Reading Time: 4 MINUTES
Nicky Fitzgerald tells us about her journey across the world, reflects on what it takes to build lodges in extreme and beautiful places and discovers what it feels like to be a guest in the middle of nowhere
Just when you think you know it all you realise there is still actually heaps to learn about taking care of guests in the beautiful wild corners of our planet.
It might seem strange writing a story on Alaska for a blog that firmly has its roots in all things East African. But there is a reason for this small deviation if you will just bear with me awhile. I have been part of some incredible teams that have built lodges just about everywhere imaginable in both Africa and India. Along the way we faced El Niño, which washed away a whole lodge in Tanzania and nearly washed away three others; against all odds we built a lodge in Botswana’s Okavango Delta in a record flood year; and somehow we survived Indian bureaucracy to build four lodges in remote Madhya Pradesh. But never ever have I seen a lodge that was totally inaccessible by road.
Ultima Thule Lodge in Alaska’s gigantic Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is as in the middle of absolutely nowhere as you can possibly get – and then only by air. Meaning ‘the extreme limit of travel and discovery’ it certainly lives up to its name, and some. And this is no ordinary run-of-the-mill lodge – it is absolutely gorgeous. Welcoming just 12 guests who are taken care of by 27 mostly hard-core Alaskan staff (more of that later) every comfort is offered: sweet and caring service; delicious Alaskan food – think salmon, sourdough pancakes, bison steaks and more – accompanied by really good wines; and beautifully appointed stand-alone suites set amongst flower-filled gardens. Taking a step back from all of this I kept asking myself ‘What the heck, how did all this come in the back of a small plane?’ Building Angama was a doddle in comparison. Made me feel very small.
In fact everything in Alaska made me feel very small. I learnt that in order to survive out here (compared to back home in the cushy Mara Triangle) you have to believe you will beat the odds every day. Bears, forest fires, floods, three hours of daylight in winter and mozzies the size of small planes (but not one at Ultima Thule, lucky me). Take the remarkable Claus family as a small example: patriarch Paul can land a plane and safely take off again on a cricket pitch (22 yards for our non-cricketing readers); Donna goes berry picking with a smashed foot; Granny at 83 does all the breakfast washing up (staff and guests) and makes the best cookies; son Jay recently climbed Denali – took him 18 days and then he just skied down in 8 hours, as one does; and Paul and Donna’s daughter and delightful lodge GM, Ellie, completed the Iditarot in 12 days as an 18 year old, as one does. And can Paul ever spin a yarn – very much heart and soul of the guest experience. When you go ask him to tell you how he fought off a grizzypede.
I also learnt that flight-seeing from planes the size of my car, but unlike my car are made out of fabric stretched over a steel tube frame, give open safari vehicles a serious run for their money, even when being mock charged by a grumpy elephant. Our pilots could fly planes, tell stories, take photographs (both hands off the controls), shoot at bears if needed, shlepp picnics (food, tables, chairs, drinks) up steep mountains and entertain us at breakfast and dinner without losing a beat.
My Alaskan adventure reminded me what it must feel like to be an Angama guest: dropped off in the middle of nowhere; scared witless by the African night sounds; brushing with death whilst a huge male lion strolls past the open vehicle; and wondering what will eat them when they sneak behind a bush for a much needed comfort break. I felt all of the above and more (I can negotiate with a lion, I think, but a grizzly standing on its back feet ready to swot me across a glacier, I don’t think so).
I will be sure to share these feelings with the team at the lodge – it’s a precious gift our guests give us when they put their lives in our hands.
Note from the Editor: Because I have set this silly rule of keeping our stories short I didn’t mention the wildlife we saw: bald eagles, swans, black bears, grizzly bears (who made good efforts to swat the planes out of the sky), moose, bison (tracked on foot), caribou, beavers, ground squirrels and marmots … and wolf tracks. We were told that wolverines (who have a resting heart rate of 150) would give our honey badgers a run for their money. I would bet on the honey badger any day.