Safari in style at Singita Sweni

Singita Sweni Lodge
Singita Sweni Lodge

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park sits the exclusive lodge, Singita Sweni, catering to just 18 guests who seek a luxury, design-driven and cosmopolitan stay.

Imagine a modern New York apartment splashed with colour and lavish with contemporary art. Picture some fashionable industrial-chic design (heavy recycled timbers, bronze and steel highlights, black polished earth) and, of course, floor-to-ceiling glass partitions that open onto breezy terraces.

Only, instead of enjoying views over Times Square or Central Park, this apartment is lofted among huge knob thorn trees looking onto a shady river in Kruger National Park. The only traffic sounds are the honking of hornbills and hippos crashing about at the water’s edge. And instead of a huge tower block exacting its toll on the environment, this is an executive retreat that sits very lightly on the landscape indeed.

Singita Sweni is on the easternmost edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, at the border with Mozambique where the Sweni and N’wanetsi Rivers meet in a deep gully within the Lebombo Ranges. Thanks to the ranges’ hard granite geology, the lodge and its shady river are surrounded by 150-million-year-old fingers of orange rock protruding from the bush – the curiously named ‘granifiers’ which lend a feel that is exotic and otherworldly.

Sweni is the smallest of Singita’s 15 African lodges, catering to just 18 guests in seven suites. “It’s the most perfect little lodge,” says manager David Waddington. “It’s calm, it’s quiet – in fact it’s like having your own villa in the Kruger.”

Exclusivity never comes cheap, and sure enough Sweni’s rates start at AUD$3,000 per person per night. So I’m not entirely surprised to find fellow guests include a New York financier and a Hollywood actor fresh from a role in Little Women. In keeping with the private villa theme, the lodge runs according to the wishes of those in residence. Guests can decide the timings of their game drives. And in contrast to lodges with set meal times (and a communal dining table) guests say where and when they wish to eat.

The main lodge is open plan but designed so parties can indulge in their own company and feel like they have the place to themselves. The infinity pool (looking down on aforementioned hippos plus basking crocodiles) has its own shady deck, and makes a great place for lunch. Alternatively, you can retreat to a plush lounge, which is perfectly idyllic when candle-lit for a private dinner party with wine tasting. There’s also an earthy outdoor boma (African corral), fenced off with split eucalypt and a magical place for a starlit barbecue.

The Pool Villa offers perhaps the ultimate in privacy, and is often taken by families or VIPs: it comprises two self-contained suites joined by a library atrium, with pool and its own prep kitchen for the chefs to work their magic. The whole suite costs from AUD$7,750 per night.

Despite Sweni’s remote and wild location, the lodge’s kitchen and wine cellar are equipped to offer what guests might expect when dining out in New York’s Chelsea. Like a fashionable restaurant, the kitchen is set behind a huge window, so you can watch the talented team prepare menus by award-winning Cape Town-based chef, Liam Tomlin.

The contemporary African-international menus are rich with du jour techniques like curing, pickling and fermenting to prepare plates of kingklip, kudu loin and ostrich – accompanied by South African vintages as recommended by Sweni’s irrepressible sommelier, Dickson Matola.

The prodigious wine cellar sits alongside the kitchen and is always open to guests. The wine list is mostly South African except for a stash of French champagne (the only bottles to carry a charge). If you fancy trying the nation’s premium vintages, Dickson delights in laying on a paired tasting in the lounge while you dine – a chance for him to uncork a Graham Beck Pinot Chardonnay (served at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration) and a Klein Constantia sticky, produced by South Africa’s most enduring grower, one whose vintages dwelt in the cellars of Napoleon and Charles Dickens.

While indulging their guests in very exclusive surrounds, the owners of Singita have committed to ensuring there’s a net positive outcome for the rest of the world through environmental and social programs associated with the company’s 15 lodges.

The best way to learn about the initiative is on a tour of a one-hectare paddock behind Sweni and its sister property, a 24-room neighbour called Singita Lebombo. The paddock is home to the largest private solar array in the southern hemisphere. Guide Dan Zents shows me this clean, quiet replacement for diesel generators comprising 3,312 panels and costing half a million dollars to power two lodges. It’s a huge investment and a long way from being cost-neutral but, according to Dan, that’s not the point. “Ultimately, Singita is a conservation brand,” he says. “That’s what drives us – hospitality helps us to preserve and protect wilderness.”

Guests at the lodges are helping to support dozens of programs across four countries, including an anti-poaching unit, a cadet ranger program, early childhood development, conservation education, enterprise development programs and the Singita Community Culinary School (producing world-class chefs from interns enrolled from among local villages).

There’s also Singita’s ambitious mission to be custodian of almost 404,000 hectares of African wilderness – one which has been accomplished within 30 years. And this, of course, helps protect what guests are here to see.

Kruger is home to one of the world’s richest animal populations and, in turn, the Lebombo Ranges region is one of its richest pockets. Moreover, Sweni sits on a 13,354 hectare private concession. This unfenced expanse of remote country is crossed only by dirt tracks and open only to Singita rangers. Unlike within Kruger’s public expanse of park, rangers are permitted to go off-track and into the bush for more up-close encounters.

During our two days, ranger Corman Mnisi and tracker David Maluleke take us deep into an ecosystem that’s in turn vivacious, voracious and spilling with animals. In just three drives we see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) the Ugly Five (wildebeest, warthog, vulture, hyena and marabou stork) and most of the Little Five (ant lion, leopard tortoise, buffalo weaver and rhino beetle – only the shy elephant shrew eludes us).

What’s perhaps most surprising is the sheer density of game. While taking sundowner drinks on the aptly named Big View Hill, we see zebra, wildebeest, elephants, giraffe and antelope occupying a single vista. In one unforgettable encounter we come across four young cheetahs in late afternoon light – and just moments away, locate a young leopard hiding in the grass.

Though by no means resisting the allure and mystique of African safari tropes, this boutique retreat has delighted in juxtaposing the urbane with the untamed, the sumptuous with the savage. If you want a change from the tradition of ‘khaki and canvas’ – and want to enjoy peerless game viewing – you might make tracks for Sweni.

Max Anderson was a guest of Singita


Singita Sweni has double/twin suites with indoor/outdoor showers and complimentary minibar costing from AUD$2,983 per adult per night; children (10-16) cost $1,491 per person per night. The Pool Suite costs $7,741 per night. Tariff includes all game drives, all meals, laundry and all beverages (except French champagne).

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