With the grand proportions of the open-plan main lodge and raised private suites overlooking the teaming bushveld below, The River Lodge adds a new element to the luxury safari experience.
The oversized, wooden front door has been left wide open. Not only because its sheer weight could cause a severe case of tennis elbow, but rather, it affords anyone arriving at the lodge an impressive first impression. From the peaked portico, we can see right through the width of the elongated structure and out to the swimming pool deck, which overlooks the bushveld beyond it.
The entire wall bordering the deck, which the lodge gently hugs with a slight, semi-circular curve, consists of glass concertina doors that have been peeled back to reveal an unconstrained living space of magnificent proportions.
We’re looking for Ali, short for Alison, and she’s easy enough to locate in the casually converted office area. There’s no separate office and no hard-and-fast reception area, giving the distinct impression that we’re visiting someone’s home – albeit an exceptionally lavish one – and not a commercial establishment. This conclusion, as it turns out, is not entirely wrong. “The lodge was previously owned jointly by three prominent South African families for their own private use,” explains Ali as she pours us tall glasses of homemade lemonade – the perfect antidote to the midday heat and restless, summer wind.
It was as recently as April 2015 that The River Lodge became the latest addition to the Thornybush stable. The Thornybush Collection has grown to include ten thoroughbred lodges, each offering a unique location and different experience to suit varying budgets. All but one of the lodges lie in the private 14,000-hectare Thornybush Nature Reserve, which offers the Big Five experience and boasts frequent sightings of leopard. The lodge has its very own resident female, who uses the relative safety of the elephant-fence-enclosed ‘back garden’ to raise her cubs. ‘The cubs have become so brazen, they’ve even started sunning themselves on the deck,’ says Ali as she shows us around.
Above, a soaring open-thatch ceiling supports wrought-iron chandeliers from its rustic beams. Below, a smooth concrete floor runs from the open-plan kitchen and oversized wooden dining table at one end – where you can dine with fellow guests while watching a gourmet meal unfold before you – right through to another set of concertina doors at the other end. These too, are folded back, leading to an indoor/outdoor seating area which seamlessly blends with the sleek-lined modern couches indoors, both displaying cushions in textured African-inspired fabrics.
From artfully distressed shabby chic cabinets to mirror-polished solid wood tables, each item of furniture has been handpicked by an expert eye. So too, the complimentary colour palette of earthy hues – stone, wheat, dove grey, aubergine and soft reds – have been carefully curated by someone who understands shade nuances. Almost every surface showcases a considered mix of African artefacts and antique bric-a-brac. Beaded tribal necklaces sit alongside ornate silver candlesticks; ornamental cacti face off against giant vases filled with natural vegetation; and straight-spined wooden tribesmen stand guard over colonial antiques.
Outside on the pool deck, the hypnotic water bounces the bright midday light, luring us in. I swim granny-style from one end of the semi-circular pool to the other. As I dry off in the sun, I’m intrigued by the bush theatre below me – a single backdrop with an ever-changing cast. Giant blue dragonflies spark in the sunlight; a lone male impala enters right stage to drink at the watering hole, exiting left. Then suddenly, a suspense-thriller commotion: a warthog squeals and flees grunting into the distance. Her tail held antenna-erect, an emergency beacon for her piglets, which scamper after her in frantic single file. Nature’s unpredictable and evolving script provides a permanent source of entertainment for guests as they dine under expansive sun umbrellas at private tables for two.
To ensure the most intimate of experiences, The River Lodge limits its guests to eight in total. In addition to the royal suite, there are four secluded suites which flow out onto elevated decks overlooking the seasonal Mowana River. Each spacious suite has been decorated with the same sophisticated African-chic eye as the main lodge: the ambience is a finely tuned balance of complete comfort and understated luxury. The bathrooms feature floor-to-ceiling glass doors which can be folded back to let the outside in as you soak up the view in the perfectly positioned tub. Or step outside and enjoy the truly cathartic experience of showering naked in Africa’s great outdoors.
If it’s the ultimate in indulgence you’re looking for, the royal suite takes luxury to a new level. Seasoned travellers can understand the seemingly imperceptible stress of staying in even the most upmarket establishments – by simply not having the choice of spaces available at home. Not here. Space, convenience and comfort combine to make the suite a veritable home away from home. Two exquisitely furnished bedrooms feature sumptuous king-size beds swathed in mosquito nets, leading to breathtaking en-suite bathrooms. Offering complete privacy, each bedroom is located at opposite ends of raised walkways which fan out from the central living area.
The indoor lounge and adjoining kitchenette spill out of folding glass doors onto a raised wooden deck complete with a private horizon swimming pool and barbeque area. Here, you can recline on loungers and soak up some sun while watching an inquisitive team of dwarf mongoose peer back at you. Or relax in the shade of the thatched boma featuring an outdoor kitchen fully stocked with drinks to accompany the magnificent sunsets. When the heat is at its most severe, take shelter beneath the sprawling tree, around which a Robinson Crusoe-style dining platform has been built, as the resident nyala crop the grass metres below you.
It’s a set up that has to be seen to be believed; a santuary for the soul that you’ll never want to leave.
But Mother Nature has other plans for us. The slanting rays of the setting sun are suddenly obscured by a rolling bank of clouds; the first rumbles already riding in from the darkening horizon. The air is pregnant with expectation as we gather our belongings and make a dash back to the main lodge. Swollen raindrops explode all around us – sporadic at first – then shattering the dry summer air with an intensity that is as welcoming and exhilarating as the lodge we have just had the privilege of visiting.