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Abelana Game Reserve: Limpopo’s newest and (finest), safari destination

We need to talk about the design and décor at Abelana’s River Lodge. Neo Neophyte of dsgn™ shares the inspiration and process involved in designing this beautiful space

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By Gugulethu Mkhabela | December 21, 2020 | Travel Leisure

Let’s skip the lowkey pseudo pensive part where we rehash how the travel industry was drastically impacted by, you know what—and how humbling the year 2020 has been. We are just thankful we are still here, breathing, healthy and living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. This is what a few glorious days in the bush—experiencing this hidden Limpopo gem will do.

Even if you don’t see yourself as ‘’bush person”, the sights and sounds of the bush and river, songbirds waking you up in the morning are all gentle reminders to simply BREATHE and vibrate in gratitude.

Woodland Kingfisher. Image: Supplied

And in SA, we have PLENTY to be thankful for. This brand new Big Five game reserve is perfectly located in SA’s beautiful lowveld, near Phalaborwa and is right next to the Greater Kruger National Park.

Abelana River Lodge evening on the deck. Image: Supplied

The 15 000-hectare (36,000 acre) land is owned by the Mashishimale community and is on lease for the next 25 years. This is what inspired the name Abelana, which means to share among each other in the Northern Sotho language.

Abelana CEO, Ian Beauchamp says, “as caretakes of this reserve, and working in partnership with Mashishimale community, it’s important that we nurture a culture of sharing the benefits of what we are doing.”

Abelana River Lodge fire pit and boma. Image: Supplied

One of the main objectives is job creation. The reserve currently employs a team of 80 people, with more than half being from the Mashishimale community. Most of these employees had no previous experience and are given training and skills development that will equip them for lifelong careers in the tourism and hospitality sector.

The inviting and perfectly located infinity pool; outdoor showers, fire pit and boma under a beautiful gigantic tree vibe; world-class cuisine (the butternut-coconut soup is to die-for); safari-camps; horse safaris; excellent staff (including owner Ian Beauchamp’s daughter Gabrielle—a hospitality student doing her internship at the lodge); superb amenities; and impeccable attention to detail make Abelana a one-of-a-kind holiday destination.

Abelana River Lodge pool. Image: Supplied

Big Five and unique bush experience aside, we really need to talk about the sheer artistry and impeccable design and décor at Abelana’s River Lodge that lies in the north of the reserve, on the banks of the Selati River. From reception, to the bar, dining hall and guestrooms, it’s simply beautiful. Neo Neophyte of dsgn™ shares the inspiration and process involved in creating this top-tier bush haven.

What was the brief and how would you describe the overall look and feel of the Abelana River Lodge?

The brief was to create a “classic” bush lodge that is authentic, responsive to its environment with a sense of luxury within the context of commercial sensibilities. We were influenced by the perennial river location, the existing buildings, the bush and the clients’ goal to provide an incredible experience for guests. The existing structures of the public spaces and guestrooms which were mostly preserved and enhanced, provided a framework for the new designs.

As the appointed interior designer, dsgn™ envisaged the creation of an interior relevant to its surrounding landscape in terms of colour, tone, texture and finish, whilst simultaneously introducing a sense of laid-back luxury.

The idea of a blank canvas, interpreted as white-painted walls within the main building, set against a black and white graphic feel relating to traditional African mud cloth patterns, encapsulated the rustic - yet current - atmosphere of the interior.

The intention for the guestrooms was to maintain and expand on this concept in order to form a palette of calm, peaceful tranquillity, allowing the sights and sounds of the bush and river to take centre stage.

dsgn™ is renowned for its extensive portfolio of upscale hotels, villas/resorts spas from Dubai to the Seychelles, to Cuba, and Kenya. Is this the first bush lodge you've ever done work for, and what were some of the differences and challenges with designing and decorating such a space?

Whilst we are not known for an expansive portfolio of bush lodges, we have worked on similar projects previously. Abelana River Lodge marks a significant bush lodge project of which we are proud.

The challenge in designing a space such as this one lay in the casual, “laid-back” luxurious atmosphere that dsgn™ aimed to create in order for the interior to feel authentic and marry with the exterior feel of the bush. This takes careful consideration and curation in order for the design to be successful.

The Project Team was a pleasure to work with and we are proud that we managed to deliver our vision for the interiors, exactly as we envisaged and presented to our client—especially considering the constraints of the project location and budget.

Are the artworks, décor, neckpieces and furniture locally sourced?

Quite a few of the furniture pieces and joinery items were constructed using leadwood from site, such as the reception desk, outdoor bar, bedside tables and vanity bases in the guestrooms. All the artwork, décor and neck pieces were locally sourced, as was the upholstered furniture.

Some of the things we loved:

The above bench is from South African furniture designer, David Krynauw, with seat cushion upholstered in grey leather from Crest Leather.

This lamp was custom made, based on dsgn™’s design concept, using strings of Acacia beads with a sisal rope trim for the shade and a tripod-style-stained timber base.

Image: Gugulethu Mkhabela

The Décor & Objet were sourced from Amatuli, Togu’na African Artefacts Collections and Weylandts. The plinths were custom made based on dsgn™’s design concept.

Guest room, bar unit. Image: Gugulethu Mkhabela

The bar unit was made by Hartmann and Keppler, based on dsgn™’s design drawings and the African patterning was drawn up and hand painted onto the unit in white chalk paint by the dsgn™ team.

The artwork concept was inspired by old-world tapestries and their faded, rustic beauty. African photography was sourced and manipulated by dsgn™’s internal Graphic Design team to give the pieces that weathered look and they were then printed on linen for us by Lula Fabrics and suspended from batons attached to the wall, unframed.

Interior bar area. Image: Gugulethu Mkhabela

The interior bar area has a number of aspects that stand out for dsgn™ and speak more about the location of the Lodge.

Firstly, dsgn™ commissioned a local South African Artist, Damien Grivas, who passionately interpreted the concept for the Feature Wall behind the Bar out of various pebble sizes and colours; the concept derived from the circular rippled effect that emanates from a pebble or stone dropped in water.

The decorative light fitting above the bar, inspired by a fish trap, was custom-designed by dsgn™ and manufactured by a local Johannesburg Artisan.

Beautiful individually hand-made glazed & fired ceramic tiles clad the bar front in various shades of green.

Image: Gugulethu Mkhabela

dsgn™ conceptualised a bar unit penetrating through the window and connecting the inside with the outside; however, this amazing piece was mainly a creation of nature. An ancient and weathered dead leadwood was sourced from the local bush, cut to size, mounted on a steel frame and polished on top to provide a practical surface. The rest of the trunk was left raw for all to marvel at its natural beauty.

Beautifully beaded wall mounted lights by Mash T Design Studio’s Thabisa Mjo. Image: Gugulethu Mkhabela

The method for the guestroom artwork above the bed was based on the technique of Macrame, using a mixture of varying thicknesses of jute and cotton rope. The design of the artwork was intentionally organic and based on the concept of soft waves created by flowing water.

Beautifully beaded wall mounted lights with interior diffusers double up as reading lamps either side of the bed in the guestrooms and were custom made by the talented Thabisa Mjo of Mash T Design Studio, in collaboration with dsgn™’s Lighting Design Concept.

Visit for more information and to make your booking.