ULUSABA (70 kms from Skukuza Airport)
Mpumalanga Province, South Africa
Tel: (+27 13) 735 5546
Fax: (+27 13) 735 5564
Since Richard Branson purchased the 26,000 hectare reserve (with a traversing area of 10,500) in June 1999, the Ulusaba Game Reserve has had the most remarkable rebirth into clearly the most luxurious lodge in the western sector of the Sabi Sands Reserve in the greater Kruger National Park. Ulusaba is comprised of two lodges, each of which sleeps a maximum of 20 people in 10 rooms.
Ulusaba translates to 'a place of small fear' and refers to the steep rocky outcrop (a 'koppie') on which the Rock Lodge camp is built. Earlier resident tribesmen used it as a defense advantage. Tongue-in-cheek, it might also apply to modern residents who wonder at the difficulty of negotiating it at night or in rains. But I also think it might refer to the feeling of great security from uninvited man or beast who may venture into either Rock Lodge or Safari Lodge, encamped on the lowveld, 600 ft below, on the edge of the Mabrak River.
Joanne Searle Netherwood and Mark Netherwood have clearly stamped Ulusaba with their signature style. (Branson has smartly given free reign to this wickedly talented couple-team to develop and direct operations at his jewel properties - like Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, and the up-and-coming Casbah just outside of Marrakesh.) They have used unerring hands in creating a truly luxe safari feeling - very afro-centric in use of artwork, fabrics and wood … but very western-modern in terms of room design, layout, and amenities.
Whoever built Rock Lodge in the 60's must have had enormous vision, guts or blind faith, or all three, because it is way up, and then on top of, a sheer face of rock. The view at the top of this 'koppie' is spectacular - a panorama that stretches out 360º over the Lowveld, seemingly unimpeded to the straight horizon at the edge of the earth. Rock Lodge is naturally dramatic, and designed to showcase enhanced drama. A three-storey waterfall dominates the front court, and it is tucked around a vivid orange corral tree in bloom and various tree orchids.
Because of its siting, the cluster of Rock Lodge buildings are perched on many levels, a warren of rooms accessed by small stairways of highly polished wood. Round a corner and you get a glimpse of the Great Room in the Main House - at least 30 ft tall, and fronted by a sheet of glass that looks over the grand savanna. There is stunning artwork, prominently that of local artist Harem, as well as of other contemporary or surreal pieces, everywhere. Plump chairs and pillowed settees, upholstered in bold local weavings, are gathered cozily around the central fireplace - conducive to intimate or group conversation. The eye is drawn, of course, to The View, so even in the dining area, the chairs are pulled up to the grand refectory style table, facing the windows.
It is the designers' clever conceit to back these chairs well over six feet high, and crown each with a small thicket of resin-molded impala horns. The net effect is to provide the diner with his or her personal space - but also, when side-by-side and viewed from the back, the chair backs form a moveable, and therefore not permanent, view-blocking 'wall' within the Great Room.
High-powered telescopes, strategically placed on the outdoor terraces and trained on anything below, bring you almost there. Through the eyepiece, I look for our rooms at Safari Lodge below, and the area we walked with head ranger Craig Carnaby, on the morning walkabout. I see the watering hole where we saw the tarpon turtles and the baby crocodile. In the distance, we see the Kskwenga dam where the hippos and elephants play. And below us, a pair of elephants grazes.
And on another terrace below us is the swimming pool, with nothing but unobstructed sun, throughout the long day. Enormous umbrellas over tables or lounges provide respite when needed.
Lunches are brilliant, typically featuring three cold salads, an excellent warm dish, like the pasta with tender springbok in an arrabiata sauce, and, of course, a fabulous marula pudding. Choice of wines, a given. Positively delightful.
All standard or suite accommodation is highly dramatic and slightly different, as the terrain dictates the shape of the rooms, many of which are on split levels to make the most of the stunning views. Each guest unit is uniquely reflective of a particular African tribe or region. Original artwork, traditional colours and woven tapestries marry well with the luxurious bed and bath furnishings.
The highest outcrop of Rick Lodge supports a small but well equipped exercise room, and a separate pampering spa hut called the 'Aroma Boma'. This is the ultimate in self-indulgences, especially if you like an Eagle's Nest perch. Since the spa can only comfortably accommodate one person, with no one else at all there, it felt like a private reserve. The beautician kept pace with my mood, talking when I wanted to, or falling silent when I subsided. She played a CD of classical music that also seemed to swim and glide on the high thermals. I loved it!
Rupert Fage, the manager at Rock Lodge, as opposed to Kristy Sexton, who manages Safari Lodge (there is a 2:1 staff/guest ratio here, and never have you felt so well attended) drove me off the mountain, and back down to Safari Lodge. It is the intention of Ulusaba to make Rock Lodge available only for guests who want to reserve the entire complex, en suite, perfect for that special occasion or celebration among 10 couples.
Safari Lodge is an interpretation of a Shangaan tribal village, with its uniquely contoured and layered thatch roofing. Unlike the cozy clustering of the Rock Lodge suites, guest quarters here are spread out for privacy and to better view the shallow riverbed along which they are sited. The three clusters of units - called Elephant, River or Safari - are interconnected by walkways. Some are even elevated wooden swing bridges that span fragile grasslands or thread through the tops of enormous trees. If ever you had the urge to play Tarzan or Jane, without any of the discomforts of the jungle, this is it.
Each suite at Safari Lodge has a large bedroom and an equally large bathroom (with the first truly functional unenclosed rock shower I have ever used). The neat under-ribs of the thatched roof are seen on the vaulted ceiling, and although an efficient air conditioner/heating unit is in every unit, a lovely plantation paddle fan drops down for those who prefer less than arctic ventilation.
A large king-size bed is dressed in fine linen, and a froth of mosquito netting furls above. Two leather campaign chairs sit on locally woven sisal rugs. And the 'desk' - more a trestle table than desk - is oriented to the view of the deck, and the riverbed below. (Note to travellers who need to be online: each guestsuite does have direct dial international telephones.) As I set up my laptop, I looked at the guest units across the river, which nestle in the shade of two gorgeous jackalberry trees, their canopies bursting into buttery flower. I have fallen in love with the majestic African trees - all of them, from impregnable baobab, bony marula, weeping boerbean, fiery corrals, and slender wisteria to the slight wild pear. Their collective shapes, size, colours and scents are the silhouette of Africa.
Two crimson-beaked black birds are pecking into the trunk of the living tree that holds up one side of our roof. There are Kudu nibbling on bushes as they make their way up to the dam.
Meals at Safari Lodge are equally as impressive, but the locale of each feast might change, at the whim of the Chef or Mother Nature. Today's lunch is a splendid buffet site under the lappa shed by the large free-form pool. Tonight's dinner will be in the boma, open to the stars but proximate to the woodburning grills. Tomorrow, it may be served in the main dining hall which was created from the space under the canopies of a billowing boerbean willow and lacy knobthorn trees overhead. (In fact, the main trunk of the knobthorn was clearly visible inside the room, and pruned branches that refused to be tamed into a building post had vigorously burst into tender new leaf. This is architecture at its organic best.)
In this dining room, armless scroll chairs have been upholstered with a variety of African designs in complimentary shades of black, brown or caramel. Even in the empty room, the chairs seemed to be animated, a collective of like 'animals' pulled up to its own watering hole.
At whim, Ulusaba also hosts thematic and wholly impressive dining 'events'. One night it was a 'Bush Brie'. On such occasions, the rangers drive their guests directly from the veld and to the 'brie' - a cleared site, way into the bush, illuminated by paraffin torches and dominated by a single table for about two dozen people. There is still enough natural light, so I can appreciate the work it took to bring all these people and equipment here. And even now, the full bar is open, and the chefs are stoking the fires.
Slowly but surely, fellow guests are coming off their own drives, and, just like me, they light up when they see the set-up. A huge bonfire glows on the centre brazier, (although nothing, again, happens by accident here, so there is an invisible staff ganging around, tending the fire as well as setting out drinks).
Everything jumps into place with the parade of women from the camp, ululating and singing in the traditional choral group fashion. On the fire are stuffed squash, vegetable satay, whole cooked fish, baby chicken, beef and wildebeest. And for desert, there is a chocolate mousse and guava sauce. Chatter is lively, if competitive - 'We saw two rhino bulls facing off to protect their respective territories against invasion.' 'Well, we saw nine rhinos on our drive. And one of them was a darling calf about a minute old.'
Everyone is here - guests, managers, rangers, kitchen staff - and it makes for the most irresistible of reasons to return to safari again and again.