Neil Rocher has been designing and building safari lodges in some of Africa’s wildest locations for more than 20 years. Melissa Kay caught up with him to discuss work on his latest project, Ikuka, in the remote Ruaha National Park
Why is Ruaha so special?
For a start, it’s a stunning, wild environment the size of Israel and yet there are very few camps here. That means visitors barely see other safari vehicles and can really experience the bush. Also, in 2008, TANAPA added Usangu Game Reserve to Ruaha, making it more than 20,000sq km so that it now rivals Etosha in size and is a candidate for one of the largest national parks in Africa. Plus, it’s a rare location for spotting African wild dogs.
Tell us about the location that’s been chosen for Ikuka
It’s a pretty special spot for the owners, Mark and Chloe Sheridan Johnson. I believe they actually got engaged there. The lodge sits on the very top of the Mwagusi escarpment, looking out over an area that is a little more open than some other parts of the park so there is more game to see. Its raised position means guests have 180° views from sunrise to sunset, and the drop-off at the front provides a natural barrier to big game as well. The other big bonus is that there are roan and sable antelope roaming behind the site and guests can go on walking safaris directly from the property.
I’d imagine building up on a hill has its challenges?
[Laughs] Oh, yes! Probably the biggest challenge, initially, was that we were building above the water table so we needed a 250m borehole – that’s a significant distance to drill through solid rock. While we were drilling that we had to bring in drums of water, both for building and drinking, and carry them up to the site. This was particularly tough with the rains coming and black cotton soil making roads almost impassable at some points. But our work paid off as the borehole is providing beautifully clear, sweet water. Of course, it didn’t help when a hyena bit through the water pipes after we they’d been installed – but we got that sorted!
Not only did you have to contend with the environment and location, but also the wildlife during this process. Do you have any entertaining stories?
We’ve certainly had a few moments. Siafu (safari ants) came through the camp one night and since everyone was just sleeping in open tents because no buildings were yet in place, there were a lot of staff dancing in the dark! But perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment was when a small herd of elephant came into camp. We were all working on the roofs of various structures. It was very hot and they spotted the small amount of shade the roofing offered and came to shelter – we were stuck up there for five hours! Of course, you have to keep your wits about you and be sensible. Lion are particularly plentiful here, but often it’s the smaller characters, such as termites getting into the roofing grass or a snake in the water supply, that really cause a temporary delays to things. It’s all part of the adventure when you build in these kinds of locations. It’s part of why we love it.
Can you tell us more about the camp’s design?
The key thing is that we wanted the lodge to blend in and be surrounded by a range of heights. To achieve this organic feel, we have moved in 12 large baobabs and are planting 500 indigenous plants (a large number of which will undoubtedly be lost to the elephants, so we deliberately begin with an excess!). With this in mind, we have used mosquito netting to keep the sides of many areas open, creating the feeling of sitting in a shaded bush garden. Elongated room designs mean that every single one has a spectacular view, including the bathrooms, which are so often tucked away at the back of the bedroom. We’ve managed to avoid using concrete or cement, focusing instead on local quartz and employing dry walling techniques to allow airflow. We’ve also used lots of new building techniques, such as an evaporating cooling system. I believe that the ‘eco’ element of safari accommodation should be a natural part of the buildings and their design. We also use rainwater harvesting and solar power – it simply makes sense.
Ikuka http://ikukasafaricamp.com, which opened in July 2016, is an intimate, owner-run wilderness camp with just six rooms. Mark, Chloe and their daughter Alexandra (there’s another on the way!) look forward to welcoming you.