables and hurricane-lamp-lit paths have enveloped the place in a sense of mystery. After lounging for a while by the cosy fireplace in the well-stocked library, I head to dinner. The chef’s innovative menu and the jungle’s silence is suddenly punctuated by a loud croak of a toad. It seems to be more appropriate than music for a place that takes its cues from nature.
Earth Lodge, in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in the northeastern part of South Africa, is a 5-hr drive from Johannesburg airport and a 2-hr drive from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (Nelspruit). There are daily flights from Johannesburg to the Sabi Sabi Airstrip (www.sabisabi.com; doubles ZAR 21,900/Rs1,10,300 plus taxes per person sharing per night; including all meals, a day and a night safari, and transfers from Sabi Sabi airstrip). The lodge’s boutique store has a range of curios and the spa offers a wide selection of relaxing treatments. Visits to the local Shangaan villages can also be arranged.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.