Sustainable Escapes: 10 Eco-friendly Lodges and Villas

COMPILED BY Gina Dionisio PHOTOS Elsa Young/Bureaux; Dook; Teagan Cunniffe;  Sitah, Jean Dallazem; David Ross; Marc Hernandez Folguera, Nomadic Resorts

If you’re looking for a serene escape that combines travel and sustainability, add these eco-friendly lodges to your bucket list.

What sets these lodges apart? Each one has been designed with sustainability in mind to ease environmental impact so that guests can experience the beauty of nature (in comfort, of course). Here are some of our favourite eco-friendly lodges that offer breathtaking views. And if you’re looking for more eco-escapes, take a look at these off-grid cabins.

The Nest at Sossusvlei

eco-friendly lodges - The Nest at Sossusvlei

In the vast ancient desert of Namibia, nature is the greatest architect. Millions of years have refined the shapes of the shelters that birds and animals create for themselves here. The gigantic nests built by sociable weaver birds in camelthorn trees – vast domed structures of twigs and grass often 3m wide – are one of the most striking examples. “They’re architectural masterpieces,” says Swen Bachran, the entrepreneur and conservationist who established the Namib Tsaris Conservancy with his neighbours in the desert, not far from the famous red dunes at Sossusvlei and the haunting 700-year-old skeletons of dead camelthorn trees at Deadvlei.

Before he owned any land in the region, he and his designer and artist friend Porky Hefer visited a spot nearby the site of The Nest, as they dubbed this fantastical house modelled on these weavers’ nests, which they created over the next eight years. At that stage, Swen was still scouting around for a potential conservation project. “Porky came to the farm and we camped on this land together,” says Swen. They sat under the camelthorn trees and marvelled at the communal nests, their perfect efficiency suggesting countless lessons in biomimicry and possibilities for vernacular design.

“He went back after that weekend with impressions and later presented me with doodles of what we called the Love Nest,” Swen recalls. “It was really a one-bedroom nest with a little lookout deck, a library and a shower.” At that stage, Swen had in mind an idiosyncratic “little retreat for family and friends with a token giraffe”. As the idea incubated, Swen ended up acquiring not just one, but three adjacent farms adjacent to an existing conservation area and as he gained neighbours, they banded together to drop fences and create a 100 000-hectare nature reserve with grander plans than just that “token giraffe”.

The conservancy now has a constitution and a 100-year plan to sustain it in perpetuity. “Whatever there was 100 years ago, from a rodent to a rhino, we will reintroduce,” says Swen. Alongside the ballooning scale of Swen’s conservation efforts, the “love nest” morphed into a four-bedroom, double-storey villa. Porky’s conceptual drawings became more detailed and refined. Although they started taking in practicalities ranging from workable floor plans to an underground wine cellar, they began approaching architects to collaborate with.

Read the full story on The Nest.

Witklipfontein Eco Lodge

eco-friendly lodges - Witklipenfontein eco-friendly lodge

Architect Xavier Huyberechts has a wonderfully poetic way of describing the way he designed the weekend getaway he and his brother, Damien, built on their farm in the Vredefort Dome – the oldest and biggest meteorite impact site on the planet. He wanted to “gently lift the carpet at the bottom of the hill and slide the house underneath”.

And that’s exactly what he’s done. A green roof runs seamlessly from the hillside and over the house, like a blanket of earth that renders it almost invisible from many angles. In fact, the way it has been designed and built means it can – and will, at the end of its life – disintegrate and become reabsorbed into the earth. It’s made almost entirely from the earth, and emphatically for the earth.

Xavier runs a commercial architectural practice in Johannesburg known for pioneering sustainable architecture. With Damien taking on the role of building contractor, they set about creating an earth house using local materials. It may be built of stacked stone, rammed earth, handmade compacted earth bricks and earth bags, but this is no Hobbit burrow. Beneath that green roof is a clean-lined, low-slung, modernist-inspired villa, with lofty volumes and floor-to- ceiling glass doors that slide away into wall cavities and open the house completely to the surrounding landscape.

Read the full story on the Witklipfontein Eco Lodge.

Wilderness Bisate

eco-friendly lodges - Wilderness Bisate

Locking eyes with a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat is an incomparable experience. In damp, humid surroundings, amid the greenery, time seems to stand still. Everything goes silent, apart from the soft rustle through the trees, the sharp inhale and exhale of breath, and the sound of your heart beating in your chest. And then, all too soon, you realise that it’s over, as your guide signals that it’s time to go…

“That fleeting connection with these great primates was the inspiration for Bisate,” says architect Nick Plewman. His inimitable imagining of a luxury lodge deep in the Rwandan rainforest has won him plenty of praise – with good reason. Designed with an innate reverence for the environment, Wilderness Bisate seamlessly blends into the surrounding landscape, paying homage to traditional Rwandan architectural techniques while infusing contemporary elements. Six spacious bird’s nest-like villas, each seemingly perched upon the trees, mimic the mighty volcanic peaks that stand majestically in the distance while also echoing Rwanda’s thatched dome-shaped King’s Palace.

Interiors were also thoughtfully and consciously considered. “Here again we took inspiration from King’s Palace, as can be seen in the double woven ceilings in the villas and the public areas,” says interior designer Caline Williams-Wynn. “Rwanda is an extremely environmentally aware country, so the use of ecofriendly materials and recycled elements was paramount, as was incorporating local textiles and furniture as far as possible.” 

Read the full story on Wilderness Bisate.

Madwaleni River Lodge

eco-friendly lodges - Madweleni River Lodge

The Babanango Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal boasts a rich cultural and environmental history and recently underwent one of Southern Africa’s most ambitious rewilding projects, which saw the return of the ‘Big 5’ after nearly 150 years. To celebrate the land’s rewilding and rebirth, Luxury Frontiers was tasked with creating a lodge which would tastefully reference its layered past. As a result, the design of Madwaleni River Lodge intricately stitches historical and tribal heritage harmoniously into the natural environment of the White Umfolozi River.

Fostering a deep connection to the landscape, the 12 tented accommodation units on the banks of the meandering river offer expansive views. The design of the units was inspired by the bold curvature of the Zulu shield. Each unit boasts an impressive 22-meter curved timber beam supporting a stretch-fabric membrane. An earth-coloured canvas body suspends beneath the membrane and canvas-clad stud walls complete the serviced areas. The privacy screens surrounding the units are crafted from upcycled timber poles, embracing the natural beauty of their previous termite-related damage. Sustainable bamboo decking further connects the interior and exterior areas, marrying the materiality of timber, leather, and wicker furniture with traditional African craftsmanship.

Read the full story on the Madwaleni River Lodge.

Mirante do Gavião Amazon Lodge

eco-friendly lodges - Mirante do Gavião Amazon Lodge

The main objective of the architects at Atelier O’Reilly Sustainable Strategies was to integrate inspiring design, the natural environment and the riverside community. Reforested wood and local building techniques were used to create the lodge’s unique bungalows which resemble inverted fishing boats used by the community.

The design of Mirante do Gavião Amazon Lodge works in harmony with the landscape and incorporates multiple sustainable design elements. The curved design of the roof helps reduce temperatures and promote natural airflow inside each cabin, while the elevated walkways and wooden decks allow for ventilation underneath the building.

Read the full story on the Mirante do Gavião Amazon Lodge.

Wilderness Safaris’ Jao Camp

eco-friendly lodges - Jao Camp

An elephant drinks from the swamp as a crocodile cruises by, only its beady eyes giving away its presence. A mother and father hippo protect their calf below the surface as a mokoro is expertly steered between the swishing reeds. A lilac-breasted roller flies overhead, displaying its rainbow-like plumage. It’s scenes and moments like these in the Okavango Delta that guests get to experience at Wilderness Safaris’ Jao Camp.

Owned by David and Cathy Kays, fourth-generation Batswana, and their son Martin, Jao Camp was originally built at the turn of the millennium, and recently underwent a complete renovation. Entrusted by the Kays for its first design in 1999 were dynamic husband-and-wife architecture-and-design duo Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens – and they were called on once again for its reinterpretation.

After two decades in operation, the camp – which has grown to be one of the finest in the Delta – had become a bit weathered due to heavy rains, floods and termites. The owners decided it needed an overhaul, one that would take its current issues into consideration and prevent it from deteriorating in years to come while also elevating its offering. This was no problem for Silvio and Lesley, the self-described adventure architects – and everything that makes up the re-imagined Jao is recycled, reclaimed or handmade, and built to last. Authentic-looking thatch is, in fact, recycled plastic. What from afar appears to be a structure made of intertwined metal pipes, haphazardly pieced together like a nest, is actually bleached discarded wood (which shelters the pool). The wooden poles that previously held up the main area have been replaced with a steel structure. And the private and communal decks that appear to be wooden are also made of a composite material. There’s no greenwashing happening here – this is an ecofriendly build in every sense of the term.

Read the full story on Wilderness Safaris’ Jao Camp.

Desert Grace

eco-friendly lodges - Desert Grace Namibia

It’s like Wes Anderson meets Retro Miami film set in the heart of the desert: a 24-suite boutique on the border of the Namib Naukluft National Park that’s punctuated with unexpected shades of pink. Undeniably cheeky it may be, but Desert Grace – the latest addition to the Gondwana Collection suite of offerings – doesn’t scrimp on comfort or ignore eco-sensitivities. Bags filled with Namib desert sand were used to build the exterior walls, while the walkways that snake out from the central entrance/bar/dining hub were created from a mix of concrete and recycled glass.

Inside, think terrazzo tiles, neon signs, pink umbrella stands, popcorn, pink drinks and feathers in varying shades of rose to acid pink. The message is clear: this sliver of Hollywood glamour takes itself seriously when it comes to ensuring guests have a playful desert experience.

Read the full story on Desert Grace.

Khwai Leadwood Lodge

eco-friendly lodges - Khwai Leadwood Lodge

“I always dreamed of having a site on the river,” says Beks Ndlovu, founder and CEO of African Bush Camps, as the aluminium boat glides through the reeds and launches onto the bank, the motor now killed. It’s nighttime and Khwai Leadwood, African Bush Camps’ new lodge on the Khwai River in the Khwai Concession, is aglow with lanterns, the bush alive with the croaking of frogs. “People said it would never happen – but sometimes it just takes a little bit of time.”

For Beks, patience (five years of it) was a worthy exchange for the perfect riverside site, which isn’t easy to come by. “You see how the river bends,” he says standing by the firepit on a sunken deck shaded by a leadwood tree, pointing to the U-shaped curve in the waterway. From this spot, the hook in the river guides your eye through the grassland and onto the neighbouring Moremi Game Reserve – and you can see why he held out for this precise location.

Beks is a stickler for details, but it was with the help of design duo Debra Fox and Chris Browne of Fox Browne Creative that the lodge became a reality. Turned around in six months, it was a project only experts could pull off. Not only did the team need to bring their sharp design skills, they also had to ensure they were gentle on the fragile landscape. At African Bush Camps, design is important – but conserving the landscape is critical.

Read the full story on Khwai Leadwood Lodge.

Wild Coast Tented Lodge

eco-friendly lodges - Wild Coast Tented Lodge

A multidisciplinary team created the five-star 36-tent safari camp for Resplendent Ceylon, a subsidiary of Dilmah Tea, whose unique resorts offer curious travellers diverse experiences linked to Sri Lanka’s history, culture and nature. Nomadic Resorts, an interdisciplinary design and project development company servicing the hospitality industry with offices in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa, was involved in the architecture and landscape design. The interior design company and manufacturer Bo Reudler Studio worked on the interiors.

The site comprises dryland forests that merge into the rugged sandy coastline overlooking the Indian Ocean. The intention was for the organic architecture to integrate seamlessly with the setting. The boulder-like pavilions of the camp’s main buildings reference natural formations in Yala’s landscape, namely the massive rounded boulders scattered throughout the park, at a macro scale, and termite mounds, at a micro scale.

Read the the full story on the Wild Coast Tented Lodge.


eco-friendly lodges - Xigera

Dawn breaks at Xigera, in the heart of the Okavango Delta. The velvety-black night sky fades to midnight blue, and the first bird calls – a laughing dove. It’s closely followed by the liquid notes of a coucal, in turn interrupted by the raucous alarm call of a francolin, as the heavens rapidly lighten. Soon the upper part of the sky has bleached from royal to cobalt blue, and a peachy-pink glow beneath heralds the arrival of the sun. Moments later, the fiery orange-red ball pops above the horizon, and as if to greet it, two fish eagles call in chorus, far away.

I’m observing all this right from my bed, in the heart of my suite. From here, there’s a full 180-degree view of the floodplain that one side of Xigera lodge opens out to, through the glazed front façade of the suite’s bathroom, bedroom and living area. It was a conversation with architect Anton de Kock – who, with much valued professional assistance by Malan Vorster Architecture, designed all of Xigera’s built structures – that alerted me to the bed’s perfect placement. “Sit right here,” he said, patting the opulent African Jacquard scatter cushion in the middle of the bed. “See, the bathroom and the living room are placed just forward of the bedroom space, so you get that view right across the horizon…”

Anton’s architectural inspiration for the lodge came from the natural landscape that surrounds Xigera. He envisaged the structures as being an abstraction of birds in flight, with a central “body” and adjacent “wings”. (The lodge is an excellent place to spot the elusive Pel’s fishing owl, along with many other species.) And so, with their swooping, tensile canvas tented roofs and eye-catching clerestory windows, they do.

Read the full story on Xigera.

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