In the midst of a desolate landscape, The Lodge at Feline Fields rises like a fortress of vivifying life, metamorphosing the harsh habitat into an oasis of vibrancy.
It is 23:09 at night. I’m suddenly jolted awake by an overwhelming slurping sound, followed by a very loud guzzling noise. My daughter, who is able to sleep through the most horrific thunderstorms, doesn’t even stir. Was it a dream?
I pad quietly across the wooden floor, aiming for the part of our suite where I can see towards the pool. It is pitch dark and as I attempt to zip open the tent flap, I hear the same sound. I realize this is not a dream. I try to find a light switch but fumble in the dark until I reach the zipper.
I stick my head out far enough to judge what could be making this bizarre swish. At the end of our pool, I can see the outline of three enormous grey shapes, quenching their thirst.
We had been told that the elephants would be drinking from our pool at some stage due to the scarcity of water in the area. They had been to every single pool at The Lodge, except ours. Urban legend, I was starting to believe. Until now. On our last night.
Let me start at the beginning. When I first set foot in Africa, I made a promise that one day, I will bring my daughter along to experience the magic it has to offer. Finally, with meticulous planning, we are on our way to Cape Town International Airport to board our direct Airlink flight to Maun International Airport in Botswana.
The airport bus delivers us right next to the Airlink Avro RJ85, gleaming in the sunlight. With a marked increase in the capacity of travelers to Botswana, Airlink has expanded its reach into Maun from 4 June 2018 by means of a larger aircraft, the 83-seater Avro RJ85, thus replacing the smaller Embraers to supply the demand for more visitors to Maun. Seated next to the window, we soon wave Cape Town adieu, but not before being flown over the iconic Table Mountain and Robben Island.
Two hours and 30 minutes later, the caption announces our descent into Maun and the sprawling landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. My daughter takes in everything as she steps off the plane – the sweltering heat, the friendly customs, and immigration official and the unexpected sign-board from Helicopter Horizons with our name on it! We are going by helicopter, and I’m not sure who’s more thrilled!
Helicopter Horizons pilot Sam Brady meets us at the green Robinson R44 Raven II. With our luggage loaded and a safety briefing completed, I turn to my daughter to ask her where she would like to sit. “Front seat please,” she replies. With only four passengers, including the captain, every seat has an incredible view. Much to my daughter’s delight, Sam announces that she is his ‘co-pilot’ for the flight, explaining the inner workings of the helicopter.
Fifty minutes later, we land at the Feline Fields airstrip, welcomed by our guide Oyapo Gotshajwang with a cool towel and refreshing homemade ginger beer We are shown to our magnificent pool suite, which is what owners Raphaël del Sarte and Marjan Blom call home when they have the opportunity to visit the Kalahari.
When Paris-born Raphaël and Dutch-born Marjan put their collective financial and events organization backgrounds on the back burner, a love for traveling was sparked and having visited some of the most beautiful places on earth, they garnered inspiration for The Lodge at Feline Fields along the way.
“We initially didn’t conceptualize a lodge, but rather wanted to do something meaningful with the money we had at that moment, envisioning a conservation or community project in Africa”, Marjan recalls.
After seeing the film Out of Africa a few dozen times, the couple dreamt of Africa, but their path didn’t lead them here straight away. “Our searches took us through Argentina, South Africa, India and Namibia and eventually, we ended up in Botswana. We immediately fell in love with the dusty, quiet country”, says Marjan.
Having visited a few safari lodges in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Raphaël and Marjan wanted to create something unique and different, scouting places off the beaten track, essentially opening up the ‘forgotten’ places in Botswana, which also have a lot to offer.
Their search leads them to the Kalahari, where the remoteness and pristine area particularly resonated with them. “There is no-one here, only the Bushmen and the astonishing nature, changing with the seasons.”
It is evident that the owners took every single aspect of luxury into account when constructing The Lodge at Feline Fields. Think an elevated King size four-poster bed with the softest bedding, draped in mosquito netting, a ceiling fan for those hot summer days, a lounge area with a daybed sofa and coffee table, an enormous bathroom with a free-standing bath and shower where you can enjoy the vistas over the Kalahari from every vantage point.
That’s not all. There is an upstairs deck where you can lounge around and if you want to, sleep out here at night taking in the nocturnal sights and sounds of the Kalahari. And then there is a very large swimming pool, perfect for a respite from the heat, or to slake an elephant’s thirst.
After a restful afternoon, we walk back to the main area to enjoy our dinner. We are escorted by Oyapo as there could be leopards or hyenas lurking in the darkness. With the expert culinary skills of chef Paulina Tjetjoo, we dine on freshly baked rolls, perfectly prepared beef fillet with potato bake, broccoli and carrots and conclude our meal with fresh fruit salad, all attentively served by Pedzani Kaisara.
The Bushmen experience is insightful, and we are shown how they hunt, forage for food and how they find water. We attend their trance dance in the evening which is an indigenous ritual practiced where the women and children sit around the fire while the healers dance.
Time at leisure is imperative at The Lodge at Feline Fields and should you wish to do nothing at all but relax, this is the place to do that. If you want to get active, you can enjoy horse riding, play tennis, go to the gym or swim lengths in the lap pool in the main area.
The project started from scratch, Marjan remembers, combined with a bit of ignorance and a touch of madness. With the design acumen of architect and interior designer, Alwyn Petersen, Raphaël and Marjan were struck by his professionalism and creativity.
“Alwyn blew us away with his presentation and he had just the right amount of craziness to see this project through,” Marjan laughs. “We met him when our kids were still young, and they liked him straight away, which is always a good sign.”
Q&A with The Lodge at Feline Fields architect and interior designer, Alwyn Petersen
Alwyn, what is your design philosophy?
While designing requires an abundance of analytical thinking, there can be no intellectual approach to design, our experience of life is not academic, it is visceral, as Frank Lloyd Wright said:
“A great architect is not made by way of a brain nearly so much as he is made by way of a cultivated, enriched heart”.
I am also entertained by Salvador Dali’s naturally surreal take on architecture, he famously said: “Architecture should be soft and furry.”
What was the brief given by your client?
To strive to create buildings and experiences that meet the needs of the intended audience. Address the guests’ needs, pain points, behaviors, and expectations. Comfort is the ultimate luxury. Use an organic approach with a modern slant. Quality, quality, quality.
What challenges did you face with the Feline Fields project and how did you overcome them?
This project’s remote location, and also the extremely aggressive environment presented dizzying challenges in the construction phase. We overcame them all and laughed till tears rolled down our cheeks. But as Marjan remarked from her little dome tent under an acacia tree one evening: “This is like building the pyramids all over again.”
You’ve built a wonderful rapport with the owners of Feline Fields. How did you manage to incorporate and merge your taste in design and furnishings as well as theirs in a respectful way?
So easy. When I went for our first meeting with no idea whom I’ll be meeting with, I spotted them across the room immediately and knew I could work with them. Their understated elegance stood out and is pervasive in the design of the project today. And Marjan’s kindness, evident once we started talking, eased the project’s gestation all along too.
What issues or considerations are important to you in a building project?
Respect the site, and act on all of its suggestions. It’s an architect’s best friend.
How important is it to be green/sustainable in your designs?
How can you in this day and age not be mindful of that?
You are also responsible for the wonderful interiors at Feline Fields. Talk us through your choices of furnishings etc?
Marjan helped a lot with this, she once dragged a pair of fold-up chairs she found somewhere, airplane to airplane, all the way from Moscow to Maun. I guess the Charles Rennie Mackintosh dining furniture is a good example of the interiors being consistent with the design brief – by definition modern, executed with restraint and economy of means, the organic open-pore staining of the natural wood.
Or look at the Eames Pallisander chair in the library – have you ever seen something as quintessentially modern, while still organic? The cowhide one in the bar is even soft and furry! Dali would approve.
Thank you to Rebecca Thomas, Sarah Maxwell and Hannah Sharratt from The Dovetail Agency for our Feline Fields and helicopter arrangements. A big thank you to Marjan and Raphaël for allowing us into your home and to the inimitable Alwyn, thank you for your wonderful company and munificent sense of humor.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
How to Get There
Airlink is a privately owned airline business. The Regional Feeder Airline offers a wide network of regional & domestic flights within southern Africa & operates as a franchise to SAA.
Route Specific Information: Direct scheduled flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town to Maun, Botswana.
Connectivity: Through our alliance with SAA travelers can connect conveniently with SAA, their Partner airlines & 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.
| Photographs by Alwyn Petersen, Heléne Ramackers and Janaina Matarazzo
– Malaria precautions are required for travel to Botswana; speak to your healthcare practitioner about prophylactics.
– Visas are required for travel to Botswana.
– Botswana’s currency is the Pula. US Dollars, MasterCard and Visa are accepted as means of payment.