For too long, the design of many safari lodges leaned on a handful of tired tropes: thatched roofs and turned poles, overstuffed leather Chesterfields and a color scheme of khaki matched with khaki. Bonus points for a buffalo head gazing glassy-eyed from above the oversized hearth.
Happily, that’s changing, as lodge owners embrace a new narrative that blends biophilic architecture with decor drawing on vernacular designs, traditional culture and local craftsmanship.
Take Lolebezi, for instance. Set on the banks of the Zambezi River, this six-suite lodge is the latest addition to the African Bush Camps portfolio and has emphatically raised the bar for luxury safaris within Zambia’s lesser-known Lower Zambezi National Park.
“The starting point is always the place itself,” explains Jack Alexander, Lolebezi’s architect. “There’s a natural context, but there’s also a cultural context, and that is particularly relevant for Lolebezi. It’s inspired by Zambian traditions, as much as the color palette of the Lower Zambezi. And it’s about interpreting all of those contextual inspirations into the lodge.”
A biophilic approach was key at Lolebezi, from the sunrise-sunset alignment of each riverside suite, to building on raised platforms to accommodate the annual floodwaters. Indoors, the detailing of imfabinga beads, wooden discs and copper plates is a nod to both local craft and the mining heritage of Zambia.
Alexander and design duo Fox Browne Creative took a similar approach in reinventing AndBeyond Grumeti Serengeti River Lodge in Tanzania, using the bow of the Grumeti River and circular forms of traditional manyatta huts as design cues. The rebuild also swapped the over-traded tented experience of the Serengeti for a thoroughly contemporary lodge; built on a frame of light-gauge steel clad in natural textures of rough canvas, banana fiber and sustainably sourced local hardwoods.
That approach allowed for a flood of natural light and a greater connection to the surrounding wilderness. Which is where designers Debra Fox and Chris Browne found their muse for the interiors, with a palette inspired by the resident hippos as well as traditional Maasai beading and the colorful kitenge fabrics common in the region.
Fabric is a useful avenue for blending regional influence into lodge design—hat-tip here to Angama Mara for its deft use of textiles across myriad touch points—and sparking guest curiosity in the story behind each bolt of cloth.
“There is a preconception that all storytelling happens when guests are out on safari, but I believe a lodge and its design should also be telling stories,” says Michelle Throssell, interior designer for the revamped Zambezi Grande.
In reimagining the 10-room Zambezi Grande, set on the Zambezi River in southern Zambia, Throssell took inspiration from the natural surrounds but paid particular attention to sourcing from local artisans.
“Not only do we want to tell stories and showcase traditions through locally made artifacts, thus enriching the guest experience, we also want to support our local community,” she adds.
Community—and conservation—are what lie at the heart of the new art galleries unveiled by Singita.
“The Singita art concept and its expanding programme was born out of a desire to find further ways to support conservation, while creating a platform to showcase contemporary African art,” Jo Bailes, Singita’s chief operating officer, says.
Curated by Johannesburg-based Kimberley Cunningham, the two galleries—at Singita Kruger National Park and Singita Sabi Sand—play host to a roster of immersive exhibitions. Future plans include a series of artist residencies, and a portion of sales is channeled to the Singita Lowveld Trust to support small business development in the region.
While the Singita galleries are unique, introducing guests to Africa’s depth of artistic talent is increasingly being woven into the safari experience. The villas at Cheetah Plains are adorned with canvas and sculpture from the lodge’s private collection, while Xigera Safari Lodge in the Okavango Delta has staked its claim as a repository of African creativity.
In South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, designer Andrea Kleinloog found an innovative way to incorporate art into the organic spaces of Molori Safari: She put it on the floor. Together with local designer Koos Groenewald, Kleinloog collaborated with five celebrated South African artists, reinterpreting their works as eye-catching rugs woven bespoke by a local textile mill.
“From the name of each room we developed a rug. From the rug, we developed a palette, and that informed the final interiors,” Kleinloog says. “Every single suite is completely unique and is a whole colorful narrative on its own.”
But if anyone in the safari industry knows about color, it’s Liz Biden; the creative force behind South Africa’s the Royal Portfolio. “I live in such amazing color in my own home, and it makes me happy,” she says. “I felt that guests would love it too.”
If that’s true, guests at her latest creation—the 12-bedroom Waterside at Royal Malewane, near Kruger National Park—must be overjoyed. It’s nothing short of a riotous celebration of color, a rebellion against khaki and a jubilant embrace of the myriad tones of the African bush. The electric blue of a malachite kingfisher, the dusty pink of an impala lily and the burnt orange of a Lebombo aloe: It’s a natural palette and an authentic African safari lodge. Just not as you know it.