WORDS Jess Nicholson PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes PHOTOS Dook
In Kwazulu-Natal, a new off-the-grid lodge with 12 luxurious villas bonds with the local community, the flora – and the resident herd of elephants.
Before the mFulaWozi Private Game Reserve‘s Biyela Lodge, there was nothing – except hectares of pristine bush adjoining the lower Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, and plenty of wild animals. “The elephants were our natural surveyors, providing well-worn paths to assist in deciding where the best routes for game-viewing would be,” says Barry Theunissen, who designed and built the lodge with his wife Sonya. “While we were building, elephants often came to inspect the progress. There are herds of more than a hundred that congregate in the river in front of the lodge site.”
Having spent large chunks of time in wildlife reserves, the Theunissens named the lodge after local chief Phiwayinkosi Biyela, a descendent of King Shaka. The project was conceived collaboratively with the amakhosi who own the wilderness areas surrounding the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi reserve.
With the help of architect Peter Whitehouse, Barry engineered a pillared support structure for what is now a series of 12 luxurious stand-alone off-the-grid villas – 10 with private rim-flow swimming pools, and two with expansive daybeds – backing into the bank of the White Umfolozi River. “We had to navigate a cliff and manoeuvre around some fairly significant granite rocks to offer guests what is now modern, five-star, contemporary accommodation immersed in the bushveld,” says Barry.“Villas on a higher section of cliff offer spectacular views, while those lower down offer interaction with animal traffic – including elephants stopping to drink from an otherwise private swimming pool.”
Barry’s vision was to embark on a project with purpose: not just to preserve the land and the animals, but to uplift the communities that live nearby. Local people were employed in all aspects of building, including laying bricks and gathering the stones that punctuate the raw concrete roofs, polished floors and plastered walls – fittingly protected with natural cement paint in an “elephant hide” hue. To produce the concrete slab ceilings that bear the imprint of their wooden moulds, the Theunissens set up an on-site cement plant, pouring concrete on weekends and transporting loads from batching plants in Empangeni and Eshowe.
Sonya’s ideas for the interior fixtures and colours were brilliantly interpreted, expanded and presented by Ballito-based interior designer Michele Throssell. “On our first drive to Biyela, we were struck by the richness and abundance of the landscape surrounding us,” says Michele. “We wanted to celebrate its uniqueness and instil a greater appreciation for nature – for both its physical and spiritual power. We connected with the healing ability of the Earth and its flora (sometimes overlooked in favour of the Big Five), and explored the quiet authority of the sangoma as a medicine man in the Zulu culture. This led us to a concept of ‘contemporary African apothecary’.”
Each uniquely designed room sets off the greens of the foliage – olive, pea, silver-grey, burnt umber – against charcoal walls. The laboratory-shaped glass vessels, steel cabinets, medicine bottles and furniture reference a modern-day chemist or scientist’s study, complemented by botanical artworks and biological studies, handwoven African mats, basketweave natural-grass lampshades and locally sourced fabrics that were carefully selected so as not to impose on or distract from Biyela’s greatest asset: the space beyond.
“Some guests call it the selfie lodge – and it does make for great photos,” says Sonya. “But, really, we’re trying to go back to basics, to where we started, from scratch, simply observing, and to an extent interacting as closely as possible with what’s coming into and out of the wilderness.”