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Sometimes one gets the chance to tell a story before the rest of the world hears about it – a story that picqued my imagination one insanely hot day in the Karoo when I met up with Jacques Erasmus, Kubili’s interior designer, scent master and botanical artist. It’s equally rare to meet a South African-born, New York-based philanthropist lodge owner so passionate about architecture (the career he ditched in favour of the world of finance), conservation and food. The meeting of two so well-matched minds was inevitable. Yet it was a Cape Town restaurant, Hemelhuijs, that was the catalyst for all of us. Almost nine years ago, I interviewed Jacques when the restaurant opened and the rest, of course, is history…

To say that I was smitten with Kubili is an understatement. I thought the sheer scale of the architectural design would overwhelm – and yes, the vast expanse of rough-hewn granite on arrival is Great Zimbabwe Ruins in scale and grandeur but it fast envelops you with soothing lines, wide open spaces and Asian-style, low-slung seating shaded by cantilevered roofs stretching out into the bush. Yet there’s nothing understated about it – nothing. Its towering walls and graphic lines are softened by latte shadows that lengthen and shift hour-by-hour, constantly creating pattern and movement, and heavy beams of reclaimed wood add a comforting touch of French farmhouse or Italianate villa. Flooring is cool underfoot and inlaid with copper detailing, and vast expanses of water add fluidity and a calmness that soothes on arrival.

Part Marrakech riad, part bush lodge, part New York in its soul, Kubili is set to rock the safari world. There’s nothing small about owner Julian Koski’s vision – no less than thirty geothermal wells are sunk three kilometres deep, keep things cosy in winter and cool in summer, and the water is filtered on site. Soon the industrial style kitchen will shortly be hosting Michelin star chefs. Rows of gleaming copper pots, piles of black porcelain plates from interior designer Jacques Erasmus’s Basalt range (spotted by Julian at Hemelhuijs) and heavy gold teapots line the shelves, while staff in equally stylish uniforms prepare our first cup of coffee for the day. A stylish wooden tray (light-as-a-feather and one that Julian couldn’t resist snapping up on a trip to Japan) is laid with a tiny black-and-white sugar box and a leather-clad white porcelain cup. It’s early morning and we’re sitting at Donna Karan’s dining table looking at images, when lodge manager Tina Rennie arrives. She places a steaming bowl of mielie pap in front of us. Julian is delighted – they’re exquisite gold-glazed, chalky white porcelain bowls and have literally just arrived. We’re christening them with her grandfather’s favourite recipe: porridge with whiskey and condensed milk. First drizzle a circle of condensed milk (or two!) and then fill it with whiskey, she suggests. Yum! And on that decadent note, we started talking about the creation of Kubili, which was originally intended as a legacy project and a dream family home.

Architecturally, it’s on a scale that is atypical of any safari lodge but it cocoons in a rather mystical way. I can’t put my finger on it till I return to my villa much later and the scent of last night’s tuberose bath salt ritual and the incense cone I lit greets me as I pull open the heavy carved door. This time, I connect the dots – the mood board that has come together in these interiors is literally inspired by a lifetime’s worth of travel memories to fascinating corners of the earth but mostly reflecting Aida’s Brazilian-Arabic heritage and Julian’s sub-Saharan background. Light streams through my elegant Art Nouveau style Belgian bathroom door creating beautiful patterns on the cement floor and bouncing off the apothecary bath ritual jars. I’m spoilt for choice – will it be African Thatchgrass and Tobacco next? I’m happily distracted, but a hot brunch beckons as everyone returns from a game drive.

While settling in on low-slung wooden chairs – also Donna Karan’s Urban Zen range – copper pans of hot shakshuka arrive – a traditional Moroccan poached egg dish done in a spicy tomato relish. It’s heavenly. Here, even the tea comes from a South African supplier Julian met in Manhattan, aromatic bitters is poured from antique Moroccan perfume bottles and cocktail stirrers handmade by Aida Koski, who is both jeweller and experienced chef and caterer back in New York. Lunch is served tapas style and the piccalilli is homemade – of course. On game drives, animal-print glasses contrast with upcycled Hibiki Japanese whisky bottles – too beautiful to waste, Julian loved their fluted glass design and cork stoppers so flew them back home where he had them engraved with Kubili’s twin logo (their twins Leo and Tess had a hand in creating Kubili too – you’ll find little handprints cast in concrete outside your door), and then brought bottles all the way out here – along with silver salt and pepper pots which he adapted as incense holders and a haul of vintage raincoats to make into travel bags.

Yet despite the bespoke detailing and luxurious comforts, there’s something primal and grounding about Kubili and if you stay here long enough, you’ll find it hard to return to the real world.

What we love!

  • The botanical artwork that effortlessly offsets and contrasts with photography throughout the house: most notably Zipho Gum’s (affectionately known as Tony Gum and one of SA’s most exciting photographers named by Vogue UK as ‘the coolest girl in Cape Town’) and Andrew Putter’s beautifully styled bathroom portraits
  • That scent is key – rediscover the ancient practice of burning incense and indulging in a bath ritual each night. Choose from a dizzying array of scented, salt-filled apothecary bottles and soak for hours to the flickering light of a fire.
  • Whether it’s Pierre Cronje or Donna Karan, it’s bespoke or one-of-a-kind

What you need to know…

  • We can arrange for you to fly in by private charter but Hoedspruit airport isn’t more than 40 minutes away
  • That you can also head off in two fully kitted, limited-edition Landrovers for a luxury mobile safari in the heart of the Thornybush concession
  • That you can head out with a ranger and guide on a Segway around the lodge
  • Watch this space… the next Kubili House is Amazon bound

Reviewed by Michelle Snaddon

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