23 Oct

story anne schauffer

photographs roger de la harpe

Quietly, just as nature prefers, the new Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge opened its doors as the first private lodge within Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, Africa’s oldest proclaimed game reserve

There, in the distance, intermittent shimmers of light flash off the distant hillside. It’s the first hint of habitation as you amble west along the dirt road past Thiyene Hide, in the Hluhluwe section of the game reserve. Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge has only been open six months, and given that it’s the first private footprint in the reserve, curiosity is piqued as to the shape and nature of the mark Isibindi Africa has made on this age-old, untouched 96 000 hectare landscape.

Isibindi Africa is no stranger to authentic eco-sensitive development, sustainable practices, and community involvement in their projects. Neither are Durban-based architectural designers, Frencken & Associates. Jointly funded by the National Empowerment Fund (NEF) and other investors, Isibindi Africa, Frencken & Associates and the Mpembeni Community form the partnering shareholders. The lodge is part of a broader vision to involve the neighbouring community – the NEF is involved in mentoring, while the Lodge is committed to drawing 80% of staff from the community.

 Brett Gehren, owner of Isibindi Africa, is clearly excited: “It’s taken nine years of administration, applications and negotiations. This is a ground-breaking development in terms of community involvement.”

The shimmer on approach is light reflecting off the Chromadek roofing, an unexpected design element, chosen over the more conventional thatch. It not only facilitated a design which hugs the hill more snugly, but curbs the fire hazard. The structures follow the landscape’s contours, and that, together with the materials, finishes and blue-green-grey exteriors, allows them to sink into the surrounds. Low energy air-conditioning units, grey water recycling for ablutions, and a hydroponic vegetable garden all contribute to the low carbon footprint.

Standing high on the ridge on your private deck, you – like every guest in the 18 rooms – have a glorious 180 degree view of the world. Quite breathtaking, for not only are you privy to the sunrise as it slowly colours your early morning, but any wildlife too.

“Wild dog” was the cry which went up from the main lodge deck. The real-life action played itself out in the valley below, as guests stood spellbound, watching the pack speedily kill a nyala, then feast on it, before heading off, we were told, to the nearby den to share the spoils with eight pups. No finer way to begin a safari getaway, than with one of Africa’s most endangered animals doing what they do best … even before the guided game drive was due to depart; all this, within a few hours of arrival. Game drives are twice daily, three hours each.

The Lodge is cool, calm, and contemporary. Spacious, stylish free-standing units – eight villas, two honeymoon villas, and six suites – are double-volume spaces, featuring air-conditioning, an artistic balance between wood, concrete and glass, and stylish furnishings. It’s all about attention to detail, down to your own fireplace for cold or romantic evenings. Doors open wide on to your private deck, with the wild world at your feet.

The Lodge prides itself on fine dining, and it doesn’t disappoint. Not for a second, with superb presentation, innovation and flavour. And when you have time out, the 11m infinity lap pool and day spa beckon.

Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is built on Mpembeni Community land, so for them, there’s a deep sense of ownership, pride and responsibility. It shows, for the staff are excellent. This co-operative approach is clearly the way forward for wildlife conservation, as the community sees and feels the benefits of protecting the environment and its inhabitants.

For the foreign guests, the safari experience was superb. For locals, equally so, in a reserve they may have visited before, but for those few days there, lived the experience through fresh, new, pampered eyes. *

Isibindi Africa +27 35 474 1473; www.isibindi.co.za

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