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The South African eco hideaway where you can go totally off-grid

I am sitting on a low Balinese teak armchair under a modernist cantilevered roof, drinking Rhino Gin as a barefoot Julian Koski is explaining his grand vision for Kubili House. Beyond the koi pond and infinity pool , as the gloaming light turns the angular stone house a shade of burnt latte, a herd of elephants are listlessly dipping their trunks in the watering hole. Thankfully, they look lethargic, unlikely to amble over, but there would be nothing to stop them if they did. Koski phlegmatically points out that impalas have run through the space before, escaping wild dogs and crashing through the low chairs in the living room. Kubili House – by a dam in the Thornybush Game Reserve, which is open all the way to the Kruger National Park into Mozambique – is a remarkable place of seeming contradictions. A great rectangular hunk of Kimberley stone, inspired in part by Koski’s visits to the Great Zimbabwe ruins as a child in Apartheid-era South Africa , it is barely visible to the surrounding wildlife, hence the impalas. Its free-flowing, indoor-outdoor spaces have echoes of the Aman designs of the late Kerry Hill, and yet somehow feel cosy, enveloping, personal. It’s a mish-mash of influences – ancient Limpopo via Midtown Manhattan , Moorish Marrakech and geometric Japan – but where every chandelier, scent and shadow has been curated, drawing a sharp line through every thatch-glamp- safari cliché in the book. The house is, in some ways, a love letter to its peripatetic owners. After a childhood spent exploring the bush, Koski made his money on Wall Street as a maverick stock-picker, coming up with a new method of evaluating equities. In a loose black T-shirt and Panama hat, he now looks more like the architect he thinks he possibly should have been all along. His wife Aida – who is in New York with the couple’s nine-year-old twins, Leo and Tess, when I visit – is a jeweller and chef. She runs a healthy cooking business and once worked at a series of grand New York restaurants , including three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin. The couple had been eager to find an escape from what Julian calls the ‘gilded cage’ of life between Manhattan and the Hamptons . ‘Instead of just jumping from one privileged environment to another, we wanted the kids to have real, grounded experiences,’ he tells me. He also wanted a project. So, after a decade-long search, they eventually found their spot in Thornybush, a game reserve that’s home to the Big Five, as well as giraffes, cheetahs and the rest, and funded by a series of upmarket and more classic safari lodges – an ecosystem that supports the local community and keeps the poachers at bay. The fact that the water hole next to the site regularly draws elephants and lions was the clincher. Initially, Koski liked the idea of building a riad , a nod to Aida’s Arabic heritage and their shared love of North Africa – but soon realised that the roaming wildlife might get stuck in a courtyard. Instead, he started looking for inspiration in indigenous Limpopo architecture, with its imposing stone walls, aiming to create ‘a sense of scale that reflects the size of Africa, and to make a house that feels like it’s been here forever.’ The first architects he approached told him that four-metre-high ceilings and cavernous spaces would make the house feel chilly: he was literally thinking too big. So he turned instead to a young draughtsman from the University of Cape Town , who helped him come up with a plan that was both epic and human in scale. They started with the outdoor living space, the soul of the house, where fires are lit in the cement floor, with a massive semi-spherical dome inspired by Kyoto temple bells spreading heat on cool evenings. From there, maze-like open corridors lead to rooms with reclaimed French oak ceiling beams designed by Cape Town’s Pierre Cronje, ochre-coloured walls and concrete floors. The whole thing is heated by the 50 geothermal wells that Koski had dug during construction; with solar panels, the house will be completely off-grid by the end of the year. Every corner feels richly textured – the ceramic tiles, the little planters of orchids and Spanish moss – but somehow never overdone. ‘I hate decoration for the sake of decoration,’ he says. In the master bathroom, for example, behind a knowingly kitsch tribal painting by Cape Town artist Andrew Putter, there are shelves of 32 brown apothecary bottles, each of which contains bath salts of wild tobacco, baobab or African thatch grass. Such touches were the doing of Jacques Erasmus, a Cape Town chef, designer, botanical artist and perfumer, who is responsible for the whole place smelling of frangipani and sandalwood incense; even the shower water splashes over a bouquet of wild geranium. Koski had pursued Erasmus after eating at Hemelhuijs, the latter’s design-driven Cape Town brunch spot. He wanted to know who was behind the breakfasts, the planters, the ceramics… all of it. When they met, they hit it off instantly – not least because Erasmus has his own whimsical house of curios, Jonkmanshof, in the Little Karoo area a few hours east of Cape Town (like Kubili, also available to rent). Erasmus came on as Kubili House’s interior designer and botanical artist, which involved everything from providing his own rough, inky-black crockery to pressing and framing the plants that grow around the house. As well as bringing in a greatest hits of cool Cape Town creatives, his brief was also to integrate the pieces that the Koskis had already accumulated on their travels: an Indian maharajah’s chest, a string of enormous solid Moroccan amber beads, a set of original Zulu beer pots they found in an Alabama museum . Koski describes his creative partner as ‘like a conductor, synthesising all the pieces, weaving everything together.’ When the house was finally finished a few days before Christmas in 2017, the family flew over from New York to stay for the first time. They’d barely had time to admire Erasmus’s custom-made chandeliers when a thunderstorm of biblical proportions crackled over the savannah, killing the power and forcing them all to head up to the roof. When the storm cleared, handmade North African rugs had been destroyed and furniture battered but the water hole – which had receded to a sun-baked mud wallow after several years of drought – had filled, surrounding the house with life. It became the megafauna equivalent of a new water park, so much so that when Tess and Leo went back to school in New York, Leo’s teacher called up Aida and Julian, concerned that his ‘fertile imagination’ was running away with him. Before the Koskis decided to rent the place out to guests, it was conceived simply as a home and legacy project ( kubili means two in the Tsonga language, a reference to the twins). Hence, there’s a kind of hedonism that comes from the house having been designed for a young family. When Leo and Tess come, they want to splash in the infinity pool, ride Segways around the dam, and fire handmade wooden bow and arrows. They also want to get out into the bush for cook-outs and nights under the stars. On my first night at Kubili House, Julian takes me for a game drive in one of his two limited-edition open-top Land Rovers, and after stopping to witness the rare spectacle of wild dogs feeding on an impala, we stop for sundowners in the bush. He and the team haul out vintage leather trunks and canvas chairs covered in grey woollen throws, creating a makeshift bar on an antique campaign table stocked with Japanese whiskeys and South African craft gins that have been distilled in a 20-year-old copper pot. Back at the lodge, cheery manager Tina Rennie and her local team can cook up just about anything, and serve it just about anywhere: braai out in the reserve, right by the dam, or under candlelit chandeliers at Donna Karan’s old table (she’s a friend of the family). One morning, Rennie produces her grandfather’s strangely delicious mielie pap recipe, porridge with condensed milk and whiskey. Bitters for my evening Old Fashioned are poured from Moroccan perfume bottles and mixed with stirrers handmade by Aida, who plans to reconnect with her old life by bringing top chefs to cook at the property. For all the curation, and Julian’s clearly restless perfectionism, my stay is deeply restful. Just reading on day-beds, tuning in and out of the animal calls from the bush; feeling the savannah light encroaching on the house, casting shadows across floors and walls. Julian describes coming here as ‘everything fading. Day-to-day nonsense, every petty little worry, it just melts away.’

The South African eco hideaway where you can go totally off-grid

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