A familiar feeling washes over me as Fireblade Aviation’s Pilatus PC-12 makes it descent into the vast landscape home to one of the most exceptional lodges in South Africa. My daughter gazes out the window, and a silent gasp escapes her throat when the contrasting panoramas come into view. This is Tswalu in the southern Kalahari, where incomparable luxury awaits you around every corner.
Following an extensive 5-month refurbishment of The Motse by Johannesburg-based company Savile Row in 2019, the opportunity presented itself to witness first-hand what has changed since my visit in 2018. As is customary, a warm welcome is bestowed upon guests when collected at the airstrip by their guide and tracker. Guests can expect a totally private experience when it comes to their safaris, and we are greeted by field guide Kerry Lee Roberg and tracker Siphiwe Mandleni, better known as Sim, who drive us to The Motse.
The entry to The Motse has received a wonderful face-lift, with a new entrance door and a leadwood covered walkway. Stepping into the foyer, guests are handed cool refresher towels or warm ones in winter. The inviting sofas in the lounge area are covered in earthy tones with smidgens of color. We are ushered through to the deck for lunch, where the watering hole is a hive of activity.
Meals at Tswalu are exquisitely prepared with the greatest care by a team of chefs, overseen by Executive Chef Marnus Scholly. With his background as a chef working at luxury bush lodges and upmarket restaurants, Marnus was appointed by Michelin star chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen to head up the highly anticipated Klein JAN, scheduled to open in the first half of 2021. Part farmhouse part architectural masterpiece, diners are in for an absolute treat when it comes to the cuisine being served.
“We will be focusing on specific areas of production, working closely with local farmers,” says Marnus. “Understanding the challenges of the Kalahari region, our offerings will be tailored to the guests’ needs while delivering a world-class experience. Not only will it be a taste sensation with dishes from Jan Hendrik’s childhood, the visual experience in this special and remote part of the Kalahari is sure to take any diner’s breath away.”
You will never have dinner in the same place if the weather plays along. During the summer months, the most amazing electric storm might put a spanner in the works, but the experience of being caught in the rain is something you will remember with fondness for a long time. We were treated to a dune dinner with the most magnificent sunset when the lighting started showing off in the distance. Thunder soon followed, joined by the most sublime blessing of rain. What a joyous occasion to be part of the life-giving downpour that is so essential here.
I’m excited to see the room renovations as I can only imagine it will be extraordinary. The redesign of the legaes (suites) is phenomenal. In the outside area, the new sala roof with leadwood support columns positioned behind the dry-pack stone screen wall ensures the ultimate in privacy. The pigmented screed floor is in perfect contrast with the red Kalahari earth.
Inside our suite, my eyes are immediately drawn to the intricate sketch on the roof of the canopy over the bed. It is a map depicting the entire Tswalu property. Instead of counting sheep if you cannot sleep, you can familiarize yourself with the different areas of interest in the reserve. Most pieces are custom-made by Savile Row, and these include the lights next to the bed, that have an antiqued brass finish pipe, danish cord binding, hardwood ‘y’ shape light arm end, finished off with a cast opal resin shade.
The bathroom has a deep soaking tub, a separate toilet cubicle, and the most striking wall in the shower made to look like the scales of a pangolin. Double vanities contain stylish basins, and the fragrant Vastness products are ideal for cleansing purposes. The lights in the bathroom are reminiscent of weaver nests. On those balmy summer nights, the option is to shower outside by stepping out of your bathroom into your suite’s little garden with the twinkling stars as your only illumination and the encircling walls guaranteeing your privacy.
“The new spaces resonate with Tswalu’s vision to provide an exciting and inspirational experience to the high-end global luxury travel market,” explains Tswalu spokesman Russel Binks. “We have created a camp that echoes the vision in every aspect of its offering. Our aim was to ensure that The Motse meets the highest standards in comfort, service, aesthetics, and design, and I believe we have achieved this.”
Adds Adrian Davidson of Savile Row architects and designers: “The one word that encapsulates the approach to the project is empathy; empathy to place, empathy to the guest experience, empathy to the environment. Our challenge was, how do we retain what guests love about The Motse and build on that to make the experience all the more exceptional? We were clear that the end result had to evoke a mood of intimacy, quiet and authenticity; a home from home atmosphere, raw yet refined, precise but handmade, rough yet polished – a life-enriching experiential outcome.”
What would a visit to Tswalu be without going on a game drive? Part of the experience is early morning and late afternoon game drives, and we thoroughly enjoy what is on offer. On our first evening, we go in search of cheetah cubs, and what a wonderful surprise to find them in a state of relaxation despite the fact that mom had left the three of them all alone. We stay with them for a good two hours until after sunset, when they start getting active. At eight weeks old, they still sport the adorable mantle that acts as camouflage to ward off any danger.
On our second morning, we are intent on finding the rumored lion cubs of the southern pride, which Kerry Lee has heard about but hasn’t had the opportunity to see. After rain the previous night, we are confident that the ‘blank canvas’ would yield their footprints, making things easier for Sim. Being a master tracker, he walks a good few miles and eventually finds a lioness. We hear what can only be cub sounds, but mom has hidden them inside a dense bush. After waiting a while, we get our first glimpse – three tiny 8-week old cubs nursing from mom. What an incredible sight, and what makes it even more special is that they are the youngest cubs that Kerry Lee has ever seen.
A fundamental aspect at Tswalu is their conservation program, an ambitious long-term work-in-progress, informed by scientific research and supported by a low-impact, high-value model of eco-tourism. Key conservation goals include the restoration of the natural environment, the reintroduction and protection of biological diversity, and the maintenance of the Kalahari’s characteristic ecological processes. Guests choosing to stay at Tswalu greatly contribute to the sustainability of the commitment to preserve the southern Kalahari’s biodiversity for future generations.
It is impossible not to appreciate all that is on offer at Tswalu. With a variety of activities suited to everyone, you will never be bored. The perfect antidote from the hustle and bustle for weary families, Tswalu is the ideal place to recharge while being esconded in this paradisiacal part of South Africa.
*** Views expressed are the author’s own. Thank you to Gabi Sappok from Imagine PR for arranging our stay and to everyone at Tswalu for their incredible hospitality.