I get to see some extraordinary places and experience wildlife at its best. I also get to meet some of the most amazing people on the planet. This is my job! I may be the luckiest person on earth.
In India, chai is more than just a simple cup of tea – it is woven into the fabric of this nation. Chai time in every home is a time to catch a breath and escape the hustle and bustle of the day to reconnect. It is always characterised by storytelling and the sharing of news as spicy and flavourful as the tea itself - Chai Time at Aramness is no different.
When Fox Browne Creative was contacted by Jimmy Patel to help him establish the Aramness Gir lodge in Gujarat, I had never heard of an Asiatic lion before. When Debra Fox and Chris Browne returned from their first site visit and shared with us their photos of the lions, I could not believe my eyes. I had always thought that the ultimate safari would entail seeing a tiger in its natural habitat. I know how difficult it can be to achieve this as I had travelled to India numerous times before and each time, I missed the majestic striped beauty! Now I learned that India was home to the last remaining Asiatic lions and there was a person committed to protecting these beautiful creatures while also showcasing the diversity of India’s wilderness.
Fox Browne Creative was hooked from the get go! We were prepared to help in any which way we could. We got cracking with Nicholas Plewman Architects and out of the ground, the lodge, Aramness Gir started to emerge. A beautiful lodge that is situated in a protected teak forest on the outskirts of the Gir National Park in Gujarat. Debra, Chris, Jimmy, and Nick sat on the site before any building had commenced and pondered what to build and decided that the best idea would be to create a ‘village’ that replicated the beautiful small towns that surrounded us. “What should we call this lodge?" Debra asked. “What is the word for peace?” Jimmy answered, ‘’ARAM”. Then Debra asked, “What is the word for ‘village’”? Jimmy said, “NESS”. There it was - the name for the lodge... ARAMNESS or ‘peaceful village’. Not a marketing guru on site, and the name was born. We never strayed off that name. It informed every decision we took after that. We tried to keep it as authentic as possible to a local village but at the same time remembering that our guests should want for nothing. What started to emerge was a beautiful Indian safari lodge with 18 sensitively appointed private villages which we called ‘Kothis’ (meaning home) each with its own courtyard and forest views. We created a ‘Haveli’ (meaning fort or courthouse or mansion) as our main guest area, and we decided to model our pools on an original well which has stepping stones. Building commenced and we were on our way.
Next to consider was what our guests should eat. I am sure you have read Kamini Patel’s beautiful blog on our food. Jimmy was involved in every step of the way. In my opinion, you cannot create beautiful moments without the total buy in of the owner and founder. What a brave man he is! We sat in Ahmedabad for days working out the size of every single bowl, thali, candle holder and tablecloth. Where to seat out guests for each meal? What was the order of service? Our guiding light on each decision was the following: Keep it authentic. Keep it elegant and uncomplicated so that we could celebrate every moment while never letting go of spontaneity. Make sure that each moment of our guests stay is filled with fun and an honest sense of belonging while visiting us.
We applied the same logic and thoroughness to the guests’ stay in our Kothi. What sheets? Where would the desk be? What to put in the personal bar? Should the lemons be whole or sliced? What would the wake-up juices be? How to serve them? How would we get the guest luggage to the room? Think village: think laari cart! What should stand on the vanity or next to the bath, what grammage of towel to use? Did we need a fan in the water closet? On and on it went as we poured over every detail of our guest’s stay. We wanted gracious, charming, unpretentious service and we wanted to ensure that our guests enjoyed a family-friendly environment that catered for multiple generations. We wanted to offer guided visits to the Somnath temple, one of the 12 Maha Jyotirlinga shrines of Lord Shiva in India; an opportunity to witness the thousand-year-old co-existence of the ancient Maldhari civilization who live fearlessly among the wildlife. Our guests should enjoy a walking safari in the surrounding protected teak forest or take the opportunity to relax in the Aramness Spa or meditate while doing yoga or to get busy in the gym!
We hoped that our guests would leave the lodge and return home as dedicated ambassadors for the Asiatic lions. We wanted them to be inspired by India but most importantly, to go home feeling refreshed, relaxed, in love with themselves, the world and each other.
Now we had a lodge and a very good idea of how our guest’s day would unfold. Next up? Who would take care of our guests? This to me is the most important decision of all. You can have the most beautiful location, destination, or lodge but you only have one moment to capture your guests’ hearts and that can only be achieved through human connection. We wanted our staff to be authentic, charming, committed, courageous, respectful, and vibrant. Recruitment began. Zoom calls buzzed between Africa and India each day until we had our core staff compliment.
Then the time came to bring all the elements together. As soon as Covid permitted, Fox Browne Creative got on a plane and headed to Gujarat. Chris and Ashley Van der Walt got busy styling. Jimmy, Debra and Kamini got busy planning, cooking, tasting and setting up our marketing strategy and I got to start training the staff.
As the tiles went up on Kothi roofs, we danced, we sang and played games. We unpacked trucks and sang and danced as we placed the furniture or made a bed or set a table and we danced. Above all we laughed. Through tough times, through the monsoon, through delays and wrong things arriving, we laughed. Not once did I see anyone say, “This is not my job.” Way before we went into how to serve a drink or a meal, we got to bond with each other and out came the personalities of all our staff. One word sums them up - fearless! Each person was generous in spirit, happy to contribute and help us create the Aramness legacy. They took ownership of the experience and I witnessed the transformation of Aramness from a ‘vision’ to a reality. What was my role in making this come true? Giving the team permission to be their natural, beautiful, hospitable selves and to stand back and watch the miracle of service unfold before my eyes. The team outshone my highest expectations of them. Like I said, lucky me!