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“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”, begins the novel by Isak Dinesen, a Danish author who lived in Kenya in the early 1900s. That name may not be familiar, but Karen Blixen’s probably is. Dinesen was Blixen’s pen name, and her story, Out of Africa, was made famous by the film adaption of her book starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in 1985.
Over 30 years since the romantic drama hit our screens, I’m returning to one of the most famous sites from the film: the picnic spot from the front cover, set high up on the escarpment overlooking the Maasai Mara game reserve and the Great Rift Valley. Why here specifically? Because it’s also the location of a new lodge called Angama Mara.
As a little aside here, when director Sydney Pollack’s location scouts visited Kenya prior to filming in 1985, they found the foot of Ngong Hills was no longer the beautiful natural landscape Blixen so fondly described, but a casualty of Nairobi’s rapid and sprawling urbanisation, covered in informal settlements and burgeoning towns. A new site that harked back to Blixen’s world was needed, and they found the perfect new setting on a small kopje overlooking the dusky grasslands of the Maasai Mara.
Out of Africa tells the story of Karen Blixen’s love affair, not only with the rugged Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford’s character in the film) but also with the untameable and fiercely beautiful Africa. With such a special setting for their lodge, it was a story owners Steve and Nicky Fitzgerald wanted to weave into the core of Angama Mara.
Throughout the lodge there are subtle nods to the famous love story. In the library, a replica yellow Gipsy Moth bi-plane sits on the bookshelf: Hatton had an identical (full size) one which he used to soar over the plains of Kenya, watching herds of migrating animals traverse their way across the landscape. On the windowsill, a single red rose is symbolic of the rose Blixen received on her birthday for the last few years of her life from a literary admirer, wherever in the world she was.
But this is not your average colonial-style Kenyan safari lodge, and while Out of Africa references are woven throughout, Steve and Nicky have been careful not to overdo it. Designed by South African architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, the lodge’s main guest areas have been themed around a modern take on Nairobi’s century-old Muthaiga Club. Pillars break up the large open space; fold-back glass walls allow guests to take full advantage of the view. A huge wooden veranda wraps around the front of the building, with a sunken fire pit overlooking the lilac mottled sky and green Mara plains below.
The tented suites, where guests sleep, are also an up-to-date version of the classic safari-canvas affair. Built with a combination of brick, wood and glass with canvas inserts, each has its own roll top bath, brightly coloured woven screen (inspired by Maasai shields) and elegant seating area with gin and whisky-filled decanters. Where classic safari reminders exist they are understated: two plantation chairs, the same style that Meryl Streep used in the Out of Africa film, sit on the veranda against the contemporary, minimalist interiors. The juxtaposition manages to hark back to the golden age of safari, while at the same time carving a new path for the ultimate luxury lodge.
It’s an impressive feat, but then Steve and Nicky have had a whole career to dream up this property. Until 2009, they ran luxury travel company &Beyond. As you might expect from a couple that have spent their life delighting guests, the thought and attention to detail at Angama Mara is exceptional. Each visit is tailored to the guest, including their own safari truck, guide and a schedule of bush breakfasts, picnic lunches, bonfire sundowners and dinner at the lodge.
The piéce de résistance, of course, remains the iconic picnic spot, where couples can have their very own Karen and Denys moment over a picnic breakfast or bottle of champagne. Sitting here, high above the Rift Valley, staring out from the same spot as Meryl and Robert 30 years ago, I’m reminded of Blixen’s words from Out of Africa, “Up in this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: here I am, where I ought to be.”
Now I may be overstepping the mark here, but if Karen Blixen were alive today, booking into Angama Mara for a weekend with Denys, I think she’d feel very much at home.
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