Surely Karen Blixen won’t mind.
With apologies to her, I borrow from her most oft-quoted “Out of Africa” words, changing them with cavalier abandon. “I have a garden in Africa,” I sing, as I dance along the labyrinthine paths that weave planted patches of lettuce leaves, eggplant, broccoli and pumpkin into swirly shapes at Kenya’s Angama Mara, perhaps Africa’s most evocative safari lodge.
While one woman’s farm in Africa is another woman’s leafy haven of fragrant herbs, fruits and vegetables (called a shamba in Kenya), I’m perfectly content to forego zebra and lion cubs for the afternoon to stroll through this maze-like secret space. Ignatius, the gardener, walks beside me. Plucking from a variety of harvestable goods, he places them into a delicate basket. “We’ll wash these for your lunch,” he says, after explaining the various healing plants in the medicinal section. He points out what can be used as insect repellant or what might help me sleep. At last, I settle into a comfortable chair on a deck, perched on a cliff. Riveting views of the vast Mara roll out below, a patchwork of golden splotches and green spits. Amongst the expanse, a snake-y river wends. Ignatius brings me a towering salad. The garden vegetables, shaped like a mountain, mimic the terrain’s surrounding kopje, characteristic, rocky hills that punctuate the grassland. Everything feels in harmony.
I’ve been content in Kenya numerous times. But, I prize this moment in Angama’s shamba. With warm wind tickling my face, the perfume of Kenyan oranges sweetly lingering in my nostrils, the view as comforting as a blanket, I fall deeply under this great country’s spell. Something about the garden (which supplies much of the retreat’s produce) feels childlike and whimsical, out of place in this real life world of hippos, wildebeest and leopard—especially after the real life drama of a lion kill, witnessed from close quarters the day before. As a safe place among wild lands, it deftly emphasizes the poetic polarity of this destination: that constant tension in East Africa that makes one feel more alive. Joy and danger, endings and beginnings, intensity and calm combine to be a kind of whispering wisdom to those willing to listen.
Kenya, I believe, has stories to tell. And, family-operated Angama, set atop promontories that loom above the Mara Triangle, on the verge of The Great Rift Valley, facilitates that chance to hear them, to gain a deeper hold on the meaning of life. Created by African hoteliers who understand the transformative powers of their continent and its ancient nature, this intimate safari retreat dares to be different. It is both modern and traditional at once. Two nearly identical camps, each holding 15 standalone, tent-inspired, suites bookend a central community area. Teetering on a ridge above the least touristed part of the renowned reserve, Angama embraces expansive views, the sort that melt into infinity, the way the ocean flows to a limitless horizon. Each room, with a polished floor, soaking tub, and floor-to-ceiling viewing windows along one wall, sports contemporary, African-made furniture, subtly stylish, and minimal so as not to compete with nature. The interiors incorporate red accents, that suggest the Maasai culture, and neutral tones, indicative of the surrounding bushland. The exteriors, though tent-like, have secure, sturdy doors, and a separate closed-in foyer, ideal for pre-safari coffee delivery before dawn. Between the two camps, which both have restaurant areas, a well-equipped gym faces the vistas and an infinity pool awaits. Also, of note, a cultural center, where guests can learn beading and other skills from local Maasai, and a new photography outpost, meant to hone camera skills under the tutelage of a resident expert, add to the appeal.
Year round wildlife viewing in the reaches of Angama, which has its own road into the park, is nothing short of stellar. Don’t wait for the migration. Animals abound in every season. Not only will safari enthusiasts spy the Big Five, but hundreds of species of birds, and pretty much every animal on one’s wishlist. Practically the only creature I don’t see while exploring the Mara with my guides, Moses and Sammy, is an anteater. “You just need one more day,” says Moses. And, I believe him. Together we bump through untrammeled corners of the park, capturing unforgettable sightings—such as the three noble cheetah brothers beneath an Acacia tree, the coterie of lion cubs at play, and an elusive civet sneaking through the grass. Moses and Sammy also surprise me with gourmet picnics amid the grassland. They chase my early morning balloon to its rough landing spot atop a termite mound. And, they get soaked as they bundle up my jeep in the middle of an intense (and beautiful) rainstorm in an effort to keep me dry. Their knowledge and passion inform my adventure; their own enthusiasm at each successful animal encounter only deepens my awe of the moments amid this prodigious terrain.
Built at the site where Sydney Pollack chose to film his stunning Out of Africa film, Angama deftly weaves subdued references to Karen Blixen’s book (which she authored as Isak Dinesen) throughout the retreat. As a guest, one senses a kinship with her, a connection for her love of the great continent. In that mood, I flip through Out of Africa on my suite’s terrace (Angama calls that a rocking chair safari), watching the herds of elephants gather far away. Dreamily, I pick out quotes to match my mood: “The views were immensely wide” or “Up in this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart,” feeling as if they had been written just for me to describe my personal adventure. As if Karen Blixen knew. I suppose she did.
A place that speaks to lovers (enjoy a romantic an Out of Africa picnic atop Meryl Streep’s promontory, complete with hamper and bubbly); to families (the resort boasts connecting tents, designed for parents and kids, a doctor on site, plus has a dedicated program for youth)—even to lone travelers (who will find plenty to do during their customized safari days), Angama stands out as one of the few safari lodges I’ve visited that has the gravitas to be a traveler’s only destination in Kenya—should they wish to settle into one place.
“Here I am, where I ought to be,” penned Karen Blixen.
Indeed, at Angama, you feel that truth.
How to Get There:
Kenya Airways new direct flight from New York’s JFK to Nairobi is a game changer for anybody traveling to Africa. With affordable round trip flights, a state-of-art business class service, tons of Kenyan references on the way, and cheerful staff, the airline makes the long trek easy.
The Safari Lodge:
Angama Mara can be a destination in itself. Most people, however, visit it as part of a dedicated safari. The owners suggest it as ideal as a final stop, a place to rest before heading home.