Earth Lodge, as organic as it sounds, is Sabi Sabi’s vision of the future of the safari lodge. Forget any notions that an eco-conscious sustainability manifesto elbows out high-end. Earth Lodge sits at the very pinnacle of luxurious safari living in terms of architecture, facilities and impeccable service.
From a distance, Earth Lodge’s 13 thatched suites look like the local Tsonga people’s dwellings. Low-rise and open to the elements, the central facilities of bar, lounge, reception and restaurant blend seamlessly into the straw-themed palate of the low veldt.
Largely staffed by employees from the Shangaan people, some of them third generation Sabi Sabi employees wearing traditional colours of burnt orange and yellow, there is a comforting link between Earth Lodge and the local villages.
Most guests fly into the thatched terminal at the bush airstrip of Skukuza airport. A Sabi Sabi driver picks up luggage and loads it into the Land Cruiser. Essentially, the hour transfer is a game drive of buffalo, elephant and lions, checking off three of the Big Five before we have even checked in.
Innocent greets us with a chilled flannel, an iced rock shandy and a heart-felt welcome. He walks us to our suite. An ice-bucket, home to a bottle of sparkling wine, awaits us.
An entrance-hall, larger than many a safari lodge room, hosts an all-inclusive bar that is far from mini.
No miniatures here, just full-size bottles, a fully stacked fridge and a range of glasses that could have come straight from Harrods. Sliding glass doors provide the first exit to the open-plan exterior lounge overlooking a private plunge pool.
Occasionally, elephants drop by to drink from the pool.
So private and secluded are the villas that each has an al fresco shower looking out across the veldt. Inside, the bathroom, with his-and-her polished stone basins, is huge.
A strategically positioned shower gives veldt views. On our last night, the turn-down service runs a deep bath, scatters aromatic rose petals and romantically lights the candles.
On the eastern flank of the lodge a glass-walled, air-conditioned and detached gym has the veldt views that come as standard. Whilst to the west a serene Amani spa also provides al fresco treatments when weather conditions are suitable.
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Tall, bleached tree trunks, salvaged from the flooding Sabi River by artist Geoffrey Armstrong, appear to hold-up the roof in the bar, lounge and restaurant, that blend avant garde distressed copper with traditional African art.
Early morning, with a Lion King sunrise as the backdrop, a buffet breakfast is on offer before the first game drive of the day. After the drive, there is a menu for a fully served breakfast. Similarly at lunchtime, waitress Goodness, who looks after us throughout our stay, provides an extensive menu that includes the wonderful ostrich with apricot wraps. Soon afterwards, afternoon tea is available too.
Dinner may be served on the lawn looking down on a waterhole where elephants and hippo have high-decibel territorial disputes. Other nights dinner is hosted amidst the flaming braziers of the sheltered boma. Whatever the location, chef Wiljan visits each table to talk through the evening’s options.
This is fine dining in the heart of the bush. Meals begin with warm freshly baked bread, there is always a delicate cappuccino-style cup of soup and a palate cleansing sorbet served before the main course.
If it were not for the stars of the Milky Way above and game options such as an Eland loin in coffee and coriander sauce, you could be in a city Michelin-starred restaurant.
The 230 square miles of the Sabi Sabi Game Drive adjoin the southwestern corner of the Kruger National Park. There are no fences and wildlife roams free.
Earth Lodge, representing the safari of tomorrow, is one of four Sabi Sabi properties. Nostalgic lamp lit Selati gives a vision of yesterday’s safari. Larger and more family friendly, Bush Camp is today’s safari. Whilst Little Bush Camp, with just six very detached suites, is a very tranquil retreat popular with couples for honeymoons, anniversaries and special birthdays.
Other nice touches
Morning and evening game drives have an Out of Africa style.
Our spotter provides us with blankets and hot-water bottles for the early morning drives. After a while we stop for freshly hand ground Rwandan coffee served with fruit skewers and a choice of biscuits. In the evening there is a clink of ice as our ranger and spotted find a high spot for a sundowner. Later, our ranger takes us on another safari. Far from light pollution, he points out the stars of the Southern Cross and shows us the Milky Way, far more visible in the Southern Hemisphere sky. Back at our suite, there is an art set to draw or paint our safari memories.
Prices begin from £1,400 per person, per night based on two people sharing a suite.
Two game drives each day, three meals a day, laundry and most drinks are included in the price.
The best bit
Late morning, a walking safari provides a chance to take a look at the veldt at low level. We walk past termite nests so large that elephants use them as pillows. Our ranger stops to show us tracks; in fact, we follow the trail of two rhino for a while. Then we stop to listen to some of the 350 birds that sing in the reserve.
The final verdict
With a reputation for leopards, visitors have an excellent chance of ticking off all of the Big Five during their stay at Earth Lodge. Spotters and rangers are at the top of their game, working together to track down elusive wildlife.
Guests are sad to depart, always wanting an extra day or two to relax on their decking, open up the art set and enjoy another treatment at the spa.
Disclosure: Our visit was sponsored by Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge.