Call of the Wild
A couple of legendary Africa hands return to Kenya's Masai Mara for the capstone of their careers—a heartfelt, standard-setting safari lodge on one of the most spectacular pieces of land on the continent.
"If I know a song of Africa... does Africa know a song of me?"
Karen Blixen knew a thing or two about Africa, and specifically Kenya, when she penned these words in the 1930s, writing as Isak Dinesen in her most famous book, Out of Africa. Blixen lived in Kenya almost continuously from 1914 until 1931, establishing and managing a coffee plantation, first with her husband and then on her own, before ultimately returning to Denmark. Part of what makes Blixen’s story so powerful—and Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film adaptation of her book so beloved—is that it captures the duality of the African experience: the continent’s incredible beauty and its many inescapable hardships. Blixen adored Africa, but the failure of her coffee plantation and the death of her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, left her bereft. Africa seduces you, but it also puts you in your place. Ambroise Tézenas
I never tire of traveling to Africa, because nowhere in the world do I feel so present in the moment, so alive to the senses, and so conscious of that duality that Blixen understood so well. Go on safari, as so many travelers do, and just try to escape the feeling that you are not the center of the universe, but rather a cog in nature’s vast machine, playing a part just like the animals that live and die on the savanna every day.
Blixen’s legacy permeates Angama Mara, a new safari lodge in Kenya’s Masai Mara, and not only because the lodge sits on the site—three kopjes, or hills, on the Oloololo Escarpment overlooking the area known as the Mara Triangle—where some of the most memorable moments in Pollack’s film were shot. The property, hanging at the edge of the escarpment and taking in a sweeping view of the vast Mara plain, captures a blissful tension: it is a place of both the earth and the air, solid and light, fixed and precarious. Blixen would have felt at home. With some 3,000 elephants in the Mara ecosystem, the animals are a common sight on game drives. Ambroise Tézenas
Angama is the brainchild of Steve and Nicky Fitzgerald, a husband-and-wife team best known for their management of Conservation Corporation Africa, which later became andBeyond, for nearly 15 years. Together they effectively set the modern standard for high-end safaris at properties like Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania and the Ngala and Phinda camps in their native South Africa. Their formula was simple—luxe accommodations, expert guides, infectiously friendly service, and a commitment to doing good—and by most accounts it was wildly successful. CC Africa began in 1995 with two properties; by the time the Fitzgeralds left andBeyond, in 2009, the portfolio included more than 50 lodges and camps across Africa and India. Angama’s shared guest areas are all oriented toward a sweeping view of the Mara plain. Ambroise Tézenas
Though the couple was essentially out of the safari business, they still had their eye on the prize parcel of land that sat directly in view of the andBeyond camp Kichwa Tembo. Steve had tried for years to get the lease, but nothing ever came of it. Then in April 2013, the couple got the call at home in Johannesburg. “Ol Kurruk is available,” Steve told Nicky, referring to the lodge that used to stand on the site (it had been destroyed by fire years before). “And I’m going to Nairobi to get it.” It was the genesis of Angama.
It might have seemed like folly to come out of retirement in their 60s to create a new safari lodge in Kenya at a time when tourism in the country was reeling—the Fitzgeralds acquired the lease two days after the bombing at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, and opened Angama four months after the horrific attack at Garissa—but Nicky and Steve couldn’t resist. “To me, this is the ultimate site in Africa,” Steve says. “When we did Ngorongoro Crater Lodge almost twenty years ago, everyone thought we were crazy. It’s not for everyone. But it helped transform the positioning of Tanzanian tourism.” It’s his intention to do the same for Kenya, at just the time the country needs visitors the most. The Masai Mara, dotted with acacia trees, is home to nearly 100 mammal species and some 600 types of birds. Ambroise Tézenas
I was the very first guest at Angama when it opened this summer, and I can say that the Fitzgeralds’ confidence is not bluster. For starters, they have enlisted some of the very best to help bring it to life. Architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens—who did Crater Lodge as well as one of the standard-bearers for castaway chic, North Island, in the Seychelles—designed the property, and the interiors are a collaboration between the Fitzgeralds and Annemarie Meintjes, an old friend who is the deputy editor of Visi, a design magazine in South Africa.
Angama is divided into two 15-tent camps, each with its own central guest area. A pavilion shared by the camps has an infinity pool and a gym with a drop-dead view. (The point of this division is to keep the experience intimate.) Rech and Carstens have worked with vernacular materials—rough-hewn wood, rustic brickwork—but the style is pure fantasy, with spaces formed of intersecting rectangles and cones that to my eye have a hint of Timbuktu. The Swahili word angama means “suspended in midair,” and the buildings do seem to float, perched on platforms that hang over the escarpment, with glass doors that fold open completely so that even when you’re inside, you still feel inside the view. The guest tents are a modern take on safari style, with streamlined furniture from South African designer John Vogel and French manufacturer Fermob. Ambroise Tézenas
Unlike at most classic safari camps, the guest tents are tents in name only. They are fully fortified structures, with canvas sides and dramatically tented roofs, but also proper entry doors (smartly wrapped in colorful straps made by Masai women) and large loftlike interiors oriented toward that dramatic view. Every comfort is there—a big soaking tub and open stone shower, a stocked bar with Italian glassware—along with thoughtful touches like an enclosed entrance foyer so your butler, unseen, can leave you coffee in the morning.
One of the challenges of designing a lodge in this location is how to make the traditional safari look—which many travelers still expect—feel fresh. “People who love the story of Out of Africa come here and burst into tears,” Nicky told me. “But others think it’s Hollywood cheesy. So everywhere on the property there are nods to the story. But we tried not to overdo it.” The touches are subtle: Peter Beard’s book about Blixen’s favorite servant in your tent, a replica of Finch Hatton’s yellow plane in the vaulted brick library, cane plantation chairs that were designed for the film—along with some classic tropes like brass-and-copper bath fixtures, English bone china, and throw blankets in Masai plaids. But overall Meintjes has done “safari” in a modern idiom, with a mix of cutting-edge South African–designed furniture, minimalist metal chairs in bright red from Paris, and examples here and there of the contemporary craftwork of the Masai and other African tribes. Ambroise Tézenas
The pared-down design yields a kind of carefree sexiness that makes perfect sense, because it doesn’t compete too much with the real star: that view. At Angama, nearly everywhere you look you feel suspended over the Mara, held in the limitless blue sky filled with cotton-ball clouds drawing shapes like continents in shadow on the broad plain below. In the morning the sun bathes it all in pink light as the hot-air balloons that float guests through the park sail by. In the afternoon the sun burnishes the red oat grass and the parasols of balanite trees a rich, tawny gold. There is a deep serenity that comes from sitting in bed, or in one of the rocking chairs on your deck, and just watching the play of light while the eagles and starlings and finches hover and careen at eye level before you.
I joked with the staff that they’ll have to work quite hard to pull guests away from their rooms to go on game drives—and, in fact, the Fitzgeralds envision that Angama will be a great final stop for travelers who want to slow down on their breakneck safari circuits—but this is still a safari lodge. Most of the guides came from Kichwa Tembo down the hill and have years of expertise in the park. The Masai Mara has been maligned for, among other things, its crowds and poaching problems; Angama, which has its own access road into the park, sits at the northern tip of the Mara Triangle, a quieter area separated by the Mara River from what’s known as the Greater Mara, with its inexpensive camps and day-trippers on minibuses from Nairobi. Over a series of drives on my visit, I never experienced the kind of vehicle pileups around animals that you see in the Greater Mara. And the game here is genuinely fantastic: in addition to the usual gazelles and impalas and ostriches, I saw incredible numbers of buffalo, zebras, giraffes, elephants, and hippos, plus cheetahs, lions, and the extremely rare black rhino. And I captured what is probably my favorite safari photograph of all time: two lionesses perched in the branches of a balanite tree, striking a dramatic pose as they gazed out over the plain. Guests can also do walking safaris with Masai naturalists. Ambroise Tézenas
Samuel Tunai, governor of the county in which the Masai Mara is located (and whose family owns the land the Fitzgeralds have leased for Angama), acknowledges the challenges facing the Mara, particularly outside of the Triangle. He’s setting up a management authority that will oversee the implementation of a new constitution for the park—one that he told me “will never be changed.” A group of experts drafted the document this summer, and, if it passes this fall, rules governing how the park is managed and used will become law. “We must protect and conserve the park at any cost,” Tunai said, “for present and future generations.” Game drives include bush picnics in secluded spots. Ambroise Tézenas
While the question of the Mara’s future is still an open one, for their part the Fitzgeralds are off and running at Angama. “This is the seventieth property we have built and opened and I have never been so frightened,” Nicky told me. Why? “Because this is more ours than anything we’ve ever done,” Steve answered. And it’s true that they have updated their own formula at Angama to make the experience more like what they believe guests want in 2015. Mealtimes are now entirely flexible, menus are à la carte, and you can choose from multiple dining venues: in the main guest area, out under the stars at a “bush barbecue,” or privately in your room. Guides are not assigned to you for your stay but matched to what you want to do, when you want to do it, whether you’re interested in a special bird-watching hike or a visit to a Masai village, or you simply want to sleep in and start your game drive later. (Experienced safari-goers can even do a self-drive safari in one of Angama’s vehicles, with a junior guide accompanying them.) I went on an epic drive one day with my superb guide, Samuel Komu Mumbi, that covered pretty much the entire Triangle, lasted about six hours, and delivered every animal and bird I’d hoped to see. At most safari lodges, we would have had a fixed time limit of a couple of hours, and Samuel would have had to stop the drive and bring me back at a fixed hour for a meal. Ambroise Tézenas
Nicky and Steve have also retained a commitment to sustainability and giving back. In addition to a sophisticated water reuse program and solar power, the lodge gives $10 per guest per day to the Angama Foundation, which will support various local community projects—including a clinic—as well as the Mara Conservancy. And for wealthy guests who come and “want to save the world,” as Nicky put it, Angama will do charitable matchmaking, connecting them to specific projects that sync up with their interests, from education and conservation to medicine. Ambroise Tézenas
Angama is not perfect, not yet at least. The kitchen is finding its way, and the incredibly warm Kenyan staff is still acquiring polish. But that’s all easy to overlook in such an incredible place. Late one afternoon, Samuel took my husband and me to the third hill on the property, which the Fitzgeralds have left undeveloped. If you remember the movie poster for Out of Africa, this is the exact spot on which Meryl Streep and Robert Redford sit in that image. We took a short hike up and over the hill to find a flat rock high above the Mara, on which the staff had set out blankets and cushions and left a hamper full of snacks and a cold bottle of Chenin Blanc. A more romantic scene you could not imagine. As we sat and looked out over the plain, a tower of giraffes grazing in the forest far below, it was impossible not to appreciate that particular African experience that Angama brings out so well: both above nature and of it, incredibly privileged and humbled by your place in the scheme of it all. It was one of those moments when you know the song of Africa. And remember that Africa—as it should be—does not know a song of you.