Twenty years ago Makalali Nature Reserve was an over-grazed cattle ranch. Today it’s a wildlife sanctuary and home of the Garonga Safari Lodge, where nature was the leading architect. The owner, former Brit, Bernie Smith, oversaw the creation of Garonga in the mid-90s. He borrowed inspiration from architect Silvio Rech to incorporate the organic shapes and natural materials in the site’s surroundings.

Reich's designs were groundbreaking for his time. He almost single-handedly sparked a makeover of the established ‘bush look’ by introducing natural shapes and found materials into hospitality architecture parlance. Reich lifted references from the immediate landscape of the sites he worked on. He acceded to the foliage, soil, landscape, colours, and a respect for place long before it was common to do so. His reputation for designing what has been described as "hand-crafted haute couture" in remote and beautiful sites all over the world put him at the forefront of his field. At Garonga, his influence is clear.

Supple Design

Although Reich was not involved in this project, the building team interpreted similar ideals and the owner's interest in the simplicity of North African buildings. The inherent fluidity of plaster as a material allowed for dynamic, sensual forms and textured detail. Examples are the plaster-coated poles seen in the windows, which speak to the distinctive tall termite mounds found in the area. The pillars at the main gate are reminiscent of the huge monolithic sculptures of Mali’s mud architecture.

The rooms feature mozzie net draped beds with headboards and side tables plastered with hand-curved concrete. Each of the tented rooms dotted along the bank of a dry river in the shade of Jackalberry trees has its own deck where a hammock sways. Press on a little further and you reach Bernie’s latest project, the recently opened MCH Private Tented Camp, designed for private exclusive use. It’s the culmination of an idea he had years ago to establish a private camp that was completely tented. “It’s dedicated to my family and named after my mother Maria Carmela Hambleden and the theme is based on the ‘old era’ safari experience.” Other family references abound. The camp features Harry’s Bar, named after Bernie’s late father, while the four tents represent the four brothers in the family and a dash of quirk factor, the reception area's Grand Old Dame Loo.

Naturally Posh

MCH is a fully staffed stand-alone camp of just four luxe-tented rooms. It runs almost entirely on solar power but there’s a standby genie for those rare occasions when the sun has a bad day. Despite being off-grid, there’s no compromise on comfort - it has its own pool, outdoor boma, dining area, lounge and bar as well as a library and equipped business suite with WiFi. It's all rather perfect, really. Set on a hill, the site overlooks the reserve with spectacular views of the koppies in the background and the Drakensburg mountains to the east. When he bought Garonga, Bernie Smith’s goal was to create an unassuming wildlife sanctuary with natural appeal where guests could relax utterly and he seems to have achieved that.