Turtle Bunbury

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Pamushana Safari Lodge, Zimbabwe - As Good as it Gets

In 1996, Durban-based architect Bruce Stafford disembarked from his 4WD and set up a small tent beneath a kopje overlooking a 105,000 acre cattle ranch in the Zimbabwean Lowveld. For five days he trekked around the kopje and surrounding scrubland, taking notes, drawing pictures, singing songs, breathing the aroma, scratching his head. He then returned to Durban, sat himself behind a computer and got to work. In January 1997, Stafford received word from a group called the Malilangwe Trust that his CAD proposal had been accepted. Pamushana, meaning "Place of Sunshine" in the local Shangaana language, was born.

Pamushana is arguably the smartest, most up-market safari lodge Southern Africa and by extension the world has ever known. It is the crowning glory of a remarkable project, the brainchild of Zimbabwean surgeon Dr. Colin Saunders in 1995, that has seen the conversion of a once barren landscape into an exclusive fully restocked wildlife reserve. Situated in the south eastern corner of Zimbabwe, the Malilangwe Reserve is now home to what safari veterans will recognise as the "Big Five" and the "Small Six", as well as one of the most diverse assortments of bird species on the African continent. Throughout the year, visitors are now elevated high on the back seat of a purring land cruiser for tours of the Reserve. Listening to the gurgle of champagne frogs, the distant bark of a zebra, the clattering of eland hooves. Veteran safari guides try to verbally unravel the complexities of Mother Nature while keeping their sharp eyes alert for a leopard lounging in the boughs of a baobab tree or, perhaps, a well fed black rhino yawning in the dark shadows of the sandstone cliffs.

As safaris go, the Malilangwe Reserve ranks high. But it is undoubtedly Stafford's exceptional creation at Pamushana that lures the visitors back time and time again. An experienced hand at safari lodge design, Stafford's brief had been simple: keep it low-key and personal with enough space to comfortably accommodate 12 - 18 people at once, no more. The Malilangwe Trust was adamant that the glories of their Reserve be enjoyed on a most exclusive nature.

Stafford conceived of a central lodge with six separate villas, all located within 100 metres of one another, the honeymoon suite being given pride of place. To incorporate such a structure into the majestic sandstone kopje he'd sited, Stafford chose a design based on Great Zimbabwe, the 16th century capital of the region some 200 kilometres to the north. Effectively this meant he would stick to the basics of mud, wood and thatch where he could.

Stafford's concept involves a pyramid of raised poles, made from local mopani and saligna gum trees, cromex-protected against termites, supported by a network of sandstone and cement pillars, brick chimneys and leadwood trees, all cemented into the foundations.

A well-established Ndebele firm from Bulawayo was then contracted to add a traditional African thatch roof to provide useful insulation during the winter (when midday temperatures are as low as 8º) and fend off the blistering sun at the height of summer (45º at midday on Christmas Day '99). In the meantime, Durban-based interior designers Cecile & Boyd were granted a formidable carte blanche to source furniture, fabrics and fittings from throughout the continent.

In June 1998, Pamushana received the ritual blessing from the Shangaana chief and opened its doors to US$500 a night tourism. Over the next few months, the extras were added. For instance, a gym full of Stairmaster free-climbers and Life Fitness ski machines to give all guests a sporting chance at outrunning a gazelle, and a standby generator that comes on after 7 seconds, enabling the safari operators to act independent of the State Supply Board's increasingly erratic behaviour.

It's difficult not to think of Pamushana without having to dry your chin. The final result is utterly out of this world. The atmosphere is at once supremely electric and intensely soothing. Giant doors with springbok horn knobs that swing open with minimum effort, yet are sturdy enough to soundproof one against the racket of your colleague's bathtub sing-alongs. The ease with which one can roll up the window blinds to view the vast wind-rippled Malilangwe lake or, perhaps the inpenetratable wilderness stretching out over and beyond a wooden balcony where you may soak up the sun on cane beds, dive into the crystal clear plunge pool or immerse yourself under an outdoor power shower.

Apply your eye to the observant lens of a Swarovski telescope and idly follow the progress of wildebeest herds frolicking alongside absurd giraffes doing their slow-motion moonwalk from one acacia tree to another. Feast in an oval dining room, surrounded by Michael Dillon's exquisite mural of African wildlife and San Bushmen cave paintings, discoursing on the days sights and sounds over a few shots of Amarula. The innumerable lighting options in every room forcing you to be creative before you retire - dimmer switches, bedside oil lanterns, the blurry starlights on the ceiling overhead, old fashioned standing lamps that metamorphose into mysterious women as the light fades away …

With it's massive high ceilings, curvaceous, unassuming, earthy walls and myriad of pillars separating the open-plan rooms, there is something almost elephantine about the villas and lodge of Pamushana. Jonah in the belly of a whale springs to mind and yet Pamushana is not over the top.

There was a genuine intent to be as good as you get and this is creature comfort at its best, attention to detail perfected, inspiration personified. It's the call of the wild, encouraging one to inhale deep and relish the rich healthy aroma of baking mud, animal dung, sweated hide, fresh pampa grass and scented marula fruits bubbling under a streaky blue sun-drenched sky. There is a sense of permanence here so strong one feels that, no matter what direction this continent decides to plough, Pamushana will remain.

How do you get there? There's a private airport nearby, a helipad on site and the Buffalo Reserve Airport outside Chiredzi is only 35 minutes drive away. Harare is a 5 hour drive, Beit Bridge is 3.

Price Guide: Single Rooms: US$500 pp/pn; Double / Twin: US$480 pp/pn.

Contact the Pamushana Safari Lodge on mctsales@africaonline.co.zw

We traveled with Europcar: europcar@zol.co.zw