Sumptuous solitude and extraordinary game viewing. Safari doesn’t get much better than at this luxury eco-lodge
Words Hannah Hopkins
South African Safari
For many, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a bucket list trip that takes time to plan, and most probably, requires a bit of a splurge. If you’re going to splash the cash, you want to do so on a failsafe place, where incredible wildlife sightings pair with luxurious surroundings. Enter Singita Sweni Lodge.
Recently redesigned, Sweni has all the hallmarks of a high-end eco-lodge experience. Tucked into a verdant riverbank and surrounded by ancient trees, this intimate hideaway sits within Singita’s private 33,000-acre concession where, due to its proximity to the water, guests are treated to up-close sightings of the incredible number of animals and birds that come to drink or wallow at its edge.
Guests to Sweni take a private charter flight from Johannesburg. The Federal Airlines lounge puts you in the African spirit immediately, with locally-made photos and prints and a shop with safari-wear, in case you haven’t brought enough. After just over an hour of flying you’ll be transferred to the Singita lodge of your choice. Lebombo Lodge is ultra-cool and buzzy with an excellent bar area, but we loved Sweni Lodge for its cosy and peaceful vibe, due in part to the fact that it has only seven suites.
South African design team Cecile & Boyd have worked their magic on its revamped suites, combining neutral tones that bring in light – think gold and bronze ore, polished mud, recycled timbers and richly hued marble – with bold pops of teal, emerald, citron, yellow and pale pink. The open-plan layouts have panoramic game-viewing decks that seem to hover in the branches, outdoor showers that overlook the river, and outdoor day beds where you can spend a night under the stars. We stayed in the wow-worthy Pool Suite, which also has a private swimming pool and can be connected to the adjacent suite for families and honeymoon couples.
The main lodge exudes glamour, with a revamped show kitchen, outdoor dining deck, indoor dining area and winter lounge, a pool with views over the Sweni River and a fire pit. It’s an enticing visual experience before you even venture into the bush and a soulful place to slip into reverie and contemplation after the thrill of a safari.
The business at hand – game viewing – is as superlative as ever on Singita’s private concession that borders Kruger National Park. Giraffes, hippos and zebras were visible on the approach road from the airstrip; game drives with a knowledgeable ranger and tracker yielded a rare sighting of a white rhino, several lion prides with cubs, elephants, buffalo and more (the leopards however, remained elusive), and on afternoon drives, we enjoyed traditional sundowner cocktails and biltong (dried, cured meat) accompanied by a gold and rose-coloured sunset. Aside from the game drives, there’s a plethora of other activities available, from walking safaris and mountain biking to stargazing safaris and archery.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included as part of your stay. It’s lucky then, that the food is out of this world. Bold North African and Middle Eastern flavours punctuate many of the dishes, though at breakfast it was the eggs Benedict that stole our hearts. Lunches comprise of eight different dishes, with cooking techniques including char-grilling, smoking, curing, marinating, pickling, fermenting and wok firing. In the evening, a sharing plates menu highlights the five different tastes – umami, bitter, salt, sweet, and sour – and encourages daring wine pairings. Even well-travelled types will come across ingredients they’ve never seen before, including gemsbok, kudu, kingklip and waterblommetjies – yes, you may well have to Google them.
On our first night, like all new arrivals, we were invited to a magnificent bush braai (barbecue), where under lamplit trees there was traditional choral singing and a South African feast. For those who get peckish between meals, the open air lounge had glass refrigerators with savoury snacks and sweets to take whenever you like. Another highlight was a personalised wine tasting in the lodge’s temperature-controlled cellar, where we tried some of the most sought-after bottles in Singita’s collection.
Food is at the heart of some of Singita’s most impactful conservation projects, including the Singita School of Cooking, where each year a highly competitive 12-month course enrolls eight members of the local community to complete an introductory course in hospitality. There is also a new exchange programme for lodge chefs to train at a famous Cape Town restaurant, Chef’s Warehouse. Alongside this, Singita as a conservation company has been protecting large areas of African wilderness for two decades, partially funding the preservation of pristine land and existing wildlife populations, not to mention helping to create economic independence within local communities surrounding the reserves. As a nature lover, it’s reassuring to stay somewhere with impressive conservation credentials, where you can contribute to the legacy of Africa.
It’s not hard to see why safari-goers love Singita. As well as the expansiveness and beauty of the reserves, limited guest and vehicle numbers and extraordinarily consistent game viewing, each guest gets personalised service. Sweni may be the smallest of the Singita lodges, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in thrills. Book in for a few days or a few weeks – whatever you do, you’ll still want to stay longer.