The irritable bull elephant did not appreciate the lightning crackling around the humid Lowveld sky. He didn’t seem too fond of us either, as our Land Cruiser turned a corner and startled him metres from the road, just as a booming crack and a rumble of thunder merged above our heads. Beating his ears angrily, he trumpeted once and turned tail as the warm rain fell in sheets around us. Game drives, surely, don’t end in much more dramatic fashion.
Our drive the night before had been quite the opposite. We’d spent some time watching a herd of sedate elephants browsing contentedly on the green banks of the Sand River and then, on our return to the lodge, a spotted genet had darted across the road in front of us. It curled up on a tree branch a few metres away – and fell asleep. A rare sighting indeed. While it’s tempting to think that if you’ve done one game drive you’ve done them all, each outing proves to be unique. Out in the bush, it’s an ever-changing tapestry of toothy creatures.
Earlier that afternoon we’d spent more than an hour tracking a young female leopard inquisitive enough to come within arm’s reach as she sniffed for scent on the bumpers of our lumbering green Land Cruiser. As she patrolled her territory, we tracked her deep into the lush Sabi Sand thickets, hoping she’d lead us to the den where her pair of two-week-old cubs were waiting. But she had our number, leading us ever deeper into the bush – but no closer to her cubs – as the last of the day’s sunlight faded behind the storm clouds.
The Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which stretches across nearly 50 000ha of Lowveld wilderness and shares an open boundary with the Kruger National Park to the east, certainly knows how to deliver unforgettable safari memories. It also knows a thing or two about bushveld luxury, and few lodges in the reserve offer quite the level of five-star escapism as the new &Beyond Tengile River Lodge.
Tengile is the second &Beyond property in the Sabi Sand, situated just a few minutes’ drive from the historic &Beyond Kirkman’s Camp. But while Kirkman’s revels in its yesteryear charm and family-friendly layout, Tengile is all about embracing modernism and sophistication on safari.
The lodge, which opened in January, is strung out along a bend in the Sand River, delivering privacy and panoramic views to each of Tengile’s nine spacious suites hidden in the tree-line along the riverbank. Spacious is something of an understatement though, with each suite stretching to more than 200m2 and boasting an enormous master bedroom, a private deck with a plunge pool and an outdoor dining and relaxation area.
If it’s chilly out, as it can be on winter evenings, never mind. Indoors you’ll find a cosy private lounge – with fireplace – that has enough elbow room for in-room dining. The built-in bar is well stocked with quality gin, craft tonic and a selection of wines from leading Cape estates. If you ever needed a reason to pop a bottle of Steenberg bubbly, arriving at Tengile is it.
“We worked hard on the concept of bringing the outside in,” explains &Beyond’s CEO, Joss Kent. “We’ve tried to create the ultimate space where guests can feel at home and be provided with everything that they need so they don’t have to leave their suite.”
You’ll certainly be tempted to hunker down in your suite for the duration of your stay, but make sure you don’t, for the lodge warrants further exploration. Interior designer Michelle Throssell has done a remarkable job at Tengile, reflecting the textures and colours of Sabi Sand with a blend of African, natural and colonial elements, but given a contemporary edge.
Rusted sheet metal evokes the architecture that once defined the farming homesteads in the region, while slatted woods add a raw organic touch to the ceiling work. Enormous attention has been paid to the choice of fabrics, too, from deep-buttoned couches to soft leather bar stools that you’ll be tempted to settle on for a nightcap.
And don’t forget to look down: the sleek terrazzo floors are inset with stone from the century-old Selati railway that once ran through these hills, connecting the gold mines of Johannesburg with the border town of Komatipoort.
“Tengile retains a strong sense of place and, although it is a contemporary structure, it remains firmly rooted in a southern African vernacular tradition,” says Joss. “We believe we have taken the interior design to a completely different level by drawing on the African theme and celebrating the land, but combining it with a thoroughly modern aesthetic and bringing in the best of what South Africa has to offer.”
That dedication to infusing the classical safari experience with a contemporary aesthetic is shown to full effect in the striking outdoor boma. While these under-the-stars dining venues are a staple of high-end African game lodges, Tengile has revitalised the concept with a fresh take on a space that often resorts to cliché. Gone are the rustic branches and hackneyed stonework. In their place, towering timbers encircle the boma in an ascending arc of artificial forest.
While there’s been no shortage of innovation and upcycling in the building of the lodge, there’s also been a tangible economic benefit, with materials, furniture and decor all sourced from local designers and artisans. “Almost every single interior piece in the lodge has been specially made and designed in collaboration with a South African designer,” affirms Joss.
Sustainability is a non-negotiable in modern safari lodges and on that score Tengile is breaking new ground. Visual pollution is kept to a minimum through the use of flat roof profiles that barely break the lush tree-line along the Sand River. Coating the roofs in local sand further helps the lodge to blend into the landscape.
There’s always going to be some impact when building ultra-luxury lodgings in the far-flung bushveld, but the use of innovative architectural principles has kept Tengile’s impact to a minimum. Steel pillars reduced the need for invasive foundations, wastewater is recycled for irrigation systems and architect Nick Plewman’s intuitive design has enhanced the energy efficiency of the lodge by incorporating cross-ventilation, covered terraces and broad eaves.
I find myself relaxing under those eaves on my last full day in camp, watching the rain sweep down the Sand River. Freshly brewed coffee to one side, binoculars to the other, it’s a fine place to while away bushveld days. In the riverbed a herd of elephant is making its way slowly upstream while a lone hippo trundles between pools. Giraffe and kudu saunter along the riverbanks, keeping a wary eye out for the pride of lions that frequents the riverbed.
While the twice-daily game drives are certainly a highlight of any stay in Sabi Sand, with the lodge’s highly trained field guides adept at bringing the bush to life, your time can be just as wild soaking up the unfiltered luxury of &Beyond Tengile River Lodge.
Getting there Airlink offers direct flights from both Johannesburg and Cape Town to Skukuza Airport, a 20-minute drive from the lodge.
When to go Sabi Sand is a year-round destination. While summer offers lush bushveld and dramatic thunderstorms, autumn and winter months are often the best time for game-viewing, as it is then that animals are drawn to waterholes and thinner foliage makes sightings easier.
contact To book, visit www.andbeyond.com or call 011 809 4300.