In 1925, James Fawcett Bailes bought a 45,000-acre swath of South African savanna due north of Swaziland in the Lowveld's arid plateaus. He set up a hunting lodge and genteel family estate with a view to several kills a day – mostly by lions and leopards. Two generations later, James' eco-minded grandson Luke has refurbished the family manse, long since a safari lodge dubbed Castleton, to better serve the clients of his extremely upscale safari company, Singita. The homestead, a sort of African Tara, was painstakingly restored by architect Sally Tsiliyiannis, who faced the dual challenge of dealing with an exacting customer and working in the bush.
"The trick is to let the surroundings be in control," says Tsiliyiannis, who worked on the site's six individual cottages and the main house. "The existing camp was steeped in history and much loved by many. . . . We realized the importance of retaining the essence of the place in the redesign."
Tsiliyiannis, who works with the prominent South African architecture firm GAPP, has a low-key approach to safari renovations out of respect for the landscape – "the greatest architecture in Africa is the trees" – and because she understands the limitations of working both in and with the wilderness. She says she's careful to hire only responsible "bush contractors" who know how to use back roads to avoid safarigoers and coexist comfortably with the animals that inevitably decide to involve themselves in the construction process.
"These men are . . . used to creating homes in the bush, so they keep an impressively organized 'house,' " says Tsiliyiannis, who has to think about fencing to keep leopards and lions away from the site. "During the course of this particular project, they befriended two young hyenas who approached the boma [a sort of open-air kitchen] every evening after sunset. The hyenas established a particular bond with the main foreman who would call 'Kom, Kom, Kom!' [Afrikaans for 'Come, Come, Come!'] and sure enough the hyenas would emerge from the darkness and nuzzle up to his sturdy builder's legs before settling down just outside the boma for the night."
But not all animals are quite so cuddly as hyenas (which really aren't that cuddly when it comes down to it). Tsiliyiannis worked with her contractors to set up barriers to make sure elephants, the species most capable of destroying new and old structures alike, stayed off the premises while work was under way – no easy task given Singita Castleton's location next to a watering hole. But that challenge was a useful exercise given that the structures would ultimately have to stand up to the environment, which in this corner of Africa means merciless sun, strong winds, and strong-minded mammals. The point of the project was to bring the buildings closer to nature while avoiding the dangerous vice versa.
"The key to the transformation was the opening up of spaces within and between the buildings and the introduction of new layers of texture and material to blend the buildings more subtly into the landscape," says Tsiliyiannis. "Letting in more natural light helped align the spaces closer with nature. Since reopening, the most common feedback we've had is that the place feels the same."
That's the art of making the perfect safari lodge right there. Everything new should feel old, and everything old should feel classic. Tsiliyiannis puts it simply: "Ultimately, it's about making the most ordinary things seem extraordinary." And Singita Castleton certainly feels extraordinary. The buildings are uncomplicated and low, with wide porches and massive windows that flood whitewashed rooms decorated with botanical drawings and solid wooden desks. As airy as the spaces are, the structures still seem strong enough to dissuade any pachyderm from crashing the party.
The architecture is stunning, but it can't compete with the views. It never had a chance.
More information: A night at Singita Castleton for up to eight people costs roughly $6,800. The lodge is accessible by the road for Johannesburg or by air if you want to spend some time with a bush pilot. Tsiliyiannis recommends the latter.