South Africa's Earth Lodge at Sabi Sabi

We arrived at Sabi Sabi at four o'clock, just in time for afternoon tea. The English tradition is still carried on, even in the African wilderness! We had come to South Africa to see 'big game', close up and in their natural surroundings. Our two days at the lodge included four game drives in open Land Rovers, about twelve hours in all, on dirt roads carved through bush country adjacent to World famous Kruger Park.

In a way, you could say that our accommodations were also carved out of the bush. Earth Lodge was built following devastating floods, that in the year 2000 swept away the existing River Lodge. To replace their loss, owners Hilton and Jacqui Loon, along with a prominent South African architect, Mohammed Hans, designed what is arguably the world's most intriguing Five -Star property. Thirteen suites were built into the side of a hill, each separated by a mound of earth, replaced following construction. Earth was also moved onto the roofs of the units, leaving only a dome of clay covered thatch resembling a termite mound. The lodge was so well concealed, that we had trouble finding it, despite following direction signage. Solly, our driver from PSTours had actually arrived at the small parking area, left it, only to be told by the only person we saw, that he had been right the first time.

Lodge manager Saskia Marlowe appeared from a sunken pathway to lead my wife and me to the spacious reception area. We would see immediately why the place was named "Earth Lodge". Floor tiles were ochre. Walls and ceilings were covered by a dull brownish-gray porous plaster with sprigs of straw showing through. The north side, completely open, overlooks the Sabie River Valley, and the bush beyond. To the left, a small swimming pool is open on three sides, but covered with the continuing roof of the main building. Between the pool and the reception desk, water tumbles among huge boulders enhancing the ambiance. Seats, benches and desks by designer Geoffrey Armstrong, were fashioned from driftwood, washed clean by the recent floods.

A large section of leadwood was installed as a desk top at reception. A small office houses a computer for free of charge use by residents. A gift shop offers high quality carvings and other crafts. There is a 'paint station' complete with easels, brushes and watercolors that can be used where they are set up in the lobby, or taken to your personal suite. A well stocked library contains a wealth of reading material, emphasizing African birds, animals, reptiles and insects. Visitors are encouraged to see the wine cellar with over 8000 bottles of mostly South African products, plus a few imported varieties. To cap off the amenities there is even a small gym, plus a spa with a resident masseuse! The bar is glassed in, a haven for enjoying a pre or post dinner drink. Or dinner itself, if the weather is inclement. If it is cold, a roaring fire sends warmth throughout the room.

After signing in, Thomas, our butler, piled us and our luggage onto an electric golf cart and drove us a few hundred meters to our suite. Again, we walked down a sunken pathway. Our door opened into a large vestibule directly under the 'termite mound'. From the inside we could see that the entrance way ceiling was thatched. To one side a cabinet contained a small selection of books and a mini-bar. Two upholstered chairs covered in a deep brown soft suede sat beside a glass top table. Upon it was a welcoming bottle of South African red wine, bearing the private label of Sabi Sabi. We were already impressed but this was only the beginning.

The vestibule was completely open to the sitting lounge-cum-bedroom. Ceiling pot lights illuminated the area after sunset. A skylight produced a view of the Southern sky at night, and added illumination during the day. Floor to ceiling windows provided a panoramic view of the terrain. A sliding glass door opened to a tiled patio with a 'plunge' pool, just the perfect size for cooling with a drink following a game drive. Elephants, we were told, often helped themselves to a drink from the pool during the night. Seems they prefer filtered water over the ponds or river! A chesterfield, also in deep brown suede, blended the earth tones of the walls, with the ochre floor tiles. Beautiful books were at the ready for perusing, placed decoratively upon the glass top of the coffee table. Chairs were fitted with legs simulating antelope horns. The king-size bed was covered with a pure white spread with a subtle African motif. Convenient switches at bedside, operated both the reading and ceiling lamps. The 'head board' was another Geoffrey Armstrong creation using driftwood. A vanity and mirror, together with a luggage rack, separated the bedroom and a walk-in closet. Especially designed, using native wood, the closet and bathroom doors were probably 50% larger and heavier than average.

Ahhh, the bathroom! Larger than many complete rooms we have stayed in at prominent hotels around the world. The toilet was housed in its own cubicle, with a frosted glass window that could be opened if desired, for a view of the high earthen wall between units. Air-con equipment and hot water tanks were installed outside, out of sight (and sound).

In the main area, two sinks had individual lighting and a mirrored wall above them that made the facility seem even larger. Another skylight helped with the natural light preferred by ladies for applying their make-up. Reflected was a deep oval stone tub, resembling an ostrich egg shell cut in half. The piece de resistance was the separate shower stall, glassed in on the inside and with a floor to ceiling window to the outside! Nothing like a little game viewing while enjoying your ablutions. From this vantage point on separate occasions I saw giraffe (2), and zebras (3). And, oh yes, if you don't like the idea of showering in front of a window, you could use the one outside, just steps from the patio, contained in a curved adobe wall.

Five star comfort is not expected in 'darkest Africa', except of course in major cities where Holiday Inns and other major chains cater to the up-market. In the bush, it seems you now have a choice: everything from primitive tented camps to top of the line luxury at Earth Lodge, Sabi Sabi, with more than all the comforts of home. At home you do not find zebras grazing on your lawn, giraffe browsing among the trees, or an elephant drinking at your pool!




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