During the construction of Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, soil was carved out of the sloping savannah, to create a niche for the buildings. This substance was mixed with grass, to build the walls for each of thirteen suites, plus the communal area. The result is an eco-sensitive lodge, formed like no other, in harmony with the aesthetic of the bushveld.
After an easy flight from Johannesburg with Federal Airlines, to the Sabi Sabi Airstrip - which is five minute game drive from the lodge - the first surprise is the personalized meet and greet in a simple rectangular terminal, open on the sides. This space is decorated with sculptures representing the four lodges in the Sabi Sabi Collection. The perfect spot for a quick photo shoot and to watch the Federal Airlines plane taking off over the thorn trees, the structure and decor hint at the creativity and innovation to come, in the iconic Earth Lodge.
No buildings are visible as I step off the game vehicle onto a convenient platform. I am led down a brick pathway through a hidden tunnel, to an unexpected lodge reception area, with a spectacular view over a rocky water feature, to the bush beyond. The walls are high, with a skylight in the roof, that beams down bright sunlight onto the wooden sculptures that are actually benches and seats, by South African artist Geoffrey Armstrong. The atmosphere is calm and inviting. An innovative indoor/outdoor dining area that has a roof, yet is open on the sides, faces a waterhole, the meditative garden and a grassy patch with circular day beds, decked with scatter cushions. The art and curio shop tempts me to linger, but I am curious to explore my suite.
Savoring the pure air, I am guided along a dust pathway flanked by wild grass and shrubs, to a concealed entrance, which curves down to the door of my suite. Inside is yet another surprise as the bunker-like external structure caches ultra-luxury within and a sublime view over a private lap pool to grassy slope, indigenous shrubs and a dam beyond. Five waterbuck are quietly browsing next to the suite, while a herd of buffalo is raising dust as they trundle down to the dam. A feeding party of Blue waxbills, Jameson fire-finch and Arrow-marked babblers are nibbling grass seeds.
An ice bucket with champagne, shortbread cookies in a daisy shape, candies and fruit, as well as a coffee table book about Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve await me in the suite dining area. A canopy with mosquito net is suspended from the ceiling above the king sized bed. White linen with a black bed scarf, plus scatter cushions in plain black and simple taupe add to the appeal.
My case and camera bags have been placed in the changing area, which leads to a bathroom with deep egg-shaped bath, two basins of two different organic shapes, an indoor shower and an array of new white towels. Amenities are by Charlotte Rhys, in white containers. Drawn outside by the bright sunlight, I see midday shadows cast by slatted side doors onto a wide couch and individually crafted chairs on my verandah, plus a shimmering lap pool beside sun loungers. Tucked away is an outdoor shower, sculpted into the slope, so eye level with the grassy verge and panorama beyond.
Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve is renowned for being Big 5 territory, so I am delighted - but not surprised - to see elephants lumbering down to the waterhole below Earth Lodge. What does amaze me though, is to spot an elephant on the roof! The unfenced area and slope of the land allow elephants to happily browse wherever it pleases them, including on the top of the flat grass-covered roofs.
On our game drive, my knowledgeable guide and her Shangaan tracker use their finely honed skills to find a leopard for me to photograph. A pretty female, she has caught a young kudu, hauled it up a Jackalberry tree and is eating the prey, to strengthen herself to nurse two new-born cubs that are still hidden. Adding to the drama of the scene are three Spotted hyenas, circling the tree base in anticipation of picking up some scraps. When they eventually wander off, the leopard descends to the ground and pads along a river bed. As the bush becomes too thick for us to follow her, we head back to Earth Lodge.
After hearing the evocative roar of lions in the night, we set off early the next morning to try to locate them. Close to the camp we find three sleeping lions. The sun comes up casting soft tissue paper hues and the lions wake, alerted by the bellows and grunts of a herd of African buffalo. The cats immediately walk briskly in the direction of the vocalizations and we follow them in exciting off-road “bundu bashing” in our land cruiser. Probably alerted by the scent of the lions, the buffalo move off, so the lions lie down for a rest after their exertions.
Well away from the lions, in an open area in the bushveld, we alight from the vehicle to have coffee and snacks. Our tracker shows me how to identify the spoor of White rhinos, Blue wildebeest and steenbok.
Delectable three course meals are served for lunch and dinner at Earth Lodge, in a different location for each repast. Tables are set up with cotton table cloth and a fabric top runner in a neutral colour. Decorative African figures - changed for each seating - add a touch of humor and bright color. Settings include the bar area, with a fire in winter; the cozy library; secluded underground wine cellar and other secret spots. The talented and innovative chef loves her work and presents á la carte options with such passion, I find it difficult to choose between the meat, fish and vegetarian main courses. Each course is creatively plated and presented from under a silver cloche. Before the afternoon game drive, high tea is served. The carefully curated in-room dining is a must.
Besides taking a guided bushveld walking safari with an armed game ranger, Earth Lodge activities include treatments in an Amani Spa - set in a Zen-like succulent garden - and cardio exercise in the gym with view of the wilderness. However, Its easy to stay in the suite, to bask in the South African sunshine, watch animals visiting the dam, bird activity, or to have a refreshing dip in the pool. You may even see an elephant softly padding down off your roof, to drink from your pool.
Federal Airlines has shuttle flights from their private air terminal near to Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to lodge landing strips in the lowveld. To Sabi Sabi airstrip I was turbopropped in a Cessna Grand Caravan. Back to Johannesburg I experienced a comfortable flight in a Beechcraft 1900D. Covid protocols are observed in the private terminal lounge, as well as on the flights. The lounge has an indoor and outdoor area, where drinks and snacks are served as I wait. It is a simple, comfortable space, right next to their runway.
Self Drive from Johannesburg is a pleasant 5.5 hour road trip.
• Sabi Sabi is a malaria area, so please consult your doctor for prophylaxis
Article & Images by Gillian McLaren (@Jetset_Gillian)
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