It means “suspended in mid-air” and it’s the newest lodge from Steve and Nicky Fitzgerald, veteran creators of nearly 65 lodges in India and Africa. Angama Mara opens this month, fifteen years after Steve and Nicky scouted the location on the rim of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, surrounded by the hills where Out of Africa was filmed.
Steve and Nicky have been devout and supportive members of the Adventure Travel Trade Association for many years. Jen Pemberton asked Nicky what it was like to look out at the Mara Triangle Game Reserve from the inside of one of the meticulously designed tents and speculate on the future of her latest venture.
NF: Right now, having just opened that’s a very good question! Retirement was looking good a couple of years ago but then along came this beautiful site – possibly one of the loveliest on all the continent and we simply couldn’t say no. And Kenya is a great country to invest in – wonderful human capital and an unmatched diversity of wilderness destinations.
ATTA: You’ve envisioned and created so many camps, and they’ve all been unique and wonderful in their own way — so what is the essential difference about Angama Mara? Is it a culmination of your previous work or something completely different?
NF: It really does seem that all the roads in our lives have led us to this lovely spot high up on the edge of the Rift Valley. Angama Mara is a combination of all that we have learned together with maybe a few new approaches, too. Come to think of it is there really anything brand new in our industry? Doing things right certainly is a new concept – but even that has been around for a good 20 years or more. Hopefully we won’t repeat too many of the very many mistakes we have made over the past 35 years in the industry. But when all is said and done we are basically good old fashioned innkeepers, standing at the front door of our business, taking great care of our guests so they can take great care of our lovely planet. I suppose what is truly different from the past lodges we have run is that Angama Mara is an only child and operated hands-on by the owners. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to do that.
ATTA: Angama Mara is built off the theme of classic African safari — “romance, canvas and elegant simplicity.” You dedicated an entire blog post to the design and construction of the tents at Angama Mara (“The King of Canvas“). What does “canvas” evoke for you? Why was it important for this lodge to adhere to the classic convention of canvas?
NF: Kenya is home to the safari – it all started here in the 1920s and 30s when the great colonial characters came here firstly to hunt and then to photograph the wildlife: Finch Hatton, the Royal Princes, Hemingway and Roosevelt — they all slept under canvas. The thrill of having just a sheet of fabric between you and the African wild is really quite a wonderful feeling and pretty scary too. And oh so romantic.
ATTA: If guests manage to pry themselves out of their tented rooms, what can they expect to see? What creatures can they expect to share the landscape with?
NF: You name them the Maasai Mara is home to them. This Reserve boasts a diversity of animals, birds and flora that is simply quite staggering – and for 12 months of the year, too. Whether you go on safari for an hour or for a week you simply will not be disappointed. The short grass plains allow for wonderful game viewing and the Mara River is home to some of the biggest crocodiles on Earth. Many guests come to tick off the Big Five but leave wondering why all the other creatures don’t get the same attention? And of course we are annually invaded from the south by a few hundred thousand wildebeest – that also exciting to witness but certainly it is not the only reason to come to the Mara.
ATTA: What advice would you give to someone who is considering launching their own lodge project?
NF: Don’t ever believe ‘If I build it they will come’ … Before you do anything work out how you are going to find your guests and at what cost. That is the only hard part.
NF: Angama Mara is situated in the heart of Maasailand – our landlords are Maasai, the majority of our staff come from our neighbouring communities and we had over 500 builders working on the site – again most from the area. We buy locally, we will be setting up small businesses (staff transport, vegetables etc) and we will have a community clinic on the property. Our guests will visit traditional settlements known as manyattas to experience Maasai culture; here they will buy local artefacts directly from the source, we have Maasai ladies beading in our craft studio and the Maasai warriors demonstrate their traditions for guests every evening – to name but a few. Over and above that the Angama Foundation will engage with community leaders to ascertain needs whether they be health, education or infrastructure. There are exciting times ahead…