At the start of 1999 we decided to get moving on building our dream lodge to accommodate the potential flood of millennium visitors at the year-end. We knew where we wanted the lodge to be and the necessary completion date, but otherwise not much more.

To get a bit of perspective we called on various architects (well, they called on us) to submit a concept. The first design to come in was a unique ‘Shangaan Village’ model from Neil Crafford in Pretoria. This style of traditional homestead comprises several buildings all finished in different ways, from traditional thatch and mud plaster, to intricate concrete gables with corrugated iron roofs, to precast cow-dung bricks and wattle-and-daub. (More often than not traditional homesteads would also have, in the corner of the yard, corrugated-iron outbuildings housing a long drop toilet.) We loved the design immediately, but were nervous about undertaking a project so unusual and quirky, and basically put it on the back burner.
Next up came the colonial splendour of a design by Tom Hattingh, who was based in Nelspruit. Wow, it was great, but way over our budget, and also so many other lodges looked like it. Initially I was drawn to this design in that it seemed safe, as far as the tastes of the prospective clientele were concerned. Incidentally, Tom had done a conversion on Galago years before, and also plenty of work for the Buffelshoek owners. A further design involved stunning, elevated, shuttered buildings based on an Australian concept. We could see it working in vast desert landscapes, but not in our cosy riverine environs. Another design resembled an underground warren with lots of earth and not much in the way of windows. It was produced by a city architect with no experience of bush conditions and was basically not “us” at all. Fairly early on we discarded the last two.
The Scotts - although not yet officially partners, but considered as such – and Jurie and myself were getting quite worried, as time was marching on and we still had no settled architect or plans. Vuyatela was already being marketed and the opening date had been set for the beginning of December, with November being used for trial runs.
Having all this choice from various architects was confusing. Our next move was to get on a chartered plane and go to see as many lodges as possible. There were about fifteen lodges in total, which we divided between the Scotts and ourselves.
I think Jurie and I were slightly inclined towards Tom’s version and he accompanied us on some of the trips to the other lodges. I was most impressed by a series of four, called Makalali, near the town of Tzaneen. They were designed by Silvio Reich in a North African style and the attention to detail was amazing. There were wooden doors and furniture by craftsmen from Zanzibar. Almost everything was custom made to impart a unique style and flair. For example, metal taps, basins and furnaces were all hand-made art pieces in their own right. Mosaic was inlaid here and there, and statuesque concrete benches and sculptural objects nestled in the bushes all over the place. Although we only popped in for lunch we were given the grand tour by the friendly staff. Going beyond what guests would normally see, to the backs of the lodges, we noticed how the design, right down to the wall-finishing, continued. We loved the way the menus, staff uniforms and customary greeting reflected the theme of each lodge. It also dawned on me that, although the lodges were all about four years old, they were still being featured in many magazines which focussed on various specific topics: cuisine, travel, architecture, craft and more. The uniqueness of Makalali made it very marketable. I was smitten!
Tom was with us when we visited Singita’s Boulders Lodge in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin. Wonderfully colonial in style, it included a sweeping water-feature sneaking in under the thatch eve of the main building. No doubt it was a gorgeous lodge, but Tom and both of us was shocked that it was so similar to the design with which Tom had presented us, even though he had never been to the lodge. There was no way we were going to ‘reinvent the wheel’ by rehashing someone else’s lodge.
These expeditions helped confirm for us what we did not want, but not much else.
February was almost over when we got a phone call from Neil Crafford, who was visiting his own lodge in the southern Sabi Sand Wildtuin. Being in the area he thought he would swing by and go over with us the drawings he had sent us weeks before. When he arrived Jurie and I jumped into his car and headed straight out to the rural areas surrounding the Sabi Sand Wildtuin. Neil was quick to point out wall finishes, thatching techniques, traditional versus modern building styles, window and door frames, as well as the general layout of each family homestead. The communities were very accommodating and many families welcomed us into their homes to show off their houses, artworks and furniture. Jurie and I were brimming with excitement as we visualized our own lodge: Shangaan culture merging with high-tech modern fixtures to become what could only be the most unique lodge in the industry! A humorous moment I remember at the end of that day was when we thought we would treat Neil to a packet of traditional “Chillie Chips” from a local tavern. When it came to paying, neither Jurie nor I had a cent on us and we had to get Neil to foot the bill. An interesting way to start a multi-million-rand business venture! After this reccie into the surrounding villages we were convinced that Neil was onto a good idea as far as the design of the new lodge went. Jurie and I were brimming with excitement when we got back to Djuma, babbling on about the finer details to the Scotts, and confirming that Neil’s plans were “the one”.
Neil had built many lodges and hotels in the bush, many of them together with a large building firm called Telford Construction. We thought it was best to stick with a construction company that Neil trusted and had worked with in the past. Our little lodge was a much smaller project than Dave Telford, the owner, was usually involved with, but I believe he was excited about doing something unusual and spending some time in the bush. Jurie and I had met Dave, the father of a friend of ours, a year or so before hand at another mate’s wedding. We got chatting because he had somehow acquired a lodge on the Zambezi River in Zambia and, not having had too much experience in the tourism industry, had asked us for some advice about running lodges.
With Telford and Crafford on board a commencement date for April, the week after Easter was targeted. With their experience on building sites in our region Neil and Dave insisted on getting a Sangoma in to perform a cleansing and blessing ritual for the building site. They assured us that this was essential to ensure a harmonious vibe among the labour force. We were rather intrigued by the proposal and, trusting to the older, wiser men set about organising the ritual. An entourage of tribal healers, shouters, and the Sangoma arrived, sacrificed some chickens and a sheep, and set about making the magic mixes that had to be spread around and buried at the location for each chalet and main building. We also decided to set up Skedonkie, the mobile camera rig, to film the ceremony, thinking that it would be something fascinating for foreign viewers to witness. We took a lot of heat for doing that, mostly from the American audience, who thought the slaughtering of innocent animals was barbaric. It was a reality, from an African point of view, that we could have hidden, but we chose not to. I’ll never forget it and should add that I was relieved to experience such a hassle-free building project.

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