An interview with Nicky and Steve Fitzgerald,
Angama Mara


 
Perched on the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the Angama Mara is a safari lodge unlike any other. Breath-taking panoramic views of Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve create an immediate and lasting impression while the lodge itself features meticulously crafted interiors and stunning architecture, drawing inspiration from early twentieth century aesthetics. Completed only earlier this year, Angama Mara is the creation of Steve & Nicky Fitzgerald, a couple who have developed beautiful lodges and accommodation for over thirty years. This latest project saw Steve and Nicky assemble a carefully selected team of renowned architects, interior designers and project managers. Heathfield & Co was delighted to work alongside this team to manufacture and supply a range of fully bespoke lighting designs, befitting of this unique venue.

We recently caught up with Steve and Nicky to find out more about how this incredible safari lodge came to fruition.

Angama Mara is the result of long held dream for you. How long ago did you start thinking about creating a lodge in this location, and is this project the final one you will undertake?

This journey took 15 years from start to finish. For many years we operated a lodge about 5km from the site on which Angama Mara was built and always longed for this remarkable piece of land. We knew the Maasai owners well and asked them many times for the lease on this but there was a sitting tenant so no luck at all. We retired from the industry in 2009 and to our delight early in 2013 the call came from Kenya that the site was available and of course we said yes. We certainly would not have ditched retirement for any other site in safari Africa – it is one in a million.

We took a year to raise the money and finalise the lease. We broke ground on 12 August 1014 and welcomed our first guests on 23 June 2015. It was a fast paced marathon to say the least. And yes – this is our swan song for sure. After having built and operated over 60 lodges in 7 countries on two continents we have done our dash.

One of the branding team for the lodge summarised its feel as ‘fine wine in a tin cup’. Do you think this accurately describes its feel?

The space in sub Saharan African is pretty cluttered with gorgeous luxury safari lodges so we made a conscious decision not to go down the ‘best, most luxurious (most expensive) African safari lodge ever built’ route. It makes it so hard to differentiate yourself even though in Kenya there are no other lodges of a similar quality. The word ‘luxury’ is forbidden from our speak. We use owner-run, lovely, warm service, breath-taking views. We want our guests to feel spoiled when they stay with us but also feel totally relaxed. Authenticity is the key. Not luxury.

The architects and interior designers for the lodge have touched on the fact that while it references early twentieth century aesthetics, it also incorporates a number of contemporary touches. Why was this combination of old and new an important aspect in the design?

Guests love the classical safari design vernacular but it has been done – perhaps even over done – at our end of the market. Framed images of animals, old suitcases, layer upon layer of rugs, Africa artefacts, wall hangings and endless tones of cream and khaki. We are in the heart of Maasailand and as such red is our colour – a first in a safari lodge.

When we briefed the architect we said ‘Don’t mess with the tent – keep it classical – but you can unleash your design prowess on the guest areas’. So the tent is classical and the guest areas very modern.

The bath in the tent was inspired by the bath in Karen Blixen’s bath in her home in Nairobi, which is now a museum but was made for us in Cape Town – modern, comfortable and a totally unique design. We could have gone for ball and claw on the bath, which was from the era but has been done over and over again.

The furniture in the tents is all inspired by pioneer furniture that Denys Finch Hatton might have used when he took the Prince Royal on safari in East Africa in the 1930’s. But the design is very modern.

Old gives a lodge a sense of place and new gives it a future and a character all of its own. The guests love it.
 

“When you walk up to the tent it looks like a classical tent but when you look at it closer, the detailing has been handled in a very Italian minimal way allowing for Nicky and Steve’s interiors to play a dominant role”
Silvio Rech, Architect

 

“I don’t think it will be a lodge like any one you’ve been in. There won’t be scattered cushions and layers and small little things. We’ve gone for quality and we’ve gone for design. Whatever is in the tent is perfect. And whenever we bought something we made sure that it was typical of that era. When I say that era I mean inspired by that era. We didn’t go for antiques, we just looked at the time when Denys Finch Hatton was in Kenya. What was around, what was the look”
Annemarie Meintjes, Interior Advisor

 
What were some of the more specific design influences unique to Angama Mara in particular?

One of the most overwhelming design influences was being in Maasailand – but you won’t find any Maasai beaded items, photographs of Maasai warriors or their blankets known as shukas anywhere in the lodge. As I mentioned before the colour red is used everywhere. We had our own blankets designed and woven in South Africa – beautiful red and royal blue tartan (Maasai colours) but fringed (1920’s). John Vogel’s handsome woven furniture harks back to the ancient craft of African weaving but in a very modern idiom.

Another overwhelming design influence was the view – its everywhere and its quite overwhelming. To make the most of this we have the only tent in Africa with an 11m glass frontage. And the whole of the guest area (22x11m) is wrapped in glass stacking doors. You simply cannot escape it.

And finally we looked for inspiration to the golden years of colonial Kenya when Blixen and Finch Hatton graced the Muthaiga Club – and our guest areas have touches of that gracious building everywhere: internal level changes, spaces broken up by columns and an uncomplicated mix of dining and sitting furniture. And the outdoor furniture we chose – another safari first – was Fermob from France. This furniture has been used in Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens since 1923 and gives our lodge that classic safari authenticity whilst avoiding the ubiquitous canvas and wooden director chair.

How central was the lighting to creating the right feel for the interiors and what were some of the influencing factors for the lighting designs in particular?

The most important piece of lighting in the tent was the bedside light. After having built scores of lodges we had never got that quite right – but with Heathfield’s help we aced that. Then the lighting in the tent had to be romantic and most importantly minimal light pollution seen from the Mara below.

What led you to work with Heathfield & Co in realising the bespoke lighting designs?

We were introduced to Heathfield by a mutual acquaintance and so it was just by chance I suppose. But even though we have never actually met anyone from the Heathfield design team they got it. All the lights we shipped from England work beautifully in the lodge.

What were some of the toughest logistical challenges presented by this project’s remote location?

We are pretty used to tough logistics in Africa and to be honest to be only 6 hours by road from Nairobi is pretty dreamy. Our biggest challenge was getting our beautiful goods cleared in time by local customs. The treatment we received from them was disappointing to say the least. And then I suppose I should mention the rain – it rained solidly for the last 2 months of building and installation – but we did it in 10 and half months, which is not too shabby, I suppose. We had a great team of contractors on site – 500 builders at the peak of building. All this out in the middle of nowhere.

Did these logistical issues affect the design of the interiors in any way?

No – from that point of view it was smooth sailing all the way – once the goods arrived on site (5 minutes before the first guests). We held some items in Nairobi but we had a huge go-down (East Africa word for warehouse) on the property and held everything there.

Alongside the spectacular views, one of the main attractions is of course the wildlife. Is there a particular time of year to see this at its best?

The Maasai Mara delivers extraordinary game sightings 12 months of the year. We are so fortunate in that regard. Guests never fail to return to the lodge without their eyes spinning from what they have just seen. Then of course The Migration hits town each year late July, early August and that’s when around 2 million extra animals arrive from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to enjoy the nutritional grasses found in the Mara. They usually hang around until mid October. And that’s when the safari lodge rates sky rocket because for some reason everyone wants to witness these great herds run the gambit of gigantic crocodiles as they ford the Mara River. But for great animal viewing at great value I would pick April, May and June anytime. You have the Mara with all its great game all to yourself without having to rob a bank.

Do you think the lodge will change or evolve in any way, or will you be happy for the site to remain fully in-tact to in current design?

Our plan was to design and build a lodge that is timeless in its design and appeal – holding thumbs we have achieved that. Ask me again in 20 years time!

Below: Nicky and Steve Fitzgerald

For more information on Angama Mara visit www.angama.com