Earth Lodge is one of four exclusive, individually designed luxury lodges in the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve. Situated in the southwest corner of Kruger National Park -- one of Africa’s largest and most dense game reserves -- the resort comprises thirteen spacious villas, a gym, a bar, a library, a spa, an open-air lounge and restaurant, plus a wine cellar, available for private dining.
We recently checked in to Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge. Here’s our review.
The innovative design. Built into a natural slope in the land, Earth Lodge blends seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. The walls and ceilings are sculpted from a mix of cement and mud (you can still see twigs and roots in them), and the roofs are covered over with dirt and grass. Nearly inseparable from the earth (hence the property’s name), it is not uncommon during your stay for a leopard to find its way onto the roof of your suite or for a group of elephants to take a drink in your private plunge pool. And not to worry, it's completely safe. When there are animals on the property, the front desk calls all the guests' rooms to let them know to stay inside. Also, you are not allowed to walk around by yourself at night. Once the sun goes down, a ranger will escort you to your room and anywhere else you'd need to go.
To enter, you’ll descend along a curved pathway to an open-air lobby lined with daybeds, and tables set in a pool of ankle-deep water for cooling off after an afternoon bush walk. The lobby and restaurant look out to a watering hole, frequented by elephants, rhinoceri, and kudu throughout the day.
The real reason to come to Earth Lodge is for the safari. Sabi Sabi reserve is home to some 200 species, including the Big Five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo), as well as cheetah, wild dog, hyena, and giraffe.
Game drives take place every morning and evening, either by open safari vehicle or on foot, accompanied by a seasoned ranger and Shangaan tracker, who sits in the front of the vehicle directing the driver toward wildlife. The highly trained staff makes it their mission to get you in front of the animals and to teach you about them along the way. On our trip, we stumbled upon a pride of lions homing in on a kill and a pack of endangered wild dogs, of which there are believed to be only 400 in all of South Africa.
At the end of the evening drives, the guide stops in a small clearing, and sets up a pre-dinner picnic of locally made snacks and beer, wine, and cocktails for guests to enjoy under the stars.
Like the lobby, the thirteen suites are also positioned into the sloping land. Each suite contains a king-size bed with a dramatic headboard cut from a cross-section of a tree, as well as a dining table, a desk, a couch, an egg-shaped stone tub, and both an indoor and outdoor shower. Two sets of sliding glass doors -- one in the bathroom and one in the living space -- open up to a private patio and plunge pool. Natural wooden sculptures by renowned South African artist Geoffrey Armstrong adorn the backyard.
The Amber suite -- the lodge’s presidential accommodation -- also features an extra bedroom, ideal for family stays, a long dining room table and a full kitchen, a larger pool, and a steam room. Those who reserve this room also get a private safari vehicle for game drives.
All rooms include WiFi (though it’s spotty), binoculars, hairdryers, plenty of outlets, and a telephone. Rates start at $4,500 for a luxury suite and $6,700 for Amber suite for a three-night package that includes a one-way flight to or from the Sabi Sabi private airstrip, all meals, and house beverages. As for the price, it is expensive, but the draw here is that you're getting a very comfortable all-inclusive trip. Here, you don't have to worry about anything when you arrive, the accommodations are a lot nicer than most places (they're actual villas rather than tents), there are tons of amenities, the food is very high quality and they serve you tons of it -- basically two breakfasts, lunch, high tea (small bites), and dinner everyday -- all of which is included. You're also paying for the access to wildlife -- we saw just as many animals on the property during the day as we did on game drives -- plus the knowledge of the staff. Finally, that the property pays their workers fair wages and invest in the local communities.
Accommodations at Earth Lodge include three full meals per day, as well as a selection of cheeses, breads, and spreads before your morning drive and high tea -- which includes finger sandwiches, cookies, and cake -- at 4 p.m. The a-la-carte breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, meat, and handmade pastas. The onsite wine cellar has more than 6,000 bottles to choose from.
Nature and animal lovers will enjoy the bubbling fountains, onsite watering hole, and the number of indoor-outdoor spaces where you can sit and watch the wildlife pass. The high cost and intimate accommodations make Earth Lodge popular among people celebrating special occasions -- honeymooners and retired couples. It’s also good for those who want to experience a safari but don’t want to rough it.
The cell phone and laptop addict. While there is WiFi in all of the rooms and the lobby, the connection can be unreliable, particularly when inclement weather hits.
The lodge does not admit children under 13 years of age, so this is also not a viable option for people with young children (though they will make an exception if you rent out the entire lodge for your trip).
The price point is not suited to those on a budget, and because it draws mostly couples (and rates are based on dual occupancy), it is not ideal for solo travelers looking to commune with others.
Kruger National Park, in northeastern South Africa, is one of the largest game reserves on the continent. Its high density of wild animals makes it a top choice for safari goers, as well as for independent visitors -- because it is government-owned land, visitors are able to tour on their own using a rental car.
The area surrounding Kruger also features some of South Africa’s most photogenic sights -- namely along the appropriately named Panorama Route. However, you will need to rent a car to see these or join a tour.
In addition to its luxury safaris, the Sabi Sabi brand is committed to preserving both the environment and the local communities. They offer apprenticeships for students entering into the hospitality industry, monitor endangered species, and work to leave as little footprint as possible on the surrounding land.
Those planning to visit should note that the reserve is situated within a malarial area. Guests should consult their physician or travel clinic regarding preventative medication before going. Bug spray is provided in guest rooms as well.
There are daily connecting flights from O.R. Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg) to the Sabi Sabi airstrip. SA Airlink also runs daily flights from O.R. Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg) and Cape Town International to Skukuza Airport and to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (Nelspruit), with a short air hop to the Sabi Sabi airstrip.
There are also daily flights from Durban and Cape Town to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (Nelspruit). For those whom money is no concern, private air charters and helicopter transfers on request.
Alternatively, you may rent a car from the airport. The lodge is an easy and scenic five-hour drive on national roads from Johannesburg and a two-hour drive from Nelspruit. Road transfers can also be arranged by Sabi Sabi from the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and from Skukuza Airport.