Occupying a former hunting reserve in the Lowveld, Abelana Game Reserve might be a safari newcomer – but it’s set to become a firm favourite.

Blessed by topographic diversity, Abelana Game Reserve combines a flatter northern section that encompasses long-established riparian forest with a south that’s studded with granite koppies and baobabs in a region of such beauty it’s called the “Jewel of Limpopo”.

Situated between Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit, and neighboured by Greater Kruger’s Balule Nature Reserve and Selati Private Game Reserve as it stretches for about 25km from north to south, the 15 000-hectare Abelana is a safari dream.

The reserve’s north includes a 10km stretch of the semi-perennial Selati River, and the River Lodge occupies more than half a kilometre of quite possibly the finest waterfront real estate in Limpopo.

All 20 guest bungalows are right on the river, while at the heart of the lodge, a vast, high-ceilinged lounge and several outdoor gathering spaces overlook an especially captivating section of flowing water. It’s impossible not to be awed by the setting.

WITHOUT SKIMPING ON COMFORT, THERE’S MORE GENUINE BUSH VIBE THAN SNAZZY DESIGN TRICKERY.

“Permanent water means that there’s constant activity,” says Ian Beauchamp, CEO of Abelana Game Reserve. “There’s always a hippo or a crocodile or a fish eagle – always something happening. The large, ancient trees are awe-inspiring; there’s just no other way to express what they do for the soul. The fig trees, the jackalberries, the leadwoods – they’re all just beautiful. Walking this environment means that you’re forever bumping into a bushbuck or nyala, or – if you’re lucky – a leopard.”

Dramatic as the game-viewing is, the accommodation is designed to soothe the soul.

Beauchamp tasked Johannesburg-based designer Neo Neophytou and his team at interiors company DSGN to create a contemporary take on the traditional and well-loved bush lodge typology. The result is a series of spaces without an ounce of stuffiness – instead of overstated sophistication, there’s a sense of immersion in the surrounding environment. Without skimping on comfort, there’s more genuine bush vibe than snazzy design trickery.

For Neophytou, this meant using simple, authentic materials. “We used a combination of charcoal concrete screed floors and white walls, offset by the richness of timber, leather, natural fabric and the collected layering of decor and artefacts,” he says of the project.

Natural textures and raw wood, organic fibres and local fabrics complement the neutral palette, which is punctuated with black-and-white photographic prints, shells, seeds, hand-carved artefacts, clay pots and hand- woven baskets. The result is low-key African esprit with a chic twist.

The aim was to achieve a comfortable home-from- home atmosphere that encourages guests to immerse themselves in the second-to-none location. Rather than competing with the surroundings, the muted, earthy interiors enhance their visual vibrancy.

Again and again, your focus is pulled towards the scene outside. As you step into the main building, uninterrupted river views instantly grab your attention – you cannot help but be drawn through the space and onto the outside decks, terraced like an amphitheatre along the river’s edge, where you can ground yourself beneath one of the ancient wild figs that provide shade over the boma.

And as that dry Lowveld heat, that unmistakable crispness in the air, emboldens your senses, you’ll quickly succumb to the fragrance of the bush and the peaty soil; to the soul-soothing rhythm of flowing water; and to a soundtrack of birdlife that is sweet and harmonious, interspersed with hippo honks and perhaps the splash of a crocodile’s tail.

YOU’LL QUICKLY SUCCUMB TO THE FRAGRANCE OF THE BUSH AND THE PEATY SOIL; THE SOUL-SOOTHING

While River Lodge is designed to provide a luxurious sojourn in nature, the smaller, off-grid Safari Camp in the boulder-strewn southern part of the reserve is more intimate. Here, en-suite Meru-style tents occupy the lee of a monumental koppie, while a generous deck affords views of a watering hole below, and vistas across the reserve and beyond to the northern reaches of the Drakensberg escarpment. Sunsets from the platform are, frankly, mind-bending.

The tented lodge also acts as the base camp for horseback adventures that operate within the reserve over three, five or seven nights. “The riding safaris offer incredible opportunities,” says Beauchamp. “Can you imagine the thrill of seeing leopard from the saddle?”

The opportunities at Abelana aren’t solely confined to the guests, though. The reserve has already generated 82 permanent jobs, and 52 of the employees are from the local community. “They’re people who started with no hospitality experience at all,” Beauchamp says. “Now they learn new skills every day.”

There’s a special charm in not only being part of the renaissance of a magnificent swathe of land, but in also helping the nearby Mashishimale community survive – and thrive.