Sabi Sand, South Africa
What do you get when you combine the collective brilliance of a CEO of a tailor-making tour company, a forward-thinking business partner, a visionary architect and an imaginative interior designer? The culmination is a project so ingenious, it’s bound to make a sophisticated impact in the safari industry. Welcome to the iconic Silvan Safari in South Africa’s Sabi Sand.
Few things get me as excited as the erudition that I will be spending a few days in the bush. A weekend at the chic Silvan Safari is right up my alley and with my 12-year-old daughter as my favorite travel companion, it makes perfect sense to take her along to this spectacular family-and couple-friendly lodge. We board our direct Airlink flight from Cape Town International airport to Nelspruit KMIA airport on the sleek and stylish Airlink Avro RJ85, flying us there in just two hours and 35 minutes.
At KMIA airport, we are met by the very helpful and friendly Airlink staff, who assists with our check-in and baggage for our unique 20-minute airside transfer to the Airlink Lodge Link flight, connecting us to the doorstep of our safari destination. In no time, we are seated in Airlink’s 208B spacious 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan, operated by two pilots, making our way to the Arathusa airstrip, gateway to many adjoining private game lodges in the reserve, including Silvan Safari. The weather is bleak and rainy, and my daughter and I are relieved to be collected by guide Murray Hay and tracker James Siwela in a closed vehicle, shielding us from the elements. Our drive to Silvan Safari takes us through part of the reserve, and amidst the falling raindrops, we spot hyenas scurrying off into the distance. We are warmly welcomed at Silvan Safari by general manager, Ella Cuyler and lodge administrator, Geze Monareng after which we are offered the most delicious tray of hot chocolate by butler Xolisa Khatu to ward off the chill.
Ella accompanies us to our luxurious suite, Cassia, one of only six trendy suites constructed with a view of the riverbed. Each suite has a name inspired by the surrounding trees – choose between Kierie Klapper, Knobthorn, Blue Guarri, Tree Wisteria or the Leadwood family suite.
With its smidgens of yellow, Cassia pays reverence to the Cassia tree, also known as the golden rain tree, exhibiting the most striking yellow flowers in the summertime. Perfectly executed by interior designer Jacqui Hunter from Imagenius Interiors, the free reign she was given let her creativity soar, as much as the European Bee eater that takes center stage at Silvan Safari.
“I was not given a specific brief by my client”, says Jacqui. “This was amazing for me, giving me loads of freedom. The position of the lodge and the ‘spirit of the trees’ brief was all I needed.”
With her background in hospitality and passion for the guest experience as well as the bush, Silvan Safari couldn’t have chosen a more suited interior designer. “Conceptualizing an experience that is mindful and conscious of the environment being the hero, was central to my process.”
Using sustainable materials is imperative for Jacqui, but that can be tricky at times. She is cognizant of a light footprint, with absolute minimal damage to the environment.
Color is her passion; she loves having the freedom to move away from a safe and boring palette, thus incor-
porating lots of bright hues. “The color that runs through the lodge is inspired by the little hero of the lodge – the European Bee eater with its beautiful golden chest, teal head and coppery wings.”
Working in conjunction with architect Marcus Smit and Silvan Safari partner Charl Brink, who saw to the perfect design and positioning of the suites, each with a particular nature determined by the tree in its surrounds.
Glorious works of art curated by resident artist Gregg Brill adorn the walls of the lodge and a special piece was commissioned and chosen for each suite. “I commissioned the works and whilst it was specific in terms of the color palettes and the subject matter, I gave all of the artists freedom within that brief to interpret and express. Each room has a signature piece that is a collaboration between a watercolor artist, who began the process, an illustrator who did the line drawings and an embroidery artist who added the final touch. The artwork tells the story of the tree and the creatures that live around it. In the end, their creative energy comes through to the guests. My intention was for it to celebrate its environment, with the most important part not being the aesthetics, but how it feels.” A lodge of this nature would not have come to fruition without the innate wisdom of an architect. Marcus Smit of Marcus Smit Jacobs Architects was given the task of designing a compact and exclusive high-end lodge, with a fresh take on lodge architecture to challenge the norm of typical game lodges. With sensitivity to the site, the design had to fit in with the natural surroundings.
Challenges were averted when constructing the lodge, such as the resident leopard under the deck … “When we initially started to mark out the building site before construction, we spent many hours with Silvan Safari partner Charl Brink,” says Marcus, “who has a thorough knowledge of trees and the site. We aimed to preserve as many trees as possible, even saplings; we worked closely with an environmental consultant. The design was influenced by the natural positions of the trees and our desire to accommodate low branches, bushes and game paths, saw us creating a masterpiece that sits pretty amongst the trees.”
Sustainability in material use was also a key factor for Marcus. “All the timber used are locally grown and milled from the nearby Mpumalanga area. For plastered masonry work, we used cement bricks, since they were available closer to the site.”
Another eye-catching feature at Silvan Safari is the dark exterior color of the main building and the rooms. “The black color, called ‘Silkwood’ came as a functional result of the wood preservative product that the client wanted to use, having had experience with this product in the bush over many years,” says Marcus. “From the available colors, we chose the black since we envisaged that, as the buildings are mostly placed in the shade of the trees, the color will make the buildings blend into the background. The ‘chic safari feel’ is achieved because the black is a neutral palette and backdrop for the green of the trees as well as the colorful interiors created by Jacqui Hunter.”
Part of the Silvan Safari brief was that they wanted space, with an end product that is simply astounding – spacious rooms with tasteful interiors, housing a stunning bedroom, lounge area, dressing room, expansive bathroom with double shower and freestanding tub, double vanities and the largest toilet cubicle with a toilet and a bidet, an outside area with a pool and huge wraparound decks.
“The specific areas had to be thought through to accommodate everything that a luxury lodge of this level has to offer,” says Marcus. “From an internal planning point of view, it helps that the bathroom is treated as a separate
annex to the bedroom / living area, linked by the dressing room which acts as a passage. This allowed flexibility in placing the buildings between the trees. It also provides an element of discovering another room. Having large openings and doors disappearing into cavities makes the areas feel open and part of the outside, which gives the impression of even more space. The expansive decks, each designed and shaped to fit in with the specific room’s site, provides an uncluttered flow to move around. Furniture positions and sizes were carefully considered with the interior decorators in order not to ‘over furnish’ or clutter the rooms and decks.”
Another drawcard at Silvan Safari is the mouthwatering cuisine. We arrive in time for High Tea, with a wonderful array of delicacies on display. Taryne Evans, Senior Chef de Partie, is in charge of all things gastronomical and whips up the most enjoyable food.
For dinner tonight, we are spoilt for choice – think aubergine & mushroom tartare bowl with lemon mayo, pickled mustard seeds, cured egg yolk, edible flowers, charred pickled onions & burnt onion dressing for starters; panfried sea bass / marinated tofu, tom yum dressing, sprout kimchi, spring onion, edamame beans, fresh lime & crispy kataifi pastry, followed by a palate cleanser of kiwi, cucumber & melon granita. Third course is crispy duck breast, egg noodles, mange tout, baby marrow, pac choi, orange & sweet-spicy broth. For dessert, there is tonka panna cotta, chocolate soil, vanilla pickled shimeji mushrooms, honeycomb rock, chocolate twigs & mint rocks.
What is a stay at a swanky safari lodge without a fair share of animal sightings? On our morning game drive, Murray and James are ready to show us the animal magnetism of Silvan Safari. Our first sighting is of a breeding pair of fish eagles, followed by a partially submerged hippo, some warthogs, a red-billed hornbill at our morning coffee stop and a small herd of elephants in front of the lodge when we return for the most delightful breakfast.
Back at our suite, my daughter has a dip in the pool before we are pampered at the Ansellia Spa with a welcome and relaxing scalp ritual for me by spa therapist Thembeka Mkhize and a foot ritual for my daughter by Simi Tsosane.
Spearheading the Silvan Safari venture is David Ryan, Founder and CEO of the incredibly successful tailor-making tour company Rhino Africa. This self-confessed bored accountant with a passion for travel, particularly in Africa, wanted to do something where he could make a meaningful impact and leave a legacy on the continent. Rhino Africa was born in 2004, when online travel was an emerging industry in the beginning stages of gaining real traction. “Back in 2004,” David remembers, “the internet and especially online travel were primed for massive disruption. By utilizing this opportunity and gearing the company towards making an impact, I was fortunate enough to combine my passion for travel with my desire to create a lasting change for the communities, landscapes and wildlife of Africa.”
Venturing into the unknown – the conceptualization and construction of a brand-new lodge is a gutsy move, but David takes it in his stride. “The opening of our own lodge is as much a commercial investment as it is an opportunity for our tour operating business to stay connected to the bush. Having traveled Africa extensively and visiting top-end lodges, the drive came to create something that was ground-breaking, innovative and unique. That is why you will find, that Silvan Safari is a safari experience reimagined.”
Not wanting to imitate anything that is currently available in the market, David knew it was important to continue developing partnerships with their valued supplier base and not be seen to compete with them. “Given the position we hold in the industry, we dipped our toe into this market, by building a 6-bedroom luxury lodge, focused on reconceptualizing the safari experience, as our core business continues to grow, the lodge is there to enhance our current partnerships and not compete with them.”
Being part of a community of incredible industry innovators made David realize the value of Rhino Africa’s strong partnerships with them. “We are blessed because pioneers like Lion Sands, Ulusaba, Singita and Londolozi have laid the path, enabling businesses like us to come and build a luxury lodge and make it sustainable very quickly. We recognize the fact that the ability to build a luxury lodge in a reserve like the Sabi Sand is only made possible by the journey that these other lodges have pioneered for us.”
Bringing the Silvan magic to life, David credits the staff as the true heroes. His favorite part is the tranquility of the bush, the Jackalberry and Leadwood trees that surround the lodge, providing the most incredibly serene environment.
I can attest to that. After a wonderfully relaxing few days, it’s time to head home, but not before a final drive in an open safari vehicle to the Arathusa airstrip. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the talked-about leopard that has eluded us the entire time, making a cameo appearance for the other guests.
I’m jolted back to reality by the sound a plane flying overhead. It’s our Airlink Lodge Link flight that is early, transporting us back to Nelspruit KMIA airport. Seated next to the window in the Airlink Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, I gaze downwards at the bush, slowly disappearing from my vantage point is the absolutely serenity that is my happy place.
Thank you to Dawid Minnie for arranging our stay and to Silvan Safari for hosting us.
* Views expressed are the author’s own.