Special reserve: The bedrooms at Becks Safari Lodge are decorated in elegant safari chic. Supplied
Special reserve: The bedrooms at Becks Safari Lodge are decorated in elegant safari chic. Supplied

Demand for swanky safari accommodation in the Karongwe Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park is so high that a new lodge has been built in nine months.

The 11-bedroom Becks Safari Lodge had an occupancy rate of 60% before it opened. Owners Sonia and Rudolph Hanni run four other lodges in the reserve.

The reservations were from South African and foreign guests. At R6,500 per person per night, it’s lavish but not ludicrous, says Brian West, sales and marketing manager for Karongwe Portfolio.

He is negotiating with local discount booking services Bush Breaks, Mtbeds and Kulula to offer reductions for locals.

"The fact that we got Becks up to 60% occupancy before we even opened the doors is testament to the demand in the area," West says.

"Karongwe is known for offering good value for money – we’re not exorbitantly priced compared with some of the opulent lodges that are charging anything from R13,000 to R38,000 a night."

The large and luxurious Becks took nine months to build, which is remarkable considering it can take a year to get a house built in a Johannesburg estate. All the workers and most of the materials were sourced from the Hoedspruit area, with about 70 construction workers operating in two shifts.

"A lot of money spent on this lodge rippled into the local community. All the glass for the lodge was bought from a local supplier and everything was perfect," West says.

"It also cost substantially less than anybody else would spend. The going rate to build a lodge room is just over R1m and we probably came in at a third of that," he says. "We chose materials that are hardy, but the only bricks-and-mortar part of the bedrooms is the bathroom."

The bedrooms are built around wooden frames, RhinoLited inside and canvassed on the outside to give a tent-like feel. Instead of the usual thatching, they’re roofed with tin.

The look is stark compared to traditional straw and stone safari suites, but each room is beautifully decorated in safari chic. Wide glass doors open onto a private deck, with outward-facing showers.

A long wooden walkway leads to the stylish main lodge. There’s a large swimming pool and a spa, where treatments include a 90-minute wood massage using a wooden device that resembles a dumbbell.

In the reception area, a gift shop sells leather safari hats from the family-owned tannery that funded the Hannis’ expansion into game reserves.

The couple built Becks from scratch after initially starting to refurbish one of their other lodges. "It needed a complete refurbishment because it was so rustic that it dragged the other properties down," West says.

"We decided to rebuild it, but a month into the project, we ran into problems with the soil. There was too much clay and erosion meant that a river would encroach on the site within 10 years, so we had to find a new location."

It all seems to be working well, with West noticing that guests linger for longer around the main lodge or in their bedrooms to enjoy the surroundings, rather than jumping onto every game drive.

Not that the game drives should be missed when guide Sondy Mathole and tracker Freddy Magomame are in charge. They got us so close to elephants that one massive male picked up a jacket a tracker had left on the bonnet and flung it into the air with a flick of his intimidating trunk.

The tusker had better prepare for more visitors, since West reckons Karongwe and other private reserves in the area are growing in popularity compared to the nearby Kruger.

Market research before Becks was built identified about 500 beds in the area, with a buoyant demand that suggests luxury lodges are not struggling if they have the right offering.

"As a destination, we’re doing exceptionally well. In SA as a whole, there’s a huge demand for good-quality, well-priced beds and operators are already booking for 2019 and 2020," West says.

"One of our biggest markets is France and in 25 years, I’ve never seen our French market growing the way it is – SA is a safe destination, the exchange rate is good and they are absolutely loving it."

Following Tunisia’s terrorism woes, French tourists have now begun switching from that beach-and-history destination to the safety of the bush.

Tourism to SA is also picking up after global setbacks including Ebola and the ash cloud from Iceland’s erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano. "We couldn’t be further from Iceland and we’re even further from Ebola than Iceland," jokes West.

SA is also recovering from a setback when former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba introduced the demand for biometric visas and unabridged birth certificates for children.

"We literally lost our South American market overnight and it’s only just picking up again," West says.

Rising demand for bush beds is also breathing fresh life into the aviation industry, although on a small scale. Pilot Henry Verster has launched Opulent Aviation, a charter airline for well-heeled guests who would rather fly to their safari than spend hours on the road.

"I’ve really seen Hoedspruit growing with a lot of residential developments coming up and game lodges renovating their properties," Verster says.

He says that at R3,800, the flights from Johannesburg are more expensive than SA Express, but more reliable as the Caravan planes he uses can fly in weather that forces larger SA Express’s planes to be diverted.

It’s certainly far more fun. The Caravans fly to Hoedspruit’s Eastgate airport at lower heights than commercial craft, giving passengers stunning views of the Blyde River Canyon.

"It makes VIP travel affordable and I believe the industry is ready for it. With the prices SA Express charges, I think I’m going to give them a run for their money," Verster says.

Stones was a guest of Becks Safari Lodge.

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