Tengile River Lodge, Sabi Sand Game Reserve, in the south-western section of Kruger National Park, South Africa. This luxury lodge, which opened in December last year, is one of the latest developments by conservation-minded luxury travel company andBeyond.
Kruger is all about its animals and you are in the thick of things here: it's easy to spot an elephant from an easy chair. The lodge sits comfortably on a bend in the Sand River offering spectacular views, yet the flat roofs covered with local sand and the wide verandahs allow it to meld into the landscape rather than shout from it. Even the lighting features resemble the surrounding trees. This low-key exterior serves to build the suspense as to what's inside. And you won't be disappointed.
When you spot the 180-degree living mural of African wilderness that greets you as you enter the lounge, dining and bar area, it's hard to notice anything else. And this is a pity because when you can tear yourself away from the view of the river and its thirsty visitors, there are many other creatures of the comfort variety also to be enjoyed.
This funky yet very African aesthetic offers a clever mix of the classic and contemporary: high ceilings, deep leather lounges, swirling green marble, stone walls and a floor to ceiling fireplace. Hand-painted animal print fabrics, sculptural aloe vera plants and custom-designed fabrics and artworks showcase local materials and artisans. There are also nods to history, including the use of rust red, dark green and black stones from a local gold-rush railway line embedded in the terrazzo floor.
The property borders the reserve and so the space is a shared one that is used to accommodating its animal neighbours as well as guests. And so a sign at the communal pool suggests you exit the water slowly if an elephant stops by for a drink. Walking outside the very private suites is not allowed after dusk. Instead it's asked that you ring for a golf buggy and escort on your way to dinner in case you encounter a leopard or a monkey. And this is how it should be – for the animals are the stars of the show here, though the lodge offers fierce competition.
A traditional African boma enclosure, where cultural performances are held and dinners are served under the stars, and a communal fire pit complete the stunning picture.
Each of the nine airy and secluded guest villas cover a whopping 200 square metres, and include their own deck, outdoor shower and pool. Like the lodge's communal areas, the finishes are high-end and stylishly beautiful. The villas nest along the tree-lined river bend and are at least 20 metres from each other, offering the luxury of both space and privacy. There are indoor and outdoor dining areas, a lounge, dressing room and luxury bathroom with sunken bath, rainshower and more green marble fittings.
The villas take full advantage of the setting: watch a monkey in a tree from your bed or toast the innumerable birds deckside with a G&T mixed in your own bar.
Flavour is a standout here, from the early morning cooked or continental breakfasts before safari, to the mix of African, Mediterranean and middle-eastern-inspired choices for lunch, to the more exotic fare such as kudu and ostrich on offer in the boma at night, accompanied by joyous singing and dancing. Other highlights include sundowners on safari, where a table is conjured from our Jeep complete with drinks and accompaniments, and a chocca-mocha-Amarula. This heavenly mix of the local cream liqueur made from the fruit of the marula tree and hot chocolate and/or coffee is a huge hit on our early morning safaris. Staff, many of whom have been sourced from local villages, are undergoing a mixology course while we are here and the cocktails, and the pink gins, are standouts.
The lodge is all about going on safari and it's spellbinding. Hours fly by like minutes with our guide and tracker as we become enthralled with the daily lives of the big five. We watch lions laze around, on the prowl, and eating dinner; zebras kicking up their heels; giraffes chewing contentedly and nuzzling each other; and a buffalo trembling in fear from marauding big cats.
Thanks to the expert alertness of our guides we also follow a dung beetle's hard slog, and applaud the architectural adeptness of the weaver bird and the air traffic control abilities of hungry vultures. It's exhilarating stuff that drives home the importance of conservation.
Another standout is a village visit to look at the work being done by andBeyond with its 26-year community development partner, the Africa Foundation. We visit an infants' school run by the foundation as well as a business enterprise helping to transform the lives of women through the recycling of glass bottles into beads. The women run a shop with their products. A detailed business plan on a wall lists their incomings and outgoings and the tally they make each month. Inspiring.
This is high-end comfort and style with a wildly thrilling and conservation-minded edge.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE: 5
The animals. No, the villas. No, the animals. No, the villas …
Being unable to be in two places at once.
Jane Richards was a guest of andBeyond (andBeyond.com)