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5 beautifully designed nature reserves and retreats in southern Africa

Its charm and natural beauty are well documented, so it stands to reason that southern Africa boasts some of the most spellbinding destinations designed for immersing in nature or indulging in self-care. Effect profiles five of the best-looking properties, from therapeutic retreats to safaris that place you right in the heart of the action.

Babylonstoren, Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa

Babylonstoren in Cape Province, South Africa - Effect Magazine
The dramatic open spaces of Babylonstoren in Cape Province, South Africa

Babylonstoren captured everyone’s imagination when it opened to the public over a decade ago thanks to the breadth of its appeal and the exceptional quality of the experience. Part of a historic farm complex, and developed by ex-magazine editor Karen Roos, the farm’s historic werf comprises a cluster of elegant buildings, including a traditional H-form house, storerooms, gabled henhouse and pigeon loft, a wine cellar, stables and workshops, an olive making facility, two restaurants and several shops selling farm-made wares and fresh produce.

The heart of the farm is a magnificent formal fruit and vegetable garden, designed by renowned French architect Patrice Taravella, with over eight acres of flora, fruit and vegetables. Guests are invited to spend the night at this working farm, with a variety of accommodation options. The most recent additions are the Fynbos cottages – the property’s jewel in the crown. Eight structures, built in traditional Cape Dutch style, have been positioned a golf-cart ride away from the public offerings, situated alongside the citrus orchards and overlooking the farm dam.

Restrained luxury is evident in their design, which features a contemporary glass structure abutting the whitewashed walls of the sleeping and living areas, opening up to views of the dramatic landscape. The interiors are sparse, in keeping with the working nature of the farm, yet provide all the comfort needed to immerse oneself in this part of the farm precinct – which includes a pool in a magnificently landscaped native garden, and the nearby, newly expanded spa. A highlight of the property is Babel restaurant, widely known for its estate produce.

A top-tier South African experience, Babylonstoren is multi-layered, offering exceptional charm and curated experiences rooted in the rhythms and traditions of farming culture and local hospitality.

Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, Sossusvlei, Namibia

Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia is set among an expansive desert-scape with dramatic night skies

One of the latest properties in the already impressive &Beyond suite, Sossusvlei has brought the best of Namibia to luxury travellers, offering rare experiences among an extraordinary landscape. Set in an expansive private reserve, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge invites guests to get lost in a desert-scape of what they describe as “stones, stars, sustainability and silence”. Interiors are sensuous and sophisticated, echoing the tonal range and texture of the surrounding landscape.  Designed by South African–based Fox Browne Creative in partnership with architect Jack Alexander, the team overhauled a 1990s building with strong attention to sustainability and a connection to the inherent beauty of the landscape. The result is a refreshed, eco-friendly resort with state-of-the-art environmental technology. We are told that each suite is almost completely self-powered.

The series of open-plan suites are sleek and understated, with private pools, outdoor showers, stargazing skylights and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that frame the extraordinary views. The interiors appropriately take their cues from the vast, open landscape with a palette of understated materiality which includes sisal, timber, leather, rock, linen and leather.

The centrepiece is a central guest hub that sits underneath an angular, perforated rusted steel roof, shedding dappled light onto the sweeping open-plan space, anchored by a granite island bar. Guests can partake in the best that this desert environment has to offer, from climbing, e-biking and quad biking the magnificent dunes to hot air ballooning, helicopter rides, and indulging in desert-inspired treatments at the spa. Not least, it’s a magnificent place for stargazing the unimpeded night sky. The property takes stargazing seriously: with a state-of-the-art telescope and the lodge bordering an International Dark Sky Reserve, guests are assured of an extraordinarily clear night sky.

Singita Lebombo Lodge, Singita, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Singita Lebombo Lodge in South Africa is set among the tree canopy above the Kruger National Park’s N’Wanetsi River

This revamped Singita property set off the radars of design lovers everywhere when it re-opened in 2016, with 13 revamped open-plan suites suspended above the Kruger National Park’s N’Wanetsi River and the addition of a private villa. The latter, set apart from the main lodge, features two family suites, each with a private pool, that link together to create an exclusive four-bedroom offering.

The original Singita overhaul heralded a new era in the design of South African safaris, with a sharp transition from a heavier, traditional aesthetic to one that was decidedly fresher, lighter and more contemporary, leveraging the extraordinary space, openness and connection with nature that’s on offer at Lebombo. Significant lodge additions included a second lap pool and a three-story structure comprising a library and wine-tasting room as well as a stargazing terrace. Designed by renowned South African designers Cecile & Boyd, the suites’ original glass volumes have now been layered with a series of natural materials such as linen, sisal, stone and wood – resulting in a beautiful tension between openness and a highly textured and layered cocooning.

Sterrekopje Therapeutic Retreat, Cape Province, South Africa

Sterrekopje is an intimate, holistic hideaway in Cape Province, South Africa

The brainchild of Dutch duo Nicole Boekhoorn and Fleur Huijskenswere, Sterrekopje is an intimate, holistic hideaway where therapeutic rituals, abundant, restorative sleep and immersion in the landscape support on-site wellness programming and self-healing. The historic farm property includes a number of meticulously restored and converted heritage buildings, set within a landscape of wild vegetation and manicured gardens. However, the Cape Dutch architecture at Sterrekopje isn’t the traditional white; here, it is a welcoming rosy hue, underscoring the warmth imbued in every aspect of the authentic, yet sumptuous, interiors.

Guests are encouraged to explore the original manor house, which includes a large country kitchen (watch the chefs at work), a cosy library, and a range of spaces to socialise in or retreat into, all adorned with a curated selection of artwork, murals or wallpaper, adding textures and layering to the already impressive collection of treasures collected by the owners on their myriad travels.

The suites, dotted around the expansive natural landscape, include four-poster beds bedecked in Egyptian cotton, private pools and verandahs. The bar and primary gathering space has an English conservatory feel, courtesy of the lush planting and botanic fabrics. A bath house with treatment rooms and a hammam channels a Morrocan and Indian wellness aesthetic; and it’s one of the keystones in the transformative and healing journey that guests experience at every level of this property.

Sitatunga Private Island, Great Plains Reserve Collection, Okavango Dekta, Botswana

Botswana’s Sitatunga Private Island by eco-tourism company Great Plains is a safari lodge in the heart of the Okavango Delta

Newly opened, Sitatunga Private Island is a water-based safari experience in the heart of the Botswana Okavango Delta.  Eco-tourism company Great Plains has created an intimate experience, capable of hosting up to eight guests, billed as a “slow safari” experience that is as sustainable as it is luxurious. Built on a raised, wraparound sleep deck and fabricated almost entirely from recycled materials, the resort has been designed to have a distinctive Robinson Crusoe aesthetic, with shaggy thatch, thick-pole construction and canvas walls.

Owners Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been instrumental in the design and concept of the property, drawing on the vernacular including the stories of the local fishermen. Oversized baskets adorn the suites in homage to their contribution to the region. Joubert explains how the design was inspired by the funnel-shaped fishing baskets and traps of local fishermen; and he adds that, as a result, drew on “a colour range that mirrors that of the Okavango – a blend of misty greens and light, bleached woods.” Each suits is elevated in the trees, making them a perfect location for spotting the sitatunga – a rare aquatic antelope. On the ground, guests are encouraged to spend time on walking safaris or boating on the waterways, which are teeming with bird and animal life.

Read more:  Interior Designers | Hotels | Restaurants | Interiors | Design | Africa