Looking back over the three years since we broke ground I was reminded of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated wife of Henry VIII who lost her head after 1000 days of being queen. The big difference with me was that I lost mine at the beginning of the 1000 days. I have absolutely no idea how I thought we would be able to build a 10 000 sqm (100 000 sqft) lodge on a cliff’s edge in the rain with challenging supply lines in ten months. But I guess we just had to so we did. We also had to demolish and remove the old hotel that had burned down twenty years ago. Then we opened it and then we filled it and looking back it seems surreal.
Another setback was the raising of the debt that took much longer than Steve Mitchell (my partner) and I anticipated. This caused an eight-month delay, hence leaving only ten months to opening date, and certainly not possible without a miracle. But we were blessed with a few miracles, and needless to say they were all people. Most were a shot in the dark but without taking risks this wasn’t going to be possible.
Only one decision was obvious – we wanted our lodge to be designed by Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens. We had worked together before and love their creativity. What a win it was as we got in their heads immediately and looking back at the sketches Silvio scrawled in our first meeting it is pretty much what we built months later. Not using them as site architects was also a good decision, as we just had to get on with the job without any changes.
The first lucky break was the contractors, a wonderful motley crew. We put our fate in the hands of four Kenyan Cowboys (KC’s), which in itself was a risk, as KCs generally don’t regard South Africans and especially ones that have been granted the crown jewel in the Mara. The main contractor, Mark Glen, spent our first meeting slouched in a chair, with dark glasses trying as hard as possible to look like Steve McQueen. His mate, Jan Allan, was possibly worse. He arrived in slipslops and a bad hat. He would eventually make all our tents and be our brilliant on site architect. They foist on me a mad Italian engineer, Gaetano Sagliocco, who had to deal with a very complex site and advanced technology. He ate five hard-boiled eggs for breakfast in his attempt to look like Rambo. He was so teasable the other contractors put a chicken in his tent, as he needed some “company”. Every site meeting started with ‘Gaetano is behind schedule’ but somehow he produced. Then I had my first masterstroke: the fourth KC was David Lowe, a project manager usually retained by Mark Glen the main contractor. Pugnacious, ex-Welsh rugby player. I knew immediately I wanted him on my side managing his unmanageable mates. He did this brilliantly. Every site meeting started with ‘this is not possible’ and ended with ‘maybe we can do this’. This lodge is testament to the best contractor team I have ever encountered – we owe them so much.
The next lucky break was finding the interior design team. We had lunch with the doyenne of interior journalists, Annemarie Meintjes, in an attempt to discover some new design talent, as we knew we wanted something different. No one really resounded with us and some sadly were ‘off bounds’. Next masterstroke – I offered Annemarie the role of interior designer, something she had never done before. I knew we had world-class project manager, Les Fox to manage the process but Annemarie is a creative genius who knows every supplier in the world. She brought us an image of a bath and it was so perfect it became our North Star guiding us in every other interior touch point. So much so that looking back we wouldn’t change a thing. It would be remiss not to expand on the impact of Les Fox. She drove me to drink with all her spreadsheets and pivots – but how they worked. This extraordinary woman delivered this project on time and on budget, ably supported by Ali Mitchell.
We then had to staff and open the lodge. Another gamble. We hired Tyler and Shannon Davis from Seattle, who had zero experience but we loved their energy and personalities. What a great decision and what a phenomenal team they assembled. I had always known that the Kenyan team would be good but I had no idea just how good. We have operated a plethora of lodges but never with a team like this. They totally run the lodge and are always the highlight of every guest feedback.
Finally I can’t leave out two people who made this happen: firstly my good friend, Shadrack Kasy Seiyio, our local Maasai consigliere. He guided us through every site decision and any decision that impacted the community. And lastly, though this happened in 1969, I met my wife Nicky, an unmanageable whirling dervish, driven beyond comprehension, a creative and managerial whirlpool for whom ‘no’ and ‘we can’t’ are simply not acceptable.
I could never have risked not delivering on time.
Filed under: Inside Angama
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