A secret hideaway in the Sabi Sands
Words Dianne Tipping-Woods:
It’s like having your own house in the bush, without the hassle. These words from Pippa Moolman flash through my mind as my two children boisterously play in the pool at Tumbeta House in the Sabi Sands. A troupe of vervet monkeys is watching them from the branches of the nearby marula tree. Occasionally a ripe fruit falls to the ground with a fragrant thud. It’s a time of plenty in the bush and the air is full of butterflies and birdsong.
We’ve just arrived back from our morning game drive, where we tracked no less than three different leopards, flushed a pair of harlequin quails (often heard but never – until now – seen) and almost got stuck in the mud at a sighting of the Talamati pride of adult and sub-adult lions. For the next few hours, I simply have to relax in what is one of the most beautiful, widlife-rich settings in the world; a little corner of the Djuma Private Game Reserve in the renowned Sabi Sands. We’re amongst this new lodge’s first guests and because it’s an exclusive use property, we have it all to ourselves.
Pippa, co-director of Djuma with her husband Jurie, finished renovating Tumbeta House in February 2020. She had stopped by the day we arrived to water the indigenous garden, and to see if the crested barbet chicks she’d been watching had fledged. “Of all the Djuma lodges [Vuyatela, Galago and Tumbeta], this is the one I want to stay at,” she said, checking the nest where the chicks were still happily and noisily nestled.
I know what she means. If I had to imagine my own little house in the bush, Tumbeta is pretty much what would come to mind. It’s comfortable, down-to-earth and totally private. It started life as Pippa’s sister-in-law’s personal house on the reserve, and then was staff for some of the visionary Safari Live team, who have made Djuma even more famous through their live broadcasts of game drives on the reserve.
When the Safari Live team’s needs changed, the Moolmans had to decide what to do next. That’s where the team from Tuskers Construction came in. Owner Mark Curley was tasked with re-designing, renovating and modernising the property to make it just that little bit better suited to safari-goers in search of an exclusive, but affordable getaway in the bush.
Tumbeta is unquestionably Pippa’s baby and her influence is everywhere, from the gorgeous mosaic details she’s created, to the daybeds on the large, covered stoep and bold pops of colour throughout the rooms. There are creative touches throughout that pay subtle homage to the local environment of the lowveld, from the gables that echo the village forms of Dixie and Utah, to the light fittings that were crafted in Hoedspruit by Emmanuel Karuweni, to the large Karen Daymont on the lounge wall, purchased from White River’s Artists’ Press.
“I love getting things locally. It’s immediately gratifying,” says Pippa, whose energy is an attractive mix of creative, driven, chilled and quirky. Like her, there isn’t anything pretentious about the house, but it’s exceptionally welcoming and well thought out.
In fact, we feel like we’ve slipped into a kind of second life; one of game drives, good food and nature’s rhythms, undistracted by superfluous detail or other people. This kind of access and exclusivity for non-property owners is almost unheard of in the Sabi Sands, which along with its reputation for some of the world’s best wildlife sightings, also has a reputation for having some of the most highly priced lodges in the world. They’re not affordable for most South Africans.
That’s where Djuma really is different. Pippa, with her husband Jurie, have moved away from the high-end safari model to offer guests affordable self-catering safari experiences in lodges Galago and Vuyatela, the larger properties on the reserve. “Just never employ anyone who knows less than you, and you’ll be fine,” Pippa laughs, talking through the choices they’ve made for Djuma over the years, and especially, the move from high-end hospitality to the self-catering model that sees them booked out years in advance.
The little sibling of the trio of lodges, Tumbeta sleeps just six in three en-suite rooms, with a fully-kitted out kitchen, pool, fenced garden, game drive vehicle and guide, elevated yoga deck and, in a first for Sabi Sands, an eye-level hide. Although it’s self catered, the chef Lotus Mathebula and housekeeper Thandi Manyike are part of the package.
The name Tumbeta means secret hideaway in XiTsonga, and its appropriateness is highlighted in the underground hide in front of the house. It’s the first eye-level hide in the Sabi Sands. After brunch, I sit watching as some impala come down to drink at the small waterhole in front of Tumbeta. Time slows down and like Alice in her rabbit hole, my perspective changes the minute I’m eye to eye with a grasshopper or watching perfect beads of water form on the bills of waxbills that flitter down to drink.
“I think it’s got the best location of all three camps,” says Michel Giradin, Djuma’s mentor in chief, who has been working with staff over the last few years to support and capacitate them further. With his long association with the Sabi Sands (he started out as a guide in the reserve nearly 40 years ago, and soon progressed to managing and assisting with transforming this world-famous brand) this is high praise. “There are places of material luxury. And then there are places of spiritual luxury,” he says, looking around with eyes that see way beyond the furnishing and the fittings of Tumbeta, to the soul of the place.
Echoing Pippa, he says, “you can come here for four or five nights and it really is like having your own lodge. It’s very subtly curated, but there is a team on hand as needed,” he adds, pausing to watch a woodland kingfisher swoop over the pool. He firmly believes that there is a place in today’s fast paced world where spiritually rich experiences can trump material experiences, and that’s the vibe with Tumbeta. And as though the wildlife knows it, the house has always been a popular spot for the reserves fabled leopards. “Talamba, Hosana, Tingana, Tandi… they’ve all been seen here,” says Michel.
It’s also the only black-managed property in the Sabi Sands, and both the Moolmans and Michel are quick to praise the team of people who have moved up through the ranks at Djuma; like Penny Mnisi , Luzile Sithole, Rexon Ntimane ,Oupa Ndziyane and Jim Reeves Nkuna (according to Pippa, the best human on the planet).
“The philosophy of Djuma has always struck a chord with me. They care about conservation and people and lead the way when it comes to supporting initiatives in the community around the reserve,” says Michel. His career has been about the development of human capital and it’s clear that’s where he gets his satisfaction from with a project like Tumbeta.
Before game drive the next day, mist hangs over the bushveld, exaggerating the feeling of splendid isolation in our little corner of the wilderness. We’d had a peaceful night of braaivleis and star watching, and sound sleep. “Mommy, come on,” my kids call from the vehicle where guides Rexon Ntimane and Mike Mkansi are ready to go. I’m tempted to stay hidden away a little longer though. It’s what Tumbeta invites you to do.