Cradled in the surrounding majesty of age-old ebony trees, Dulini River Lodge is a homecoming second to none, with unsurpassed views of the majestic Sand River from every vantage point. Six opulent suites are testament that the lap of luxury is an integral necessity of a well-deserved safari.
“More rosettes everyone?” guide Justin Hall asks, as though we are ordering from a menu. Eyes veiled behind sunglasses, I can hardly contain my excitement. Four affirmations are all that’s required. Unbeknownst to us, we have the fortitude of a leopard whisperer in our midst. While Justin is busy explaining the human track marks in the sand in front of our vehicle, our leopard whisperer points to the right, where out of the long grass, the Ravenscourt male leopard makes his appearance.
Today, it’s the turn of the Basile female leopardess, and her majestic beauty can’t possibly be described; it has to be experienced in person. How she evaded us is a mystery, but having driven straight past her, she suddenly appears right in our peripheral vision. She is moving through an open clearing when she unexpectedly disappears into the thicket. Justin and tracker Dyke Ndlovu exit the vehicle in search of her, but don’t spot her. Leopards are notorious tree-climbers, and Basile is no different as they look up to see her suspended on a tree branch directly above them.
We conclude our morning game drive with the Dewane leopard, scarred from many battles, he careens down the tree stump to find solace in the shade. It’s rumored that he is being pushed out of his territory by younger and stronger males, vying for dominance.
I have often fantasized about a life in the bush, away from the city and the routine humdrum of everyday life. Substituting pollution for fresh air, wide open spaces, animals, yes animals. And the best of the best in accommodation. I have stayed at many such places where it’s been so ‘wow’ that I’ve vowed to return. But this time, it’s different. I cannot stop thinking about this place. It has literally and figuratively gotten under my skin. I would happily become a ‘stowaway’ here, but they will obviously find me as there are only six lavish suites.
It’s not only about the lodgings and everything that comes with it; it’s also about the people. They’re just so incredibly congenial. Co-owners Iain and Sue Garratt are proof that life in the bush is a calling, having come full circle and ending up at Dulini again after a hiatus of eight years.
“Growing up in Durban,” Iain recounts, “we used to migrate to the bush during the holidays to avoid the stampede at the Coast. As a young boy aged nine, the bush left an indelible impression on me – the freedom of adventure coupled with the privilege of exploring the bush on our own terms. At that age, the more I learnt and read up about this wondrous eco-system we have of wilderness, the more it captured my heart because it all made sense; everything had its purpose, its reason and season. I just saw a perfect balance and purpose in all of that and knew there and then that I would be in this environment.”
Once Iain had completed his schooling, followed by his South African army service, he returned to the bush, starting off as a guide. With an innate yearning for more knowledge, Iain studied Conservation Ecology and Resource Management, with his honors in Resource Management and Statistics with a thesis on pangolins. “During this time, I was working with my parents to manage and set up the farm that is now Dulini, which was then owned by the mining group Gencor, utilized as a very exclusive corporate camp.”
With romance the furthest thing from Iain’s mind, he met his wife, Sue, who was a guest at another lodge. “It was love at first sight,” they both say in unison. Sue put her career as a school teacher on the back burner and started a life with Iain in the bush, working together at Dulini, taking over the commercial component. With years of history and a firm friendship with Dulini role-players, Iain and Sue said goodbye to the bush, purchased a macadamia farm in White River while Sue went back to teaching.
“We thought our season in the bush was over; we had had the most incredible innings. Little did we know that in 2010, when we were on holiday with our long-standing friends and Dulini partners Mick and Barbara Davis, Mick put a proposal to me to partner with him in establishing our own wildlife retreat in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as both families were ready to invest in terms of lifestyles and finances. So, in 2012 we were blessed to reacquire Dulini, which was the most incredible coming home.”
And so, Dulini was once again in the hands of Iain and Sue and they took over operations in February 2013. With the success of Dulini Lodge, came the interest of the Gutknecht family of Switzerland who also dreamt of their own bush escape and approached Iain and Mick to find them an equivalent property. Thus, the Dulini Collection was born with the addition of River Lodge and Leadwood Lodge in 2016. The Dulini ship is faring well with sustainability on both the business and operational ends. The realization of a dream for both the Garratt and Davis families, has culminated in making The Dulini Collection the destination of choice it is today.
We are dining under the enormous sausage tree this afternoon, served the most scrumptious lunch, consisting of spring rolls, sticky ribs and salad. Each and every meal is succulently prepared with care and perfection. Our lantern-lit Boma dinner is beautifully set next to a roaring fire, with song and dance by the Dulini choir. The food is exceptional, with all the delicacies you can imagine enjoying while on safari.
Let’s talk about my sumptuous suite for a moment. It can only be described as heavenly. Imagine an enormous four-poster bed, with the softest white bedding, billowing mosquito nets, a gigantic bathroom with a freestanding bath overlooking the river, double vanities, an inside and outside shower, an outside deck with loungers, a plunge pool, a writing desk and a dressing area. I could easily stay here forever.
The structural refurbishment of River Lodge was the combined genius of architect Rob Marneweck and Paul Swart from Marneweck Swart Architects. “When we conceived the idea to transform the original building, which was very linear and offered a delayed view of the river,” Iain explains, “we wanted to turn the whole building sideways so that from the point of arrival, guests would see the entire grandeur, the spectacle of the river and the big trees. Incorporating the theme ‘A River Runs Through It’, I believe we attained that, and so much more.”
Design elements throughout River Lodge encapsulate the river system; the textures, colors, feel and especially the views. Not wanting to overwhelm guests with what they’ve built, but rather to fashion an end product so comfortable, the environment comes out as the hero. The luxuriating factor is key in all areas, from the suites where every single thing was thought of – even a dental kit should you have left home without your toothbrush, to the game drive vehicles, which take a maximum of six guests to the eye-catching Ardmore pillows in the lounge area. The maxim of ‘we provide everything a guest could possibly want without ever having to ask for it’ rings true at River Lodge.
The Ardmore pillows are so striking that even the leopards make a play for them, Sue tells us at dinner. Good taste must be evident for these cat burglars. Together with decorator Almi Prinsloo of Amalia Interiors and Front Door in White River, Sue ensured that local talent and artists were utilized, without forfeiting on local style, whilst reflecting international trends.
“Iain and I believe that our style of hospitality should inform the form and function of interiors. Comfort is the foundation of the lavish luxury we offer our guests and hence, relaxation is guaranteed, and a sense of indulgent homecoming is achieved. River Lodge reflects the magnificence of its riverine setting with the tranquil shades of sand and granite punctuated with shots of aqua.”
Apart from the magnificent stay at River Lodge, game viewing was astonishing, and I certainly got my ‘leopard fix’. I still daydream about the illustrious Tlangisa and her cub, playing on the rocks in the dry riverbed. This is contemporary comfort without compromise. Don’t take my word for it. Come see for yourself.
*** Views expressed are the author’s own.
***Thank you to Gillian Gernetzky from Nicky Arthur PR for making the arrangements and to Iain and Sue Garratt for their wonderful hospitality.
| Photographs courtesy of Dulini and by Heléne Ramackers
Airlink – How to Get There: Airlink is a privately owned Airline business. As a Regional Feeder Airline, Airlink offers a wide network of regional and domestic flights within Southern Africa and operates as a franchisee to SAA.
Connecting City to Bush: Experience the heart of the African bush with daily direct flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Nelspruit KMIA as well as the iconic Skukuza Airport, gateway to the Timbavati, Sabi Sand, the Kruger national Park, Phinda and the private game lodges.
A unique 20-minute airside transfer connects you onward to the doorstep of your safari destination on Airlink’s Lodge Link service. Guests can enjoy an open vehicle safari transfer from the Ulusaba Airstrip to the Lodge.
A short air transfer from the lodge airstrips or Skukuza Airport to Nelspruit KMIA connects you conveniently to Livingstone (Zambia) and Vilanculos (Mozambique), gateway to the Bazaruto and Benguerra Islands.
Connectivity: Through our alliance with SAA travelers can connect conveniently with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world.
Frequent Flyer Programme: Airlink is a member of South African Airways (SAA) Loyalty programme – Voyager.
Flight Bookings: online, booking agent or SAA Central Reservations +27 11 978 1111.