Between heaven and earth

NOVEMBER 2011 – Sculpted into the slopes of the Mpumalanga lowveld is Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, where the land meets the sky and modern safari design meets the soul of Africa. This multi-award-winning game lodge epitomises luxury with a heart – and the ground-breaking architectural masterpiece has been given a fresh new look that draws on the richness of the earth’s mineral wealth and reconfirms its status as a jewel in the Sabi Sand crown.

Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge is all but invisible in the landscape: from outside, the discreet entrance has just a single, sinuous path leading directly down into the earth itself. Inside, this winding corridor opens into an enormous entrance hall spectacularly backlit by the sweeping plains beyond. The synergy between the dramatic minimalism of the lodge and the savannah bushveld that embraces it is never more striking. Simplicity on a grand scale sets the scene for a drama in which the great outdoors is the hero: every eye is drawn outwards, past the magnificent water features cunningly sculpted from ancient, salvaged tree trunks to the waterhole, where hippos wallow and herds of waterbuck graze in the afternoon sun.

The sensitivity of a design aesthetic that truly honours its surroundings is obvious throughout. Guests will find no extraneous paintings or knick-knacks to distract from nature’s canvas; no docking stations, hi-fis and televisions to compete with the soundtrack of the wind gently soughing through the grasses, or the songs of the more than 350 bird species that call this land home.

Big game roams freely through the unfenced safari lodge, which lies in the heart of the 65 000-hectare Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve. Part of the Greater Kruger National Park, it’s one of the richest wildlife areas in South Africa and home to all the Big Five, as well as cheetah, wild dog, large herds of antelope, zebra and giraffe. Guests can expect to find waterbuck or kudu grazing on the turfed roof of their suite, and may even be lucky enough to spot elephant or buffalo from their private plunge pool. At this environmentally sensitive lodge, renowned interior decorator Stephen Rich has crafted a subtle, glowing African masterpiece. The theme of the refurbishment? A celebration of the rich mineral wealth – gold, copper, silver, platinum and bronze – hidden deep beneath Africa’s earth. Luxurious veins of these precious elements are reflected in sophisticated furnishings and metallic objets d’art that form a glamorous foil to Earth Lodge’s rough, textured walls.

Natural light plays an integral role, and Rich’s interior design capitalises cleverly on how it changes in colour and character as the day progresses – from the cool, pink tinges of dawn through the gold of morning and the sun-bleached white of midday to the long, copper rays of evening. Each of the 13 suites – including the ultra-luxurious Amber Presidential Suite decorated in colours that honour its name – glows with warmth. At every turn the changing light from a chandelier overhead creates a new reflection. The screeded floors polished to a dull shine are adorned with Nguni cow hides that shimmer with hints of gold, copper and silver. Handmade twig chandeliers with gilded metal branches twinkle softly, mirroring the night stars. As the sun sets, it becomes clear that the deliciously heavy, tactile linen throws adorning the kingsize beds are interwoven with gold threads that gleam in the evening rays. Even the wrapping of the indulgent bathroom soap has a subtle shimmer revealed only when the light is right. Each decor and furniture item is an original artwork that takes its cue from nature. Rich asked the Earth Lodge safari guides to list their favourite endemic birds; now, perfect metal replicas peep out charmingly from the sculpted metal standard lamps, the hand-crafted struts of occasional tables and the romantic lantern stands that dot the grounds by night. Ottomans resemble a group of pebbles in a pond. Wooden art pieces – tables, benches and water features – were crafted by sculptor Geoffrey Armstrong from salvaged trees torn out of the bushveld by elephants and floods. Walls are decorated with great cross-sections of these magnificent trees in a comment on the artistry of Mother Nature herself.

While guests may not want to leave the luxury of their suites, the comfortable day bar is the perfect place to relax between the morning and evening game drives and watch the parade of animals drinking at the waterhole beyond. Or why not enjoy a holistic body treatment at the award-winning Amani Spa, decorated in understated Afro-chic style? Superb gourmet cuisine, fine wine and unmatched service are on offer in the open-walled dining area, which features massive handmade chandeliers constructed from gold, silver and bronze twigs that are perfect replicas of those found in the surrounding bush. Or eat outdoors in the boma, its walls sculpted from tree roots, where the drama of the wilderness at night is close enough to touch. And for a meal that is truly memorable, gather round the heavy stone-topped dining table that sits in an ankle-deep pool of water. Watch the lanterns twinkling and the stars rising in the endless indigo sky, as a magnificent day in the bush draws to a close.

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