How to Build a Safari Lodge

How to Build a Safari Lodge

The first guests are now arriving at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, Belmond’s newly rebuilt safari retreat. We go behind the scenes to discover how this Botswana hideaway was redesigned, from opening up breathtaking vistas to keeping curious monkeys out.

THE OKAVANGO DELTA, Africa’s largest and most spectacular oasis, fans out over floodplains, palm groves and papyrus swamps. An irresistible magnet for wildlife, it attracts vast numbers of hippos, elephants, buffalo and antelopes. Meanwhile, 400 bird species, from wattled cranes to the majestic fish eagle, soar in. This fluid wilderness of reed beds and water lilies, frogs and kingfishers, is a theatre of matchless drama and serene beauty for visitors.

How do you create a safari lodge that will slip in among all this natural splendour? And how do you make it eco-friendly, at one with its surroundings, yet wonderfully sleek and glamorous?

Belmond Eagle Island Lodge

Botswana’s newly reimagined Belmond Eagle Island Lodge has all the answers. Reopened after full-scale renovation, it gives top billing to the magnificence of the environment while itself pulling out all the stops. The sense of arrival alone has had its first guests stopping dead in their tracks as they pull up to the entrance in a safari vehicle and glimpse the waters of the Okavango framed by the doorway—perhaps with an elephant lumbering past.

“The whole lodge was repositioned to absolutely maximise that first, million-dollar view,” says architect Inge Moore of European design agency HBA, who led the project. “The brief was to be very organic, bringing in the nature of the area and taking inspiration from the surrounding river delta.”

Views are indeed a major aspect of the experience here. Everywhere that guests wander or sit—in the bar, the restaurant, or one of the 12 private tented rooms—they are assailed by lush greens, blue skies, or the bright plumes of exotic birds. The calm, muted tones of the buildings only serve to give centre stage to the delta’s vibrant palette.

The original central building has been transformed into two public areas that echo the delta in shape and are linked by a single thatch structure, inspired by the shape of the many nearby termite mounds. “It was a challenge to create and shape it, but it makes the building interesting and organic,” says Moore.

This is a very contemporary safari lodge, unusual in that it does not hark back to colonial times, but incorporates clever details that hint at the days of pioneering adventure. A vast library of books offers tales of early explorers. There are artists’ easels and sketchbooks available for guests to paint or sketch in charcoal, and microscopes should they wish to examine anything close-up, such as specimens of little butterflies.

Guests’ tented rooms feature wrap-around private balconies and rim flow pools, the trickling water helping occupants keep cool whatever the season. Inside is a mini-bar inspired by an explorer’s toolbox and roller blinds pulled up to reveal the views. “We used all the colours from the area,” says Moore. “Every single pattern has been inspired by the delta. The lily pads make shapes on the water and we used this as inspiration for the screen behind the beds. Botswana has a lot of copper mining, so we’ve used a copper-coloured divide that separates the bedroom from the big open bathroom.”

There are also high-tech touches such as USB chargers built into the walls—important for keeping a camera charged and ready to capture the amazing sights. This is vital in the wet season when the swelling waters bring the wildlife right up to—and sometimes into—the Lodge.

The lightest of footprints was imperative in creating the low-rise lodge. “It is built in such a way that you can remove everything, so there’s no imprint on the land,” explains Moore. The lodge also uses its own solar plant for energy, with a back-up generator available if needed.

Animals have naturally been a huge source of design inspiration and the colour “wet elephant” is prevalent in the colour palette. “I loved that you could see these elephants walking around with three different stripes of colour as they dry from the water,” says Moore. Even the textures of the walls conjure up an elephant-skin effect. Natural, earthy tones and the varied blues of the surrounding water define the public areas, including a restaurant with an open kitchen, pizza oven and outdoor barbecue area. Furnishings include a beautiful swarm of metal butterflies, which catch the light at sunset, suspended from the ceiling.

The region’s famous avian activity is also strongly reflected in the design, with chairs that give a feathery effect as light passes through; lampshades and chairs in the Fish Eagle Bar are designed like birds’ nests and roofs extended like eagle wings atop the guests’ tented rooms. During the wet season the bar—which is made out of a mokoro canoe—feels like it is suspended over the water, within touching distance of the many birds that dart and swoop all around.

Animals are not merely design features of the lodge, though. They are very much part of the picture. The lodge is not fenced off so a variety of creatures amble through. There are monkey-proof outdoor showers, baboon-proof containers for towels by the plunge pool at each tented guest room and coffee is delivered in a special leather and canvas satchel firmly latched to keep animals out. These small details simply add to the unique magic of this remarkable place.

Flights of fancy

Take to the skies on your Belmond safari. Spend four consecutive nights or more at any of our three luxury lodges with our Flights on Us special offer and enjoy a return flight from Maun to your lodge and complimentary inter-lodge flights, until 31 March.

by Julia Peary