Nicky Fitzgerald’s days at Angama Mara in Kenya’s beautiful Masai Mara begin long before dawn. Roused from her bed by the calls of hyena returning from a night’s hunting on the vast plains of the Mara Triangle far below her tent, she wouldn’t be exaggerating if she said that she wakes in paradise. Sunrise at Angama Mara, with its panoramic bateleur eagle’s-eye view of those plains as the sun appears over the horizon and the hot-air balloons from nearby Governors’ Camp float past below, is so breathtaking it has been known to bring tears to visitors’ eyes.
If Nicky ever indulges in the luxury of a gentle start, allowing herself a moment to drink in the view as she sips her morning coffee, it will probably be the last leisurely moment of her day. She is an extremely busy woman. In 2009 she and her husband Steve, icons of the local and international tourism business, left andBeyond, the luxury safari and travel company they had built into a global powerhouse of 50 lodges on two continents. ‘I was enjoying myself in my garden in Johannesburg, realising that I was very good at doing nothing,’ she says, but then everything changed.
In 2013 the ‘best site in Africa’, Ol Kurruk – a parcel of land high up on the Oloololo Escarpment that she and Steve had coveted for over 20 years from the grounds of andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp down on the plains below – had, after many years of neglect and ruin, become available.
A less ‘bonkers’ (her word) pair might think it folly to disrupt a comfortable retirement to relocate to East Africa and build an upmarket lodge and a brand new business from scratch ‘but who wants “same old”?’ asks Nicky. Instead of staying safely put the couple set about not only creating the kind of luxurious safari experience that international high-end travellers demand but, with the help of renowned South African architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens – the creators of the game changing North Island in the Seychelles and Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania – making a beautiful, original, bonkers architectural folly of their own.
The quirky buildings of Angama Mara (the name means ‘suspended in midair’) are almost as jaw-dropping as the view. Appearing to float in lily ponds, the glamorous brick, steel and glass communal areas of the two separate camps (North and South, for intimacy) owe nothing to the predictable bush green canvas and wood of the traditional safari lodge formula. Instead, they remind of one of the Zimbabwean ruins or the iconic mud buildings of Mali.
The view is celebrated in every possible way – through a sliver, anchored by crisp turquoise pool water, in the pavilion that houses the gym and pool; as a mind-blowing fourth wall of guests’ tents, where even honeymooning couples are discouraged from sleeping with the blinds drawn, all the better to experience the glorious early mornings. The view forms the magic carpet far below the strategically placed rocking chairs and recliners and the firepit around which Angama Mara’s lucky guests gather at the end of the day. The view is also the backdrop to every guest’s must-have Instagram or Facebook money shot: a re-enactment of the poster of that most beloved of all films about the continent, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa. So uniquely gorgeous and unchanged is this site that even though it’s nowhere near the Ngong Hills (where the original Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen story was set) the movie was filmed here all those years ago.
Angama Mara’s decor, which was conceptualised by the highly respected South African decor stylist and editor Annemarie Meintjes, adheres to a strict commitment to ‘strip back the clutter’ but is still luxurious and more than a match for its surroundings. Baths inspired by Spanish design legend Patricia Urquiola and recliners, beds and jubilantly multicoloured benches made by South African master John Vogel make bold design statements. The hardcover versions of Out of Africa in every tented suite and miniature canary yellow replicas of the small plane that Robert Redford flew in the movie in the camps’ identical libraries are testament to Meintjes’ and the Fitzgeralds’ fastidious and passionate attention to detail and their abiding commitment to their guests’ experience – and what an experience guests are guaranteed at Angama Mara.
Normally, and even at the most high-end of lodges, a game drive is a three hour excursion, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. At Angama Mara guests can customise their own experience, packing a picnic for breakfast and lunch, if desired, to follow the herds, the hunts and the crossings across the vast and beautiful park. Trips of up to nine hours are not unheard of as guests explore one of the world’s most dramatic wildlife theatres. Because Angama Mara is located in the more exclusive Mara Triangle area of the reserve the game viewing is significantly superior to the somewhat cluttered offerings elsewhere.
The bucket-list experience of floating over the teeming plains in a hot-air balloon is one that is not easily replicated, as is the privilege of a private walking bird safari with Angama Mara’s own charismatic and knowledgeable Maasai naturalist.
To visit during the annual migration (July to October) is to have a front-row seat at one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles: seeing herds of around 100 000 wildebeest traversing the plain and heart stopping daily crossings by zebra and wildebeest of the treacherous Mara River into the jaws of torpedo crocodiles and opportunistic cats on the other side can spoil a guest for any other wildlife experience. During the remainder of the year the visual feast continues: more animals, more adventure, more beauty than even the pickiest of privileged guests could imagine. There’s also that wonderful camp at the end of the winding mountain road, behind a traffic jam of dawdling elephants, to return to each evening.
Angama Mara is on its way to setting a new standard in safari experiences. ‘It’s a place where people can fall in love with the world again; a simple sort of place,’ says Nicky. When asked what motivates her to continue to work as hard, as long and as energetically as she does, she answers, ‘I’m hopelessly addicted to guests. I just can’t help myself.’ Steve adds, ‘We’re too young not to work flat out’: two more reasons their guests can count themselves among the luckiest on the planet. Angama Mara, Governors’ Camp hot-air-balloon safaris.
For more information on this camp please visit: angama.com
Originally published in HL Decemeber 2015