Palatial tents with opulent appointments. Dreamy four-poster beds swaddled in diaphanous netting. Colonial-inspired buildings with breezy verandas. Plunge pools that double as elephant drinking fountains. So many safari camps follow a similar model – one that romanticizes a version of Africa past that many travelers crave, and that can indeed be a wonderful experience.
Architect Nicholas Plewman had a different vision, though. “Ultimately, I wanted to create buildings as a framework to pull the safari experience into the 21st century,” said Plewman. “It can still be romantic, but the premise must be about nature and the environment rather than the colonial experience.”
That is why andBeyond hired him to break the mold when designing andBeyond Tengile River Lodge, which officially opened at the end of 2018.
Located in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve, andBeyond Tengile River Lodge looks more like a hipster’s modernist fantasy than your typical safari camp. And once you see it, you’re going to want to move in.
That is just fine with andBeyond CEO Joss Kent. “Tengile means tranquil in the local Shangaan language, and we believe the sense of tranquility is heightened by the comfort of the private guest suites, as well as the feeling that they offer everything necessary so that guests do not need to set a foot outside them unless they want to,” he said.
Each of the lodge’s nine suites measures over 2,150 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. They are ultra-private thanks to the unique site above a right-angled bend of the Sand River on which the camp was built. According to Plewman, the terrain follows a natural grid pattern so that each L-shaped suite has views both upstream and downriver through floor-to-ceiling windows while still affording seclusion.
At first glance the villas seem like swanky abodes that wouldn’t look out of place in the hills above the Sunset Strip, and are constructed from materials like rough-hewn stones, reclaimed timber, and rusted metal sheets.
Upon closer inspection, though, every element is a reference to the surrounding environment and the history of the local region. Those industrial materials, for instance, are all allusions to the nearby Selati Railway. Now defunct, the line once brought European settlers and gold prospectors to the area. Plewman and interior designer Michele Throssell even incorporated salvaged, hand-quarried stones from the railway into the suites’ terrazzo floors.
“These are all things that speak to this particular place and the history of the area,” said Plewman. “They are the soul and the sense of place that people can see and touch.”
They were also an inspiration for Throssell’s décor. “When we polished those stones, they came out in wonderful colors of deep green and rusted red that inspired the rest of the lodge’s color palette,” explained Throssell.
She mixed and matched fabrics in similar tones, not to mention judiciously placed animal prints, to mirror the riparian woodland around the camp. The suites’ cozy indoor parlors practically invite you to flop down on grass-green sofas and thumb through a wildlife book while your phone is charging in a built-in USB port. After mixing yourself a gin and tonic from the brass-studded leather minibar, of course.
You might want to enjoy your cocktail outside on the expansive deck, either by the private pool, or in the sunken outdoor living room, from which you might spot herds of elephants or buffalo cooling off in the river directly below.
On warm evenings, guests can roll open the glass windows and enjoy the night sounds. If it’s chilly, they can draw the handmade mohair curtains and light the dual-sided fireplace, or cuddle up in bed under a blanket hand-dyed and woven on a traditional loom by artisans in Swaziland.
Throssell’s designs veer toward the playful with touches like side tables shaped like enormous frogs, and brass hanging cages that double as planters as well as shelves for toiletries in the bathrooms and outdoor showers. Nearly every piece, from the ceramics in the minibar to the hand-beaded throw pillows, and the colorful glass globes hanging over the bathtubs to the woven grass baskets guests use for laundry, was sourced from South African designers and custom-made for andBeyond Tengile River Lodge. “These pieces create a sense of glamour and sophistication, but because we used elements that were specifically organic in texture, they still feel grounded,” said Throssell.
What it came down to, said Plewman, “was making something livable, but special. It’s not a tightrope and they’re not mutually exclusive. That’s the joy of design.”
Despite the creature comforts, guests will still want to spend at least some time out on game drives and relaxing in the lodge’s communal areas. Among them are a dining area that is equal parts upscale indoor brasserie and casual alfresco terrace, and a bonfire-lit boma, or enclosure, for communal meals out in the fresh air.
The green-stone cocktail bar, lit by a perforated-metal fixture and surrounded by avocado-hued, tufted leather stools, feels chic enough to find in London or Tokyo. By contrast, the adjacent library is a snug sanctuary stocked with nature books and beautiful traditional woven baskets…plus a flat-screen television.
The lodge also has a spa treatment room overlooking the river, a small gym (still unusual at safari camps), and a lap pool for guests who want to stay active.
It’s not all about high design and visual flair, though. The lodge has some sustainability credentials, too. According to andBeyond CEO Kent, “Energy efficiency was a major imperative and we ensured this through the architectural use of wide eaves, covered terraces, cross ventilation and maximized insulation…. The waste water and sewer treatment systems are state-of-the-art, allowing all waste water to be recycled for irrigation.” The roofs have also been covered with sand excavated from the site during construction so that the lodge is not discernible from the surrounding landscape from the air.
These features, like the architecture and design of the suites, are all part of a new vision of the safari experience with an emphasis on the natural environment and bringing guests closer to their surroundings. In that way, andBeyond Tengile River Lodge is also a love letter to the South African bush itself. “Instead of trying to mimic something else or bring back the past,” said Plewman, “this was about finding the beauty in contemporary design that is just as romantic.” And, he added, “even more authentic.”