There are just a few silvery gray scales on a long tail, sticking out tentatively from high grass, but it’s the most extraordinary sight on a game drive: a pangolin, the world’s most trafficked—and so, endangered—mammal. They’re solitary, and mostly nocturnal, too, so spying one’s a rarity in the bush, but I’m standing just feet away, moving slowly so as not to startle. This spot resoundingly banishes any concerns that the Klaserie reserve’s stock of game might pale in comparison with Sabi Sands, its neighbor and the default destination for a luxe safari in South Africa. I’ve come to this corner of the country to see Kateka, a pioneering new lodge in the reserve. It aims to upend several assumptions about safari, beyond just location—and offered Robb Report the world exclusive preview before its opening this month.
With just eight rooms spread across six villas, Kateka’s certainly on trend—we’ve already told you about the rise in buyout-ready micro camps like this in the safari sphere. But it’s also determined to disrupt three other aspects of the sector, at least per owner Joel Ospovat: design, destination and decompressing. He’s a South African born real estate developer based in Austin, Texas, who’d long visited Richard Branson’s Ulusaba nearby before identifying what he believes are gaps in the market.
“That whole part of the world has evolved, and Sabi Sands has become like a zoo, but there is solitude here,” he tells Robb Report, keen to stress the difference between Kateka and so many rival properties whose décor might best be described as cod colonial Karen Blixen. “And no one had done a real wellness and fitness place, or ‘European chic’ in the bush.”
Ospovat worked so closely with the interiors team that he’s handled much of the work himself, whether picking the graphic-driven wall art or the color of the poolside umbrellas (bright yellow). It was Utah’s Amangiri that formed the closest template, he says, with the modernist buildings both embedded in, and open to, the landscape—there are no “bog standard thatched huts” here. Balustrades are glass, bathrooms are swathed in rippled black marble and the lobby seating is a pair of burnt orange, squishy Togo chairs which gives it a glossy sheen. He’s focused on more than fripperies, though: there are three Internet carriers here, for a double back up and blazing speeds, as well as cell service across the property, a rarity even at the toniest lodges.
The second element is decompressing. Cami and John Goff, the Canyon Ranch chairman, are backers of the project, so no wonder the custom-built spa’s a standout.
Ospovat hopes to encourage guests to think of his property as ‘wellness in the wilderness’. There’s everything from a full F45 gym to a Himalayan salt-lined infrared sauna and a beauty salon onsite. Guests who book a wellness package at Kateka’s three-bedroom villa, its largest, can opt to have a therapist be on call like a beauty butler. The emphasis on wellness, though, is more than simply a chance to keep off the post-safari weight gain (freshman 15 has nothing on a few days eating lavishly in the bush). Rather, it’s trying to pivot from the FOMO-powered breakneck scheduling typical on a trip like this, where guests hopscotch between lodges before flopping for a few days at the beach. Instead, Ospovat hopes, he can persuade people to extend their stay and relax in the bush – call it slow safari.
“I’m a linger longer girl,” says Sandy Cunningham, a Robb Report Travel Master who runs Uncharted, “I’ve done the whole moving around every three days, and spending a week in the wilderness with wellness is a real sweet spot.”
Cunningham notes the 60,000-acre Klaserie reserve was a hunting compound for some time, which tarnished its reputation and stock of wildlife both.
“The Klaserie was the ugly stepchild in the middle of everyone when there was still hunting, but now it’s embracing the conservation ethos,” she says. “And it has to start somewhere.”
My sightings in just two days surpassed any expectations: not just that pangolin, but also a cheetah sunning itself lazily in the late afternoon sun and also several prides of lions, including one circling the fresh carcass of a giraffe it had managed to bring down. There’s scant few lodges, though, unlike the densely built Sabi Sands (home to Branson’s Ulusaba, among others) which means the viewing is more private and less produced.
“Instead of driving like you do in Sabi from one well know leopard to another one, probably with its own Instagram page, you have an interactive experience to help track and find the animals,” Ospovat says, “And I’ve not ever been there when I haven’t seen all the big five, though you might have to drive a little longer to see them.”
Ospovat isn’t quite the disruptor he claims. Kateka—which means “to be blessed” in the local language—certainly has much in common with some existing lodges: The focus on contemporary design and wellness, for instance, is a signature of Cheetah Plains, while off-track safari is the selling point of Mozambique’s re-emerging industry, also championed by a wealthy benefactor. What sets this spot apart, though, is the combination of all three, as well as his engaged involvement: Ospovat is single-minded in making it a success, tweaking elements and replacing ideas with a ruthless enthusiasm. He’s currently focused on the final missing element: Kateka’s own airstrip. At time of opening, it’s a short drive from the Hoedspruit airport, but Ospovat knows that his peers – and so, customers – will want to touch down onsite.
“It’s a 4,200-foot runway, so we’ll be able to get anything in and out of there,” he says.
Just as long as the jets don’t drive the pangolins away.