Kubili House – the story behind the story

By Ilana Koegelenberg

There are your average site visits and then there is taking a minibus to Hoedspruit with 12 guys to check out the Kubili lodge project for two days — an experience I will never forget ...

It was sometime in 2017 already when George Thomaides of AERSA first told me about this mysterious lodge project they were doing. Apparently, the client was super secretive about it and nobody was even allowed to stay on site or take any photos of the place.

They were installing a geothermal system, George said, and I was immediately intrigued. The only geothermal installation I know of is the Hotel Verde one in Cape Town, but this was done by an international team. Also, I still have a bit of a complex about that time I was flown down to Cape Town with a bunch of other journalists for the day to check out the Hote Verde installation — but then nobody had keys for the actual plant room. Turns out everyone else was more interested in the architecture and how ‘green’ their recycling set-up was. So much disappointment.

I’d get on a bus with all of you any time again. As long as it can go faster than 110km/h!

So yes, I was immediately interested when George told me about this bush lodge that the American client was building near the Kruger National Park. That was my first introduction to Kubili — George drawing a rough sketch of the geothermal system on a piece of paper …

It would be some months later when my manager would return from a meeting with Valsir and Reliance Eco, all excited about this “cool new project” that they did. They wanted to cover it in the Plumbing Africa magazine and they were arranging a site visit. Turns out, it was none other than my mystery lodge that I believed I would never see. I got very possessive over ‘my’ project and team Plumbing Africa wisely decided to let me handle it for both magazines.

I immediately phoned George, who assured me I was on the ‘excursion’ list and told me not to worry. The client had finally agreed to let us on site to do an article. Now it was simply a matter of trying to find a suitable date in our calendars. Considering that George and I were heading to Italy for Mostra Convegno that month still, this was easier said than done.

But we made it work and the date was eventually set for Thursday, 1 March. The next logical step was of course the creation of a WhatsApp group (“Trip to Kubili”), filled with people I have never met, arranging to meet at the AERSA offices in Pretoria on the 1st.

Paranoid of the Pretoria traffic, I was the first to arrive — and very confused as to whether I needed to be in the West side or the East side of the industrial park. I soon realised I was not alone. And so I met the first member of our crew: Christiaan Delport, director of Organigro — a company that does controlled environment farming and vertical farming.

Luckily not too long after, Mario de Freitas of Valsir, the company that handled the wet services side of the Kubili project, showed up and led us in the right direction. One by one, the rest of the guys started arriving as we excitedly chattered away.

Our bus also eventually arrived, as did Nino Agostinelli of Valsir, bringing along the rest of the Joburg team who parked at his offices. We soon learnt that this ‘carriage’ of ours was fitted with a governor that limited us to 110km/h no matter what our very skilled driver (and project manager), Dennis Holden of Reliance Eco, did. Our long trip would be even longer it seemed. Much respect to Dennis who withstood a great deal of mockery from all the backseat drivers about his driving.

So with Nino in tow, we finally set off, packed into the bus. We stopped midway for coffee with a wildlife view, piling out of the bus, one guy at a time with me last — and getting some interesting looks at the garage.

Other than myself, George, Dennis, Christiaan, Nino, and Mario, the team also included a mix of the project team and clients/professionals: Mike Nel (a mechanical engineer of Bigen Group); Tinus Venter (an engineer at JH System Engineers, or JHSE); Ben Hefer and Albertus Lombaard (Aqua Earth — the company that did the drilling for the geothermal installation); Chris Elliot (Alternative Energy Solutions); Henri van Niekerk (a mechanical engineer of JHSE as well); and Ryan Scholtz of Valsir.

It was a long drive. Luckily, Ben made sure we didn’t starve and brought along a solid stash of biltong and droëwors from Brits, telling us mouth-watering stories of how good the meat was and how many options they had at his local butcher.

There was never a dull moment on the (very long) drive. Ben wasn’t just knowledgeable about meat but also about geology, and we got some interesting lessons in rock formations and related things as the path snaked through the mountains. Christiaan, on the other hand, had some tales of his own about the citrus trees in the area and showed us some cool photos about how you can grow them in vertical gardens and other amazing arrangements of fruit trees and plants.

We only got to site after 14:00. First, we stopped for lunch, looking at a collection of old cars while we were at it and chatting about the project. By now, it was really starting to feel like a reality TV show to me; this elaborate trip with a selection of hand-picked ‘cast’ that each brought their own personalities to the table.

At some point, I was starting to doubt that this mythical lodge actually existed. But after some off-roading and a few kilometres on a bush road that didn’t really seem like a road, we were told that we had ‘arrived’. I didn’t really see anything, but okay.

Walking up to the lodge though, it felt like being transported into another world. A magical world hidden away in complete tranquillity, surrounded by wildlife and bush. There was even a dam with a hippo in it! Hence the cute joke I published a few editions ago, shared around the table as we enjoyed some drinks at the lodge for sunset: “What’s the difference between a hippo and a zippo? One is a heavy and the other is just a little lighter!” It still makes me smile.

We walked around, investigating the place from top to bottom, marvelling at the neat, impressive plant room as much as the gold embedded into the grooves of the private villas’ bathroom walls.

By the time sunset rolled around, a certain feeling of peace had settled over us as we sat outside the beautiful lodge, enjoying some snacks the staff had put together for us. For a moment you could almost imagine that you were a different person, living a fancy life, simply enjoying delicious red wine on a Thursday night at a lodge that has a daily rate higher than most people’s annual salary.

We couldn’t stay over of course and eventually piled back into the bus to go to our retreat for the night — the Bush Pub Inn, not far away. Being the only woman on the trip, I was the only one ‘lucky’ enough to get a room of my own, something the guys wanted to protest against. But I was happy.

And I was even happier when I found out that Ben was appointed ‘braai master’ and had brought us a selection of meat to braai, including some of the best steak I have ever had.

It was a great evening, but I retired early after a discussion with Mike about some interesting engineering projects. But I was exhausted — it had been a very elaborate day.

The next day, we woke up early and enjoyed some coffee before taking on the long road again.

By the time we stopped at Harrie’s Pancakes in Dullstroom, I was starving. It was closer to ‘brunch’ time than ‘breakfast’, and we all happily devoured a hearty meal to see us through for the rest of the journey. As some of the team had gone to bed later than others (a few hardly slept at all), breakfast was very much a lifesaver, I think.

This time Albertus was our driver as Dennis and some of the other guys stayed behind in Hoedspruit to go see another project. We soon realised that Dennis wasn’t as bad a driver as we had teased him about and Albertus eventually just made peace with the fact that no matter how hard he pushed that pedal, we weren’t going to get home any sooner. Dennis clearly missed us though, as evident by his WhatsApp message to the group enquiring as to his ‘replacement’s’ driving.

It was already Friday afternoon by the time we got back to the AERSA office, and it felt like we had travelled much further than we had. But what a trip it was! So much more than just a site …

Putting together all the puzzle pieces of the article was a whole different story. Getting it approved by the various parties was a challenge on its own. And getting the client to sign off? Yoh! Thanks, Dennis for eventually printing the article out and taking it to the client when he was in the country again.

So many hoops to jump through … What had been scheduled for our May edition I moved over until we got to August. But hey, some things are worth the wait (and the work).

So, thank you to the entire team and everyone who came with on the trip (and helped me with the article). This site really is something groundbreaking and worthy of being proud of. Good job, guys!

I would get on a bus with all of you any time again. As long as it can go faster than 110km/h!

Click here to read the Aug 2018 issue of RACA Journal

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