The ranger closed the great sliding gate behind us with a clang. It felt like a scene from Jurassic Park. The almost-full moon flooded the surrounding desert with an eerie light, but my eyes were eagerly seeking the welcoming lights of the lodge, still only a figment of my dreams.
I was close to the end of a long journey that had culminated in a four-hour drive from Kimberley in central South Africa, now in the Kalahari Desert in the far northern corner of the Cape Province. A brochure and reservation, tucked in my bag, confirmed the existence of a Relais & Chateaux property at the end of my journey, but as we bumped over the rough track in this seemingly uninhabited wilderness the existence of such a place seemed impossible.
"Just a few more kilometres," the ranger, Riaan, assured me, sensing my weariness. "The fire in your room has been lit, there's plenty of hot water for a tub or a shower, dinner is being prepared and the red wine is open." Be still my beating heart!
Minutes later, we turned a bend in the road beneath a dark hill where I caught my first glimpse of the lights of the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. All that Riaan promised was true. What he hadn't mentioned was the luxurious air-conditioned accommodation in private legae (Tswana for 'home') where, beneath soaring thatched ceilings, each guest enjoys enormous personal space enclosed by curved stone and desert clay walls: a vast living room with log-burning fireplace, comfortable bedrooms, intriguing bathrooms, fully-enclosed private courtyards for under-the-stars showering and a veranda bearing chairs and beds for open-air relaxation and desert watching. There are no cliché-ed colonial relics and animal prints here. Earth-tone fabrics cover the over-stuffed chairs and sofas; split-level spaces hold clay pots that stand higher than a man, each filled with desert grasses or bizarrely shaped euphorbia (African cactus-like plants), massive wrought-iron rings descend from the apex of the roof bearing a circle of lights, a fine armoire hides a fridge and a selection of drinks, while picture windows reveal the desert beyond and the nearby softly illuminated water hole that awaits visits from thirsty animals.
Re-energized by a hot shower under the cool night sky and full of eagerness to see the rest of this stunning property, I made my way along the stone paths to the motse or main building. My own legae had prepared me to expect something exceptional and I was not disappointed. Two large log fires cast flickering light over the luxurious seating sections and adjoining split-level dining room. Thick ochre candles stood in red dune-sand in glass cylinders adding yet more gentle light with their dancing flames. Irregular wooden pillars seemed to grow from the stone floor, supporting the upper gallery, location of the cozy library and games room. Through enormous windows I could see a free-form swimming pool shimmering under soft lights on the edge of the desert.
Members of Tswalu's friendly staff awaited my arrival. They stood back and enjoyed my delight at this remarkable setting before urging me to sit down among the cushions to enjoy a drink. A delicious dinner prepared by chefs Josie Stow and Rachel Buchner was soon presented. As I indulged, I chatted with Riaan about the work being undertaken at Tswalu and the programmes designed for its guests, which include daily safaris, visits to the areas set aside for the breeding of the endangered roan and sable antelope, guided hikes to see ancient bushmen's rock carvings and desert horse-riding expeditions.
Tswalu is a gigantic 90,000 hectare estate and the largest privately-owned game reserve in Africa. It is home to a multitude of creatures, including lion, desert black rhino, white rhino, Cape buffalo, zebra, giraffe, cheetah and an estimated 12,000 head of game. Until the last decade the area was used for grazing by land-rich but money-poor farmers, who were no doubt happy to sell to the late Stephen Boler, an Englishman
whose dream it was to return this land to its roots and see it inhabited by the creatures of the semi-desert. Hence the name "Tswalu," meaning "a new beginning."
Following Boler's untimely death in 1999, Tswalu was purchased by the Oppenheimer family, who pledged to continue Boler's work dedicated to African wildlife conservation and eco-tourism. A lodge was needed. The vision of all involved was clear: building lines must be fluid; the boundaries between interiors and exterior must appear to blur; materials should be natural and found on site; texture, colour and form
must reflect the desert. All was achieved. Once the magnificence of the structures has been assimilated, one starts to notice the details: the elegant pottery bowls instead of porcelain sinks in the bathrooms; the waste-paper containers made of logs; the wooden furniture crafted from free-form pieces found across the desert.
Here in the Kalahari, after a delicious dinner complemented with fine South African wine, I finally laid a weary head on my luxurious bed, little realizing that I would wake just before dawn to see a family of gemsbok pass in front of my window on their way to the waterhole. Then, as the sun rose, the boundless horizons of the Kalahari were revealed ... a land teeming with wildlife, a land of whispering grasses where time is measured by the shifting colour of the sun on the blazing red sand dunes. Tswalu really is a remarkable place.
Tswalu is located in a malaria-free area in the Northern Cape Province. Driving time from Johannesburg is 7 hours, from Kimberley 4 hours and just over 3 hours from Upington. There are airports in these three locations, and Tswalu can also be reached by private charter flights (during daylight hours only). The rates include luxury accommodation in one of nine guest houses, all meals and all drinks, two daily game drives in open safari vehicles as well as walking safaris, all of which are led by experienced rangers and trackers.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/