Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby.
Earth Lodge is like no other place. If you’re thinking warm colonial touches, kudu leather couches and zebra skin carpets as your idea of a safari lodge, forget it. Earth lodge is an assault on the senses, a monstrous statement, a wild experiment.
And we love it. Cast out of cement, river sand and straw, the lodge has a cave-like quality, while the furnishings are even more outlandish than the architecture. Driftwood from floods has been sculpted and polished and made into furniture and individual pieces of art, with mesmerising results. The bar, for example, comprises a large chunk of a dead tree, so extensive it’s integrated into the actual structure of the building, its contortions so convoluted it would have been impossible to design.
We were so busy marveling at this that we almost missed the a la carte lunch so it blended into afternoon tea with an array of delicious cakes, before being introduced to our guide Marcus and tracker Louis for our afternoon game drive.
As the name suggests, Sabi Sabi is situated in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, bordering Kruger National park, the uncontested jewel of safari areas in South Africa. After an assortment of plains game and a sunset G&T it was starting to look like a quiet afternoon, until tracker Louis made a miraculous spot – the ears of a leopard crouched in the long grass some way from the road.
Driving off-road, we followed him for 15 minutes as the dusk turned to night, stalking into a dry river-bed, while a troop of monkeys in the tree above screeched their fury at the deadly intruder. There are many places you see the Big 5, but if you want more than a fleeting chance of seeing this majestic animal, Sabi Sand is about the only place to come.
Dinner at Earth Lodge is a lavish affair. Each night’s venue can be somewhere different – under the stars in the boma, the intimacy of the library, or even the elaborate wine cellar. Our 5-course extravaganza of Prawns, Pear & Gorgonzola soup, Spring Rolls, Lamb Rack, Pork Belly and Chocolate Fondant was under the stars, attended to by our jovial and excellent waiter George.
The staff at Earth Lodge are worthy of extra mention. At many top lodges, even in the very highest price bracket, staff will be competent but wooden, where you’ll feel comfortable but not at home. At Earth lodge, the hospitality comes naturally, and the barmen and waiters don’t need to ask your name: they know it already, and they don’t forget.
From afar, the well-spaced suites resemble termite mounds, little earth domes protruding from sunken caves, and inside too, with the earth-like, straw-textured walls and small skylights sending shafts of sunlight into the dark interior. The suites actually blend in so well that it is not unheard of to spot lions perched on the rooftops. Keep an eye out…
The furnishings are minimalist but very comfortable, with the same driftwood theme that characterizes the main lodge. Outside you can perch on a huge sculpted Leadwood bench next to the plunge pool, or relax on comfy loungers set in the bushveld itself. All with absolute privacy.
At 6am next morning sleep is interrupted (I was dreaming of giant termites invading our suite) by our wake-up call for the morning drive, and after a pre-breakfast we’re off into the cold, winter sunrise. Hornbills sit motionless in the trees until the weak sun warms their feathers and starts to warm us too, on our way to find rhino and wild dog.
Sabi Earth lodge, Sabi Sabi’s flagship lodge, is more than a statement, it’s a declaration. In their own philosophy, its futuristic lines represent ‘Tomorrow’. The nearby Bush Lodge and Little Bush Lodge represent ‘Today’ and it’s here that you’ll find your traditional contemporary, quintessential African safari themes. Bush Lodge is big, with outstanding child facilities, while Little Bush Lodge is small and intimate, with just six chalets.
Finally, Selati lodge is themed on the historic Selati railway line that ran close by, full of colonial charm and memorabilia from this golden age, and represents ‘Yesterday’. (It also overlooks a cracker of a waterhole, with great game close to the lodge).
But if it’s your thing, the prize is for Tomorrow.
Good for: Big splash out, something you can’t experience anywhere else.
Not so good for: Intimate, cosy feel (although if this is your thing, Little Bush Lodge offers plenty of it).
Our verdict: Out-of-this age architecture, something genuinely astonishing in South Africa’s premier game viewing reserve.