Africa is a mass producer of that most precious of human capabilities: memory-making. If you are looking for a canopy of millions of twinkling stars in the wildest of places to add to your memory bank, look no further than these treehouse and “star bed” destinations in South Africa. And they are not short on luxury either!
1. Lion Sands, Kingston Treehouse
Sabi Sand Game Reserve
A hot day in December marks my umpteenth trip to the glorious surrounds of the wild and all it has to offer in the form of The Lion Sands River Lodge in the Sabi Sands Reserve. This 65,000-hectare (160,600-acre) reserve borders the world-famous Kruger National Park in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa. After a brief tête-à-tête with the blasted GPS taking us to the wrong gate, we arrive at River Lodge just shy of 4 p.m.
The following day we are dropped off in the middle of nothing at Kingston Treehouse to spend the night. We make our way through rows of magnificent white boulders and across a small drawbridge, and there we find Africa unfolding in front of us. Set amid the pure and untouched nature, we are completely isolated and surrounded by the wild. Kingston is equipped with full bathroom and shower facilities to complete this sensory experience.
The most striking feature of the Kingston Treehouse experience is without a doubt its construction, employing large sheets of glass combined with wood to a spectacular effect. The contemporary decor inside seduces with understated greys and whites. A massive double bed occupies the top half with the lower deck functioning as a lounge/dining/outlook area. It is surrounded by natural boulders, with a unique window to enjoy the ever-changing views.
And no matter what the weather has in store, guests will always have a safe and luxurious setting with a unique window to enjoy the ever-changing views. The tree house towers above the treeline and far below roam all things wild. The staff chuckle at our amazed expressions and then wave goodbye as they pull up the draw bridge. Then we are utterly alone. There is no electricity, of course, and no cell phone reception. We are left with a walkie-talkie in case of emergency but you are actually perfectly safe. Between giddy gasps of wonder, we take photographs.
As the day fades to night, we light the lanterns and then settle down to dinner as what seems like a thousand birds serenade us. We have our own “picnic basket” consisting of a feast of smoked turkey baguettes, biltong and feta pate, salads and cheeses, and for dessert a marshmallow and chocolate fondue! This is all accompanied by some excellent South African wines.
In the distance, we hear lions roar. Later a shy moon appears from the clouds high above us among a million stars and all is right with the world. Together with the slight wind, the feeling of aloneness comes and goes like an ancient echo, like the excitement that comes with the unknown. We chat late into the night, speculating about what could be the cause of each night sound or rumble in the jungle we hear all around and beneath us.
We are collected mid-morning and driven back to the lodge from where we depart. I go through the perfunctory motions, but I feel as though I am sleep-walking, still in a state of animated bliss, my mind and soul held hostage by the once-in-a-lifetime experience I just had.
2. Tswalu, Naledi
The big sky is swollen with bulging dark grey clouds and the visceral smell of Africa infuses me like a long-lost elixir as soon as I arrive at Tswalu, South Africa’s largest private game reserve. It covers an area of over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) and it is a sensory revelation. It takes us about 20 minutes to get to the lodge, and from the moment I step into the opulent yet consciously understated reception area and lounge, I know this is not your common-or-garden game lodge.
The décor and ambiance resonate all that is Africa in terms of color, design, tactile fabric, and proportion. It is outrageously luxurious and remote, located in the so-called “green Kalahari” in the Northern Cape. Currently with only two camps, The Motse and Tarkuni, Tswalu accommodates just 30 people and has the lowest guest footprint in South Africa. The staff members are hand-picked; this is clear. They are discreet and genuinely helpful, but more importantly, they exude an inner friendliness that cannot be taught.
Tswalu’s new back-to-nature star bed experience in the Korannaberg Mountains is Tswalu’s answer to a “treehouse”. It is elevated above a valley with wraparound views, and if you wish to sleep beneath the southern Kalahari Desert’s brilliant blanket of stars in safety and seclusion, you cannot ask for better. Naledi is designed as a romantic sleep-out experience for two adults but is also ideal for a family of four. Everything has been carefully considered so that you have all you need for a comfortable stay.
And don’t think for a moment you’ll be “roughing it.” Guests sleep under a blanket of stars while cocooned in Egyptian cotton on king-size beds. Naledi is a solid structure with a thatched cover, and the natural wooden deck provides the perfect place to unwind.
This is a truly immersive and secluded safari experience, where the sounds of the wild are amplified. Upon arrival, we are treated to drinks and canapes, and a chef prepares a gourmet meal, delivered straight to the deck picnic-style. A few steps from the main Naledi deck is an open-air shower, basin, and toilet on its own timber platform, providing comfort throughout the stay.
A private guide will leave guests with a fully charged, two-way handheld radio for remaining in contact should they need assistance at any time. The night brings with it the haunting sounds of Africa’s desert and is simply blissful. The next morning, breakfast treats accompany warming mugs of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.
Tswalu Naledi is an astonishing experience that you are unlikely to ever forget.
3. Tsala Treetop Lodge
Amidst the treetops of an age-old indigenous forest, Tsala is a lavish celebration of the spirit of Africa. It is ideally situated between the coastal towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape, and traveling there along the Garden Route is a dream.
Tsala’s massive stone-masonry entrance flanked by water leads to a magnificent foyer like something out of an ancient African civilization. The diverse cultures of Africa informed the elaborate afro-baroque decor’s earthy colors, rich textures, and handcrafted fittings, yet everything is somehow simultaneously very sophisticated.
We are warmly greeted at reception and shown to our “house in the sky.” It is truly one of the most romantic spots in the entire world. The 10 treehouse villas are secluded and beautifully furnished, each equipped with its very own splash pool. The tree-house suites are constructed of stone, wood, and glass and comprise of a plush bedroom, an elegant sitting room with a cozy fireplace, and a spacious bathroom fit for royalty.
Built high above the forest floor to complement the style and architecture of Tsala are six lavish two-bedroomed villas, styled with sophistication and modern touches for pure luxury. A large lounge with a fireplace and dining area and a forest-facing private deck and infinity pool ensure you have everything you need and more for the perfect family escape.
All Tsala’s rooms also have complimentary Wi-Fi, a fireplace, a hairdryer, a personal in-room safe, bathrobes, slippers, international adaptors, umbrellas, laundry and pressing services, fully stocked minibars, tea and coffee making facilities, and under-floor heating and air-conditioning. In other words, the full five-star experience…
And the food, oh the food! Meals at Tsala are exquisitely presented in their glass-walled dining room or at the renowned Zinzi Restaurant. But if you choose, as we did, you may be served dinner in the privacy of your plush cocoon on top of the world.
For guests wanting to enjoy the morning sunshine with breakfast, a spectacular dining deck, suspended above the forest floor, is the perfect spot. There are also loads of activities on offer in the area such as golf, fishing, boat trips, whale and bird watching, bungy jumping, sky diving, and diving with sharks. Or just lap up your glorious surrounds with a book and a glass of wine. And luxuriate in an in-room massage later, perhaps. Which is exactly what I did….
4. &Beyond Ngala
Kruger National Park
World-famous Kruger National Park teems with wildlife and is especially famous for the so-called Big Five — lion, elephant, African buffalo, leopard, and rhino.
Situated on the border of Kruger National Park, &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve offers a wild experience bar none at their Ngala Treehouse. The reserve is home to several large lion prides, and its packs of the endangered African wild dog may also be spotted moving through the reserve. Guests enjoy exclusive game drives and bush walks on 14,700 hectares (36,000 acres) of private wilderness land. One might understandably be leery of spending a night alone in a place where things may want to eat you. But fear not!
Even though this is a remote overnight retreat, it offers guests the ultimate (and very safe!) sleep-out experience beneath the stars. The four-level treehouse sits cocooned in a pristine bush setting and features a choice of two sleeping areas — an enclosed and weatherproof bedroom with a king-sized bed, hot running shower, and flushing toilet on the third level, or an elevated sleep-out platform set beneath a retractable awning on the rooftop.
We arrived in time to toast the sunset with cocktails and snacks after our late-afternoon game drive. A tapas-style picnic dinner was then set up in the safety of an enclosed boma beneath the stars, and goodness, was it delicious! We were left in luxurious solitude for the night, provided with a radio and mobile phone for use in case of inclement weather or other emergencies.
At one point I could swear I heard a buffalo snorting beneath us, but it may as well have been a leopard for all I know. It was thrilling. I got up for a midnight snack and to stare at the stars.
While the Treehouse does not offer a full kitchen, a stocked bar and selection of midnight and breakfast snacks, as well as a coffee station, are available for guests. The Treehouse is solar-powered, allowing guests to charge their camera batteries and other appliances. Ngala Treehouse can cater for a maximum of two adults and two children ages 10 to 16 in the two sleeping areas, one of which is the open sleep-out platform.
5. Jaci’s Tree Lodge
Naledi & Madikwe
Jaci’s Tree Lodge’s founder and owner, Jan van Heteren, was profoundly inspired by the Okavango Delta’s characteristically intimate, secluded, luxury camps that seem to grow organically from the earth. These lodges are often built to sit high on stilts and with a focus on ecological construction, they blend seamlessly into their environment. As a result, Jaci’s Tree Lodge is the realization of Jan’s dream — an elevated lodge that appears to float above the ground
Guests are luxuriously accommodated in custom-built treehouse-style suites, boasting magnificent views into the surrounding riverine forest as well as glimpses across the famous Marico River. The Treehouse Suites blend effortlessly into the overarching canopy of lush foliage, making for fantastic birdwatching in a natural environment.
Upon arrival, guests are warmly welcomed at the recently refurbished Jaci’s Tree Lodge Main Lodge, which provides a cool retreat from the heat of African summer days and a cozy fireside sanctuary during chilly winter months. Each of the eight double-occupancy treehouse-style suites features a private outdoor shower, indoor bath, and private viewing decks. Each suite is decorated with Jaci’s trademark African vibrancy, complemented by modern elements, eco-friendly amenities, and a focus on privacy.
The custom-built stilted structures are connected by elevated walkways. The food and service is unbeatable, and the game drives will leave you in awe with so many animal sightings.
You can also experience a sleep-out under the stars at Jaci’s Naledi Treehouse (not to be confused with the other Naledi). Naledi — meaning “star” in Tswana — is kitted out with a canopied king-size bed and your very own private KolKol wood-fired hot tub! There is an environmentally-friendly toilet, outdoor shower, and exceptional watering hole viewing deck.
This romantic sleep-out experience, enjoyed under starlight and the cover of an impressive tamboti tree, is certainly worthy of a top spot on every safari lover’s bucket list! You are guaranteed to come away from this experience a new person.
Please note that most star-bed hosts require that you spend at least one night at one of their permanent lodges in addition to your star-bed experience. Contact them for more information.