When Johannesburg-born New York businessman and Kubili House owner Julian Koski together with his wife, master chef and jewelry designer Aida, decided to build their summer vacation home in South Africa, they dreamt big. Not big in an incongruous way, but large enough in scale to leave a lasting legacy for their nine-year-old twins, Leo and Tess.
I’m seldom at a loss for words. Arriving at the grandeur of Kubili House in the Thornybush Game Reserve, Hoedspruit, South Africa, has left me speechless and in search of superlatives. No words can describe the magnificence of this dwelling, let alone define the splendor of each and every space that this property occupies.
Since the age of 23, Julian had dreams of one day returning to Africa and building his own home on the African savannah; this idea stayed with him right through his Wall Street career. After selling his company, Julian and Aida made the decision to start building their dream home. Through their numerous trips to Africa, the couple knew exactly what they wanted to build and how they were going to construct it, thus conceptualizing the architecture and design for Kubili House.
“Julian calls himself a closet architect”, Tina Rennie, general manager of Kubili House tells me. “After visiting the area where Kubili House is now situated four years ago, and seeing this pristine piece of land for sale, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands to realize his dream. With a drawing in his pocket of what he envisioned, he set to work with architect Eric Grobler, putting his ideas into size and perspective, including a few supplements added by the draftsmen.”
A two-night three-day family stay has been arranged for us and we occupy Villa 1 and 2. The Villas are extremely spacious, 2,690 sq ft each, with the dreamiest bedrooms, most spectacular bathrooms, a heated pool on your outside veranda and all the creature comforts you can possibly imagine. The interiors are the handiwork of Jacques Erasmus from Hemelhuijs.
Taking two-and-a-half years to build, the house opened to the public on December 2018. There is an air of familiarity and old-world charm when you study all the detailed pieces that make an impression – the Zen-inspired Kyoto bell fireplace dome, reminiscent of Buddhist Temple bells, sized at three meters wide in solid brass weighing over 1,5 tons on the outside pergola definitely catches the eye.
The low-slung Donna Karan chairs create a very elegant look to the lounge and dining area were custom-made for Julian. With influences from all over the world, the art of layering is emphatic in creating attention to detail throughout Kubili House.
Apart from the presence of general managers Tina and her husband, Wayne Dickenson, as well as butler Welcome Mahanuke, the discretionary service at Kubili House astounds me. During our stay, I never see the chefs, despite enjoying the most delicious food for breakfast, lunch, High tea and dinner. Twice daily game drives are conducted by Nick Kleer, wildlife photographer & freelance guide from Kleer Exposure with Doctor Morake as a senior tracker.
Thornybush Game Reserve is ample in size – 37,066 acres, so encounters of the animal kind are best left in the hands of a qualified ranger and tracker team. Our sightings include giraffe, a very shy leopard, and the most magnificent sunset. Did I mention the fluffy big-eyed hyena pups waiting outside the den for mom to return, and the Monwana lion pride?
An important aspect of the construction of Kubili House is their limited eco-footprint. Operating on geothermal control, the eco-based system maintains the air-conditioning, underfloor heating, and underfloor cooling. “It’s extremely efficient,” says Wayne. “Because it’s eco-based, it saves on electricity – it works through a giant heat pump that controls the origin of it. It is noise-reducing as well; we have no compressors on the outside of the building. Aesthetically it looks fantastic because there is nothing on the side of the building that will create noise and detract from the stunning architecture. It is definitely the way forward. It is adaptable; you can add solar energy to the geothermal as part of the system.”
Reverse osmosis is used for the water system, ensuring completely pure, drinkable water. Modified with special filters, the system is almost maintenance free. Wastewater goes into a fusion plant where it gets processed so that the grey water goes back into the dam. There is no water wastage at Kubili House – they irrigate from the dam back into the gardens.
The gardens on top of the villas create an energy-saving in themselves. Perennial red grass, found in some parts of Kruger National Park, adorn the roofs of the villas. Blowing in the wind, it’s got a beautiful tinted red color. The perennials are planted in channels a meter wide on the outskirts of the rooftops, creating a cooling effect in the rooms.
“Julian didn’t want a quick build,” Tina explains, “he wanted a thorough build. Because of the presence of the dam, the foundations had to be sunk very deep and on the boma side, they are 5 meters into the ground. The dam was empty when the building started but has since filled up and the elephants love coming for a drink or a swim in the warmer months.”
The entire process of constructing Kubili House came with almost no hiccups, except for the havoc caused by a pack of wild dogs chasing an impala into the pool. “He lived to tell the tale”, Tina laughs. “We loved being involved in the behind-the-scenes work and because Julian is very organized, we had a program pertaining to every room: we unpacked the whole house with him. It was done in stages. We would dress up a room, e.g. villa 3 & 4, as they are similarly furnished. A truck would be sent here with all the furniture and we would start unpacking – it was such fun! Once one room was completed, we moved on to the next one.”
It is our last morning at Kubili House. “Mom, Dad, the elephants are here!” my daughter calls. As I want to tell her to ‘keep it down’ I realize we are the only guests, adding to the magical experience that is resplendent here, where the feeling of reconnecting with nature is so overwhelming, we can easily take up residence forever.
Tina accompanies us through the reserve with Nick driving us to our road transfer for Hoedspruit Airport. After checking in for our Airlink flight back to Cape Town, we anticipate a smooth journey home on the extraordinary Airlink Embraer E-190. Two aircraft arrive sequentially, one going to Johannesburg and one to Cape Town. We are on the first plane and as I look out the window after take-off, I gaze down at the verdant landscape disappearing from my vantage point, hoping to be back soon.
*** Thank you to Kim Beyers and Natalie Sokolich from KB Representation for arranging our stay. Our sincere gratitude to Julian and Aida Koski for allowing us into your incredible home.
*** Views expressed are the authors’ own.
Airlink – Airlink is a privately owned and funded entity. It operates as a Regional Feeder Airline and franchisee of South African Airways using its own visible brand intellectual property. Connecting travelers to more than 55 routes within southern Africa and St Helena island.
Route Specific Information: Direct scheduled flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Hoedspruit. With an all Jet service, Airlink provides a Business Class service from Cape Town, styled in the manner of European intra-continental service.
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