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inside out

Lodge inspired by African culture 

When it comes to viewing wildlife, Singita Pamushana is one of Africa’s most strategically placed luxury safari lodges, sitting high on top of a rocky hill in the middle of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in a south eastern corner of Zimbabwe. Yet it is totally unobtrusive, designed to blend into its surroundings of sandstone rocks, ‘upside down’ looking baobab trees and rock fig outcrops typically found in this 130,000 acre private game reserve.

South African architect Bruce Stafford was in 1997 instructed by the Malilangwe Trust, a non-profit organisation which owns the reserve, to design a tourism lodge here, the aim being to channel revenue generated by tourism back into the reserve and the surrounding communities.

Stafford was inspired by the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an ancient stone settlement to the north built by local tribes between the 11th and 15th centuries (now ruins and a UNESCO heritage site), and so Pamushana was born, meaning "place of sunshine" in the local Shangaan language.

The walls of the lodge are made of hand-hewn stone placed in layers like the famous ruins, with African symbols added periodically into the layers. As one approaches the main lodge, the first striking sight is a conical tower mimicking that of the famous ruins, with buildings resembling up-market village huts at its flanks. The entrance supported by four pillars covered in intricate hand-laid mosaics is a stunning introduction. Sandstone boulders are an integral part of the open-air bar and lounge, which are protected by a high roof of cooling elephant grass thatch and leadwood poles. Just beyond is a sparklingly clear infinity pool which seems to cascade into the Malilangwe Dam lying 200 metres below. A precarious looking Jacuzzi also teeters over the same cliff edge.

Each of the lodge’s six open-plan suites and a private villa has a similarly shaped conical centre with massively high ceilings sporting more leadwood poles, thatch, curvaceous walls and mosaic patterned pillars.

Interior designers Cécile & Boyd’s of Cape Town were summoned to design Pamushana’s original interiors in 1998, and these were tastefully done to depict a typical safari ambience complete with shades of beige, brown and khaki supported by comfortable colonial like furnishings and a varied collection of art pieces from all over Africa.

Ten years later when it became Singita Pamushana, there was a complete revamp. Cécile & Boyd’s were again the chosen designers, but this time the message was very different.

“We told the designers we wanted Pamushana to stick out more than anywhere else in Africa – it needs to be truly recognisable,” said Jason Turner, the lodge’s Zimbabwean born General Manager Tourism, who came to the property in 2007.

“It must be unique and it must portray a Zimbabwean culture,” he added, describing how the local Shangaan people once ruled the Gaza Empire which comprised parts of what is now south-eastern Zimbabwe, as well as extending to southern Mozambique and into South Africa.

So out went the African safari look and in came a palette of burnt orange and rust that complements the Malilangwe landscape, along with bold primary colours that might be considered garish anywhere else but here. The curved walls reminiscent of the famous ruins were hand painted using contemporary paint as well as polished mud paint. Large hand sponged dots, diamonds, zig zag patterns and huge chevrons usually seen in tiny detail on traditional Shangaan culture tribal head dresses or adorning village huts have been incorporated into the walls and fabrics.

Boyd Ferguson, principal of the design firm, and his partners Paul van den Berg and Geordi de Sousa Costa were involved in the design of Pamushana and in fact, all of the Singita low impact high-end lodges in South Africa and in Tanzania too.

“Previously in all our African lodge design work we have been totally inspired by nature, interpreted in various ways from the literal to the abstract, but at Pamushana we delighted in taking inspiration from the Shangaan’s culture,” said Boyd.

“We were so inspired and it felt fresh to embrace the global trend of bold colourful pattern which as a result also gives a strong sense of place and joyous observation,” he said.

Boyd Ferguson's style is to create distinctly African interiors, wanting Africa to represent a ‘returning to earth’, where accessories such as a simple woven basket or a grass mat, seen in various places at Pamushana, can be “extremely luxurious and really touching”.

He and his design team spent considerable time researching the traditions of the Shangaan people, some of whom are currently among the lodge staff.

Inspirational features include the use of vivid coloured geometric fabric cushions scattered in the lounges or on the king sized four-poster beds cocooned by swathes of mosquito nets. Local pots, swords, head rests, shields, baskets, richly embroidered tapestries, and glass beads in colourful collections enhance the tribal impact.

“The mosaic columns at the entrance create harmony with the oversized bold pattern,” said Boyd, when referring to some of his favourite pieces. Another appealing feature in one of the lounges is a wide horizontal chandelier made of wrought iron and dozens of ostrich eggs.

And in the suites, opening the huge heavy front door using a simulated antelope horn handle reveals more wonders - all suites have sliding glass walls that open onto a private wooden deck housing its own infinity swimming pool, outdoor shower, telescope and a panoramic view of the dam and surrounding hills. Inside are wood fireplaces, vast mosaic walled bathrooms, the patterns on which were inspired by bright Shangaan jewellery. Shangaan motifs and Shona (another Zimbabwean tribe) symbols are carved into furniture and lamps, some having the added attraction of hand-worked bronze coloured metals.

Also redesigned were the indoor and open-air dining room and the lodge’s bush spa.

The subtle blending of nature with five-star luxury including cuisine and unobtrusive service, and the attention to fine detail at Singita Pamushana is simply spellbinding. Shortly after the year-long refurbishment exercise finished the lodge was included in the Condé Nast Traveler annual ‘Hot List’ for 2009.
To reach this Relais & Chateaux lodge it’s an easy two hour charter flight from Johannesburg or one hour from Harare to the nearest airport of Buffalo Range, which is 30 minutes from the lodge, or from Zimbabwe’s capital it is a “safe and easy five hours without having your foot welded to the accelerator,” according to Turner.

Both lodge and reserve provide a livelihood for the local people. The trust has built schools and clinics, supports agricultural initiatives and trains staff in the conservation and hospitality sectors. It is also supporting a feeding programme for 23,000 children.

“Our donors are completely passionate about Africa,” says Turner. “They believe that in order to totally achieve conservation you have to also help the community survive. You cannot preserve the wilderness if you haven’t looked after the people too. And the way to achieve that sustainably is through tourism.”

A big plus in this reserve is that there are very few tourists here, it is safe and the wildlife is plentiful. Another plus is that when the sun sinks below the vast Malilangwe Dam and dappled moonlight rises to replace the day’s rich colour, guests tucked up in the lodge still feel very much a part of Africa as it should be.