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.

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