Into Africa: why Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge is the modern traveller’s safari of choice

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  • Fusing contemporary design with holistic conservation initiatives, South Africa’s Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge delivers a seductive setting for spotting the Big Five

    Studded with a constellation of stars, the inky night sky stretches out over the warm, sandy savannah; a blanket of diamonds winking at us from above. Ahead, our tracker Patrick has his expert eye trained on two male lions lying low in the flaxen grass, their gaze fixed firmly on a lone, ageing buffalo who’s become separated from the herd.

    “They’re weighing up whether to strike or wait for a young one who will be safer to take,” our ranger Jamiel whispers, his soft, South African lilt chiming with the gentle rustle of bushwillow so as not to disturb the lions’ silent strategy meeting. It’s a moment that epitomises the ethos of Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge – a contemporary, unfenced camp set in 65,000 hectares of private game reserve on the southern fringe of Kruger National Park. 

    Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    A majestic lion passes through the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve. Photograph: Tyron Van Der Walt

    Unlike my previous safari experiences, there’s no sudden scrum of jeeps at the sighting of a leopard, or intrusive tracking of young ones set against the mechanical soundtrack of DSLR clicks. Here, the wilderness really does take precedence – and it’s incredibly refreshing. “Eco tourism has become a buzz word in the industry that isn’t always backed up with best practice, but we work hard to ensure that conservation is at the core of everything we do,” Jamiel explains back at base the next morning over a steaming cup of coffee. “We only allow a maximum of three vehicles at any one sighting, which means we can alleviate any pressure; if we spot the animal is distressed, we’ll always make the call to leave,” he adds, as a family of warthogs joins us on the sun-drenched lawn for breakfast, their front legs kneeled ceremonially while the heat of the morning haze begins to lift. 

    It may be my fourth day in South Africa, having first beaten off jet lag in style in the verdant oasis of Johannesburg’s storied Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa, but it’s only now that I can feel the grip of the modern world beginning to truly loosen. It began on the 90-minute flight from JoBerg to Sabi Sabi’s private air strip; Federal Airline’s 14-seat Cessna offering life-affirming views over swathes of arid landscapes, ravines running like scars across the broken plains. The design-led ‘airport’ is a sign of things to come: a modern, concrete cube offering up stylish African artworks in an ancient land of amber sand and marula trees.

    Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    Enjoy luxurious details in suite one at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    “We’ve placed four artworks in each corner to represent the different characters of our camps,” Jacques Smit, Sabi Sabi’s marketing director explains as we take in the artisan wallhangings and suspended installations. “Yesterday, today and tomorrow underpins the feel of each lodge, with Selati Camp offering a very traditional safari aesthetic; Little Bush Camp and Bush Lodge both representing modern Africa; and Earth Lodge delivering tomorrow.”

    It’s the latter that I’ve come to experience and, with its swathes of native matumi wood and seductive concrete curves, the minimalist design unfurls itself like a sexy Bond villain’s lair sculpted from the earth. The lodge has literally been carved into the undulating landscape here, yet light floods into a contemporary open lounge, sunken dining area and slick boutique bar, with an open-to-the-elements view stretching out across the open bushveld. Hippos can be heard grunting from the watering hole not more than 50 metres from each of the 13 private suites, with my room (number one) offering unobscured vistas of these (mostly) mellow giants wallowing in the midday blaze. 

    Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    The stylish Earth Lodge bar is perfect for post-safari cocktails

    Despite being 22 years old, the lodge’s unique, environmentally sensitive design – the brainchild of architect Mohammed Hans and sculptor Geoffrey Armstrong – delivers a thoroughly modern aesthetic that’s more The Girl Before than Out of Africa. Generous suites boast bespoke slate drinks cabinets, distressed copper clothes rails and luxurious marble-wrapped bathrooms that come complete with huge monsoon showers, a freestanding tub and floor-to-ceiling views out across your private terrace and full-length pool – all framed, of course, by the sun-scorched plains beyond and a chorus of cicadas. 

    Swinging in my leather hanging sling chair, I watch as a flock of egrets dance above three wallowing hippos – a ballet of white birds blurring the azure skyline. It’s not uncommon for elephants to roam into camp, curiously tramping up to the suites, their trunks seeking out cool water from your pool as they peacefully pass through the bush. 

    Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    Head to the Earth Lodge fire pit for a spot of post-dinner stargazing

    Indeed, it’s the obscurity of the lodge that enables you to truly feel at one with the wilderness here. Stripped back to luxe, minimalist furnishings and rough, tactile textures (even the concrete walls comprise the earth and golden thatching grass the camp was excavated from), Earth Lodge champions a simple, sustainable design that cocoons you in a timeless world guaranteed to reset the soul.

    Should you need a further prod, there’s always the spa. Set in a separate, darker dwelling framed by rock pools and the sound of running water, holistic treatments here utilise natural ingredients and are prescribed with passion by Earth Lodge’s expert team of superhuman-strong therapists. In between the dawn and dusk game drives, I treat myself to a full-body massage, my knotted muscles soon pummelled into submission while I drift off into a mint-infused coma.

    Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    Indulge your senses at the cocoon-like Earth Lodge spa

    But be in no doubt: it’s the game drives – and Sabi Sabi’s continual push for conservation and community – that will steal your heart. “We’ve made some bold moves to ensure our conservation efforts also positively impact the local community,” Smit tells me. “During the pandemic, not only did our daily habitat management, anti-poaching initiatives and wildlife research continue, but the Sabi Sabi Foundation – which oversees and supports community initiatives – worked with Innovation: Africa to fund a sustainable water source for the village. Our operations are energy saving, everything gets recycled, and our lodges are designed to have minimal impact on the environment. But we also believe that education is key – I think a lot of positive change comes from the game drives themselves; from being out in the bush with passionate guides like Patrick and Jamiel, and experiencing for yourself the beauty we need to preserve.”

    It’s an insightful reminder, and, sipping my last sundowner of the trip against a blush African sunset, I reflect on all the incredible wildlife we’ve had the privilege to witness: the leopards lounging on ant hills; lion cubs play-fighting in the dust, their mother flicking at flies with her tail as the sun hangs low in the sky; baby elephants fashioning the splits and using their trunks as a snorkel as they navigate the watering holes, one eye on a crocodile happily sizzling itself in the mud. We’ve seen the Big Five (rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards, and buffalo) in a single day and watched an elusive pack of wild dogs hunt out a baby wild cat, its high-pitched squeal providing a stark, sobering reminder of the circle of life.

    Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    Leopards lap from a watering hole in the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve

    Wild sage scents the air as I tell Jamiel it’s been the trip of a lifetime. “It’s our job to interpret what’s happening out there for guests,” he smiles. “We use our knowledge and understanding of the bush to awaken the natural world for you. Because it’s never just a lion sleeping in the grass – he has a story; a purpose, and we’re the lens through which you can reconnect with the earth and reawaken the senses.”

    How to book

    A stay at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve starts from R16,000 (approx £800) per person, per night, which includes accommodation, all meals, morning and evening safaris, an environmental walking safari, selection of beverages, and tax. A conservation levy of R220 (approx £11) per person, per night is payable separately. Visit sabisabi.com to book.

    Highly recommended…

    The premium flight: Qatar Airways

    Start the journey in style by treating yourself to a QSuite Business Class seat with Qatar Airways. Boasting the industry’s first-ever double bed in this category, as well as privacy panels that can be stowed away to socialise or maintained for pure, unadulterated seclusion, QSuite is a game-changer that will instantly elevate your trip. Think back massages at the touch of a button, a suitably stylish slew of blockbusters to dive into (hello, House of Gucci), and the sort of next-level dining experiences you’d usually only expect to find in First Class. Cue three-course meals on request – including lobster and steak dishes, plus a cheeseboard to wash your Champagne down with – plus the full VIP white-tablecloth delivery. You’ll also be gifted Diptyque cosmetics and a super-comfy pair of cotton pyjamas from The White Company while you stretch out to enjoy another G&T. Sold? We thought so. Flights from London (Heathrow and Gatwick) to South Africa (Johannesburg and Cape Town), via Doha, start from £790 for an economy seat, or £3,895 in Business Class. Visit qatarairways.com to book.

    Fairlawns Boutique Hotel South Africa

    Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa, a storied sanctuary dripping in Italian marble

    The jet-lag-busting stopover: Fairlawns Hotel & Spa, Johannesburg 

    Before you hit the bush, take some time out in Johannesburg to reboot. Our choice? Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa. A five-star bolthole dripping in heritage and heart, this storied sanctuary feels like it’s worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the city – and you’ll immediately want to Instagram the boutique interiors, too. Think luxurious velvet sofas, bold gallery walls, and lashings of smooth, Italian marble to complement the villa’s charming, slightly faded grandeur. There are 41 suites in total dotted across the grounds to ensure the vibe stays Zen, but each is spacious, luxuriously appointed and individually decorated to cater for every aesthetic. Dining here is a decadent affair, too, with the formal restaurant Amuse-Bouche offering up modern à la carte favourites, such as juicy lamb cutlets and peppered guinea fowl alongside homemade gnocci and South African springbok. Just be sure to enjoy a treatment at the Balinese Spa before checking out: nestled in the quiet folds of the villa’s lush green grounds, this holistic haven will dial up the bliss factor and restore mind, body and soul. A stay at Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa starts from £253 per night. Visit fairlawns.co.za to book.

    The city must-do: Lebo’s Soweto tuk-tuk tour, Johannesburg 

    Previously overshadowed by its sleepier cousin Cape Town, Joburg has come into its own of late and the vibrancy of this up-and-coming city hotspot is best explored with Lebo’s Soweto – a community-based initiative that specialises in showcasing the southwestern township via ‘peace-and-love’ adorned tuk tuks. Offering a no-holds-barred tour, you’ll be immersed in the politics of South Africa from the get go, with energetic, hugely knowledgeable guides demystifying Soweto’s troubled history, while moving pit stops at Hector Pieterson Memorial and the humble home of Nelson Mandela serve to bring each discussion point alive. Later, you’ll meander the back streets to soak up local kwaito beats and meet downtown street vendors serving up a traditional dish of beef cheeks – all washed down with Soweto’s malty hand-brewed beer, of course. A two-hour tuk-tuk tour with Lebo’s Soweto costs £30 per person. See sowetobackpackers.com to book.

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