STAR-GAZING, HELI-PAINTBALLING, SKY-DIVING, CROCODILE-WRESTLING... ADVENTURES AWAIT AT THE WILD AND WONDERFUL OBSERVATORY BUSH VILLA
From star-gazing to sky-diving, adventures await at the Observatory Bush villa in Leobo
Having married on North Island in the Seychelles, British polar adventurer and tech millionaire Rory Sweet and his wife Lizzy knew precisely which architects they wanted to create their home in the Limpopo bush, three hours north of Johannesburg. The star South African duo Lesley Cartens and Silvio Rech – who dreamt up North Island’s interiors, as well as those at Miavana in Madagascar, Angama Mara in Kenya and Jao Camp in Botswana – were tasked with an ultra-stylish yet liveable design.
The result is part tactile, earthy hideaway and part high-octane playground. The Observatory Bush Villa at Leobo is deeply private (set within 20,000 acres of pristine reserve), with four-poster beds, egg-shaped baths and open-air showers. A place where – with its organic shapes, curving waxed-mud walls and starlit rooftop pool – you could hunker down and lose your heart. Or bring a whole bunch of your closest friends and dance your desert boots off.
“People say all the time that they’ve had more fun here than anywhere else,” says Sweet. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s what holidays are about. There are no rules, so everyone feels liberated. They can do whatever they want.” Which clearly in Sweet’s case is to dress up. In the hallway, there’s a hat rack of wigs and a couple of silver spacesuits to step into. Climb the twisting stairs to the mezzanine sitting room and you’ll find a trunk of onesies to borrow for chilly nights, alongside a collection of fantastical outfits left by previous merrymakers. And then there are the boys’ toys.
Back in his UK home, Sweet’s playthings include an unused Russian HFL Kholod rocket, which he bought at auction ‘because it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and flew 5,000 miles an hour’. In Leobo his kit is slightly more useful: Polaris off-road vehicles, 700cc quad bikes, zip wires and rifles of all sizes. He also has access to the ultimate bush toy: a helicopter.
“Whenever we are here, we have it on standby,” he says. “Some days we’ll fly to the top of a mountain for sundowners, on others we’ll land in a narrow canyon and spend the afternoon fly-fishing, swimming and picnicking. Some people skydive from it. I don't because I have six kids, and it’s pretty scary up at 12,000ft. But some people go for that. An 11-year-old tried it last time.”
What he loves best is spending hours in his observatory, which
“We always have the helicopter on standby. Some people
skydive from it. I don’t because I have six kids”
is equipped with two NASA-grade telescopes. “They’re incredible,” he says. “One is a 20-inch Dall-Kirkham for gazing at stars, planets and nebulae. I’ve seen shadows on Saturn from the rings and every detail of the moon.” The other is an eight-inch hydrogen-alpha scope for looking at the sun, ‘so you can see solar flares’. Best of all, you can type into a computer the star you want to see, and the telescope will swing around, find it, and focus in.
Even without the telescope, in this part of the world the stars seem to hang just above you. The Waterberg area is not a Big Five safari destination. It’s made up of a patchwork of farms, hunting concessions and game reserves stocked with non-threatening giraffe, zebra and antelope. Which means guests are free to roam wherever they like during the day. And there is virtually no light pollution. At night, lying on the enormous deck, floating in the rooftop hot tub beside the imposing Angus Taylor sculpture, or sitting around the firepit staring at the glittering Milky Way, it’s not unusual to be interrupted by the slow blink of a satellite or the fizzing tail of a shooting star.
But Sweet doesn’t sit around much. With half a dozen children aged between two and 21, he and Lizzy are kept busy during March and November, when they decamp to Leobo. The family are all keen riders, and own eight local Boerperd horses on which they cross the 190 miles of tracks on their land. There are also mountain bikes on which to whizz through the scrub and a range on which to practise clay-pigeon shooting. One serious adrenaline junkie was set up to be trained by a former SAS specialist.
Not everyone has quite the same zest for action as Leobo’s owners. After fishing at the small dam (where guests can play tug-of-war with a crocodile, using a rope baited with a chicken), exploring the ruins of a Stone Age citadel and sipping drinks on the deck, I was happy to just pad about the house, to admire their collections (which include sharks’ jaws and a full hippopotamus skeleton suspended above the dining table), and to swim in the cliffside pool to a soundtrack of twittering birds.
Thanks to what Carsten and Rech describe as their ‘evolved Afrocentric style’, the house feels distinctly African and reflects the architecture of a local homestead. “It's a collection of volumes cobbled together to make a home in which the materials and refined detailing stand out.” In Leobo it’s clear that each detail has been considered, refined and considered again, to allow its simplicity to sing – whether that’s the polished earthen walls and the exotic old Zanzibar doors, aged by the sun and sea air, or the hand-beaten copper lights and the piles of linen cushions that reflect the silvery bark outside. It’s a house that is deeply rooted in the Bushveld landscape. But there are quirky touches, too: that gargantuan hippo chandelier; the eclectic African art, including an AK-47 bedecked in flowers; the ceilings covered in hand-stitched wildebeest skins; and the semi-circular banquette that looks like it’s come straight out of an Austin Powers film.
Yes, you can come here to play but you can also just press pause: fill your lungs with air scented with leaves and dust and sun-baked grass, eat smoky barbecues in the bush, and watch lightning split the thunderously black African skies.
The Observatory Bush Villa at Leobo Private Reserve, which sleeps six adults and four children, costs from about Dhs 31,000 a night (the adjoining Leobo Lodge has cottages that can also be booked) through Aardvark Safaris, aardvarksafaris.co.uk
“It’s a collection of volumes cobbled together to make a home in which the materials and detailing stand out”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT:A sculpture by Angus Taylor presides over the top of a staircase; the corbelled bricks and oracle window in the shower create a dramatic sky-lit ambience; full-sizedaybeds on the pool deck OPPOSITE: The four-poster beds are made from hand-hewn andhand-polished leadwood