Karl Ammann, a Swiss-born former hotelier who now lives in Nanyuki, Kenya, has built a splendid villa for rent high above the turquoise seas of the Seychelles.
Few people who stay in it probably know that Ammann is also a photographer and filmmaker, an avid conservationist who has helped uncover the terrible truth about the bushmeat trade – which got him named as one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment – and has made several devastating documentaries about animal smuggling and poaching, among other things. (Watch here.) Ammann uses the money he earns from Residence on the Rocks to finance his film projects.
Situated on Intendance Bay, Mahé, a full 100 meters higher than the last hillside villas of the Banyan Tree resort, which also manages Ammann’s property, the Residence was built in the tradition of the Indian mansions called havelis. The villa has a gargantuan 450 square meters of living space, with incomparable views – a wonderful hideaway, as Prince William recently found out when he stayed here. The main house, built around a courtyard, has two huge bedroom suites, and there is a third bedroom in the guest cottage. Both buildings, in Creole style, have flat-roofed porches surrounding them.
Much of the materials, décor, and furnishings were – in an attempt to re-create the splendor of the 1920s – collected by Ammann and his wife across Africa and Asia over three decades and include valuable tribal and ethnic art.
“I wanted the place to have a colonial style that would combine decor and furniture from Asia and Africa,” Ammann says. “This led me to India and Burma and northern Thailand. In the Jodhpur area of northern India there were still a lot of reasonably priced items. The region also has a tradition of carpentry – although no trees – and as such a lot of furniture-trading businesses set up shop and repairing old furniture was one of the mainstays of their business.”
When havelis are torn down traders go in and salvage what they can, sometimes collecting enough bits and pieces to spread across yards the size of several football fields. It is from one of these traders that Ammann bought 16 haveli doors, all of slightly different sizes, which meant the villa walls had to be built around them. The floors are of recycled Burma teak. Also from old buildings he got carved beams, a metal staircase, wood- and stonework, pillars, and a gazebo. All the carpets were woven in traditional tribal village cooperatives in northern India.
“I presented the architect with the challenge to build these items into the design. I believe it worked and gives the place a pretty authentic and lived-in look.”
In the Seychelles, where minimal impact on the environment is encouraged, large rocks were incorporated into the building’s design and no large trees were cut, and were in fact often assimilated in the design.
The Residence is very high-end, with prices ranging up to 3800 Euros a night for the villa and guesthouse, with all the services (butler service, room service, laundry, housekeeping, wi-fi, turndown) that you would get at a hotel like Banyan Tree, whose facilities are also open for guests’ use. Any income that is generated from the Residence Ammann invests in his film-making ventures.
“With the present lull in the market, this is affecting (the documentary) investigations like the one in Egypt and Tanzania,” he says. (See below for link.)
Ammann, as anyone who has watched his searing “60-Minutes”-like documentaries knows, does not shy away from controversy and showing what many people don’t like to see. After viewing “The Cairo Connection” (view below), which won the SAB Environmental Journalist of the Year in 2008, you will never look at Egypt – or a small zoo – the same way again. (Beware: This film is graphic and disturbing.)
Most recently he has been questioning CITES reports that ivory poaching and smuggling is down, and released a short report “China, Ivory and Wishful Thinking”.
“During various film shoots over the past six years,” he said, “we documented more and more ivory and ivory products becoming available in a wide range of neighbouring countries and gambling enclaves (specifically created to get around the national laws of China including those relating to gambling, prostitution, the illegal trade in wildlife and drugs).”
Indeed, Ammann carries on, “It has never been easier to watch and film Chinese customers checking out and buying ivory, rhino horn products, tiger bone jewellery and wine, bear bile and the like. We managed to film dozens, if not hundreds, of these sales transactions.”
Ammann’s ongoing investigations include ape smuggling, the China wildlife trade, Sudanese chimp orphans, and Egyptian cheetahs.