First in: Loapi Tented Camp, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa
Experience the bush in its rawest form at this South African tented camp, soaking up the beauty of the ancient, vast Kalahari.
Why book Loapi Tented Camp, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve?
To experience the bush in its rawest form, sans the crowds, and soak up the beauty of the ancient, vast Kalahari. If you’re lucky, spot a rare pangolin or aardvark.
Set the scene
It’s not often you go on safari and have wildlife sightings all to yourself. Visit the Serengeti or Masai Mara during the great migration, and you’ll see as many land cruisers as wildebeest. Watch a lion or cheetah stalking one of them, and you’ll be interrupted by the constant clickity-clack of cameras. At Tswalu, South Africa’s largest privately owned reserve located in the Kalahari, it’s the exact opposite. Here, space and exclusivity are at the core of the property. The arid landscape is big, bold and begs introspection. From the electric blue sky to the golden grasslands, curved mountains and rusty iron-rich soil, the horizon appears to continue forever. With limited private flights arriving daily from Johannesburg and Cape Town, and only three accommodation options on the 441-square mile property (which sleeps a total of 40 guests) there’s hardly another soul to be seen. Pure magic.
Loapi is the newest addition to the reserve and certainly its swankiest. Owned by the South African Oppenheimer family, the reserve was first founded in 1995 by the British conservationist Stephen Boler, who snapped up a number of cattle and sheep farms and rehabilitated them back to their original state. A bold move, considering the Kalahari has one of the most uninviting environments on the continent, with scorching temperatures that can reach the high 40s in the summer, with small splashes of annual rain. Obtained by the Oppenheimers in 1999, the family has implemented high-end lodges, launched conservation projects and enlisted experts to help grow the white and black rhino populations and collect data on cheetah and pangolin.
Loapi comprises six private homes (four one-bedroom, and two two-bedroom) spaced some 100 metres apart. They are standalone houses with private chefs, butlers, trackers and guides. Locally-based GAPP Architects designed the glass, steel and canvas structures to expansively take in the views, which are positively staggering. Set at the base of the Korannaberg mountains, the houses look onto a valley of grassy plains that bleed into distant mountains rising into a cloudless sky. It’s all so big and bold, it feels dwarfing. Though the landscape can be seen from every room, the best place to observe it – and look for animals – is from an outdoor firepit fringed with chairs or the round farm-style pool, perfect for a cool dip on a sweltering day. On the patio, the outdoor dining table, sun beds and couches almost tumble onto the dry veld. Inside, interior designer Gregory Mellor (who was involved with Sterrekopje in Franschhoek), has created a warming environment that contradicts, but also complements, the merciless exterior. Floors and ceilings are lined with cork, tapestries by Eswatini-based Coral Stephens hang above the beds, clay sculptures sit atop plinths, and in the living room, a collection of textured umber and vanilla couches and chairs are arranged around a fireplace. In the rooms, the outdoor shower has desert vistas and the indoor window seat floods with afternoon sun; a perfect nook for a wintery afternoon nap. Even the study, which has a large wooden desk and intricate mohair panel on the wall, is an enticing place to be if you need to catch up with work. Spending a week here will surely not be long enough.
Food and drink
With your own private chef who cooks in the house’s kitchen (it can be closed off for privacy), meals here are entirely customisable. Given the remote location, dishes are also based around what’s available, and while the team can easily cater for any and all dietary requirements, specific fresh foods aren’t always just lingering in the fridge. The chefs do follow a rough menu, which ranges from a tapas evening, featuring homemade naan bread, to an al fresco lunch with a simple butternut and feta salad and an assortment of droewors and biltong (dried meats) or a simple homey meal of chicken curry followed by a decadent, gooey olive oil cake. For the “bush” breakfast, there are egg sliders layered with tomato and rocket and dates wrapped with bacon, served with strong coffee and a splash of Amarula. For sundowners in the veld, the “car-bar” is far from basic – expect sweet potato slices topped with pickled radishes, and gin and sodas with zingy local gin as well as fine Chenin Blancs and Pinot Noirs from all around the Cape Winelands and beyond. Each two-night stay at Tswalu includes a night at Klein Jan, a gastronomic culinary journey created by Jan Hendrik Van der Westhuizen, a local chef who has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice. A multi-course tasting menu includes biltong lamingtons, Kalahari truffles, and beef with desert spinach served with Northern Cape wines. It begins in an old farmhouse and ends in a subterranean dining room.
In-room spa treatments are available; there is also a spa and gym at the main camp Motse, a twenty-minute drive away.
Want to take a late morning game drive rather than rising at 6am, or go looking for aardvarks in the middle of the night? No problem. With so many people taking care of your every need, you can pretty much do as you please. The staff here – many of whom are from neighbouring towns and communities – are warm and friendly, constantly welcoming you back “home”. The butler and chef are almost always available to hand you a cold towel after a game drive, pour you a glass of wine or whip you up a cheese toastie. Expect expert guides and trackers, some of whom are locals – others have worked extensively in the Kalahari and are extremely enthusiastic about this unique, arid environment.
Who comes here
Tswalu is not for the first-time safari goer who wants to see the Big Five all in one day. Wildlife is harder to find, but certainly more rewarding, especially if you stumble upon an aardvark (rare but possible). “You have to understand that in this environment, with limited quantities of resources, you can only have a limited number of animals,” explains my guide, FW De Klerk (the grandson of the former South African president). Tswalu is the kind of place that draws safari and conservation geeks – people who want to spend multiple days with meerkats and are willing to spend countless nights scouring for elusive, endangered pangolins, knowing that their chances of spotting one are slim. Wild dogs, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, brown hyenas and antelope like roan and sable are here, but not lurking around every corner. Visitors who come here also have a deep appreciation for solitude, silence and space.
As one of the few malaria-free reserves in South Africa that allows kids of all ages, Tswalu is ideal for families. The two-bedroom homes at Loapi are great for smaller crews, while multi-generational travellers can book multiple homes. Having a chef on hand means meals can be tailored for kids. On the reserve, there’s also a Junior Ranger programme where children can partake in archery, animal tracking and the identification of different spoor.
In keeping with Tswalu’s approach to conserving the environment, the buildings are light on the land with insulated walls, double roofs, and cross-ventilation to help naturally regulate temperatures. They are entirely self-sufficient and can easily be dismantled and moved, leaving the land exactly how it was found. There are energy-saving air-conditioners, solar-powered pool pumps, and to encourage low water consumption, there are no baths.
The buildings are accessible to wheelchairs with wooden walkways that connect the entrance room to the main house, though there are many sandy or uneven paths, and accessing certain places like Klein Jan may prove challenging.