Micato Musings


Aug

18

Gazing Into Gentle Brown Eyes

Posted by: Joy Phelan-Pinto

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We had expected to be awed by the mountain gorillas, but those eyes! We hadn’t anticipated those questioning brown eyes, quietly gazing at us as if seeking a connection. Hiking the misty slopes of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, where the late Dian Fossey studied gorilla behavior for nearly 20 years, fulfills its exotic promise. It was inspirational, emotional, and profoundly fulfilling—perhaps the most magical few hours of our lives.

To reach the Virungas, it’s a stunning drive from Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, with lush landscapes unfolding at each turn. Remote hamlets dot the hilly green countryside and fertile volcanic slopes are neatly planted with dense rows of cowpea and string beans as far as the eye can see.

Two hours later we arrived in the small town of Musanze with its dramatic mountain chain backdrop. Every August, 10,000 people flock to the town for the annual “Naming Ceremony” of the baby gorillas born that year – a clever initiative conceived by American zoologist/biologist, Jack Hanna, to reinforce the connection between the Rwandans and their prized gorilla neighbors.

Jack and his wife Suzi love Rwanda and built a three-bedroom home here that they also rent with a full complement of staff. Located on a (charmingly overgrown!) 9-hole golf course surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, it’s cozy and inviting, filled with family photos. We especially enjoyed dining and lounging on the large deck affording dramatic mountain views. A local dance troupe came to welcome us and we quickly made ourselves at home—especially Dennis!

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Gorilla trekking was a life-long dream that had to wait until the children reached the age requirement of 15. There are only three countries where these magnificent and highly endangered great apes still survive—Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; none live in captivity in zoos. About 500 mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga Massif ecosystem shared by Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the DRC’s Virunga National Park, and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park. Another 300 or so live on a separate mountain in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Rwanda is the clear winner for gorilla trekking experiences with multiple family groups, accessible hiking, excellent park and guiding system, and superb hotel accommodations. Micato’s larger hiking parties stay at luxurious Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

Hiking morning dawned bright and early, and we headed to the park headquarters for a briefing and to meet our trekking guides.

family_startThat said, we never venture anywhere without our trusty Micato Safari Director from Micato’s Cape Town or Nairobi offices. Even though we have exceptional local, city and bush guides throughout Africa, the consistency of a single, dedicated Safari Director throughout the trip is invaluable — especially in areas like Rwanda where tourism is still developing. Micato’s Tonnie Kaguathi has been travelling with our family since the children were tiny and they love him like a fabulously fun uncle. To Dennis and me, of course, he’s a part miracle-worker, part genius, and best friend.

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Tonnie has made these gorilla treks with scores of Micato travellers, so we were well-prepared long before we met our Rwanda guide, Francois Birgirimana. An ex-assistant to Dian Fossey, we knew we had won the guide prize with Francois! Passionate and committed, he’s a real character who’s on a first-name basis with every gorilla. His English isn’t perfect but that didn’t matter, because he speaks perfect gorilla! And besides, we had Tonnie for translations and logistics.dp_sp_tp

Hiking parties are limited to eight people for one hour, to avoid overwhelming the shy gorillas, and each party visits one of the ten gorilla families. Hikers can request an easy, medium or long hike, but there’s no guarantee. We requested short or medium hikes every day, but they were all about the same: two hours with terrain that was at times effortless and tough. Hikes can range from 2-4 hours each way, so we were lucky.

It also helps that Micato includes extra porters to carry your backpack and camera gear—they will even carry you if necessary! I assumed I’d have no trouble with the hills, but after a few challenging passages, I eagerly accepted my porter’s assistance. With a solid forearm-to-forewarn wrist hold, his extra boost made a significant difference on the steep terrain. The teenagers didn’t need assistance, of course, but even Dennis eventually relented.

Depending upon where your gorilla family is located, hikes usually begin in lovely farmland before entering Volcans National Park. Within the park, we hiked in dense highland forest vegetation one day, while the next we were found ourselves in a spectacular bamboo forest. Several porters walked ahead slashing down vegetation to create paths, and we made frequent water (and chocolate!) breaks.overpath

A real treat was discovering a troop of endangered golden monkeys, an Old World monkey only found in the Virungas, scrambling, swinging and playing in the treetops. In lower elevations, we encountered warm buffalo spoor, signaling their presence about an hour before us.

And finally, the most magical hour of our lives was at hand. The gorillas knew we were there long before we caught our first glimpse of them. Francois gave us the sign to remain quiet while starting to make submissive vocalizations. We eagerly huddled behind him peering over his shoulder.family_clearing

Suddenly the big silverback appeared, casually observed us, and walked away. We took that as our permission to follow—this was clearly his show.

Rounding the path, the forest came alive. Large, black, shaggy beauties were everywhere! A group of 19 gorillas, large and small, had taken over a small clearing of grass and scrub, with three silverbacks, several mamas with babies, and everyone else in between.

Juveniles tumbled past wrestling and running, oblivious to our presence. A new mother sat lovingly cradling her infant, with tender hands caressing his little body, evoking an instant memory of holding my own newborns. Mothers slept with babies sprawled on top of them, occasionally rolling, repositioning, sitting up to observe us, then falling back asleep.

newbornThe silverbacks were nonplussed, occasionally glancing our way, and even walking right next to us en route to a tree with a better view. They gazed, dozed, played, displayed and even swung from trees.

toddlerOne curious youngster kept on breaking the 7-meter perimeter rule, coming close to inspect our group, until Francois gave him a warning vocalization and away he scampered. The gorillas frequently broke the 7-meter rule, of course, which gave us quite a thrill – not to mention amazing photographs.

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Our days of gorilla trekking were exciting, overwhelming assaults on every sense. Our hearts swelled at the sight of the newborns and thrilled to a massive silverback beating his chest. We laughed aloud when an adolescent male impishly copied the gesture. We watched gorillas play, sleep, walk as families, scamper up trees, and swing down with a crash. One big silverback even seemed to understand how to pose for a family photograph!

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Gazing into those gentle brown eyes and observing their family interactions created a sense of real kinship with these gentle creatures.  They were the most magical hours of any day imaginable.

Pensive...

Snacking...

Snacking and resting, a multi-tasker

A mama cradles her newborn...

...hollering at nearby gorillas to back off

Enjoying a quiet moment

Francois treats us to his gorilla imitation

Stunning eucalyptus...

Gorilla families stick together...

...as do the Pintos

Jul

15

Peaceable Kingdoms

Posted by: Joy Phelan-Pinto

pinto-family_airstripThe phrase “The Peaceable Kingdom” best sums it up…

The dreamy Peaceable Kingdom paintings by Edward Hicks (1820-50s), with all of God’s creatures co-existing together on earth with a “serene and well-ordered heart,” is surely the closest allegory to what we’ve been experiencing on safari…. not only on Africa’s great plains, but also in Rwanda, the country next on our journey. Indeed, Rwanda is a magical, transformed land with a born-again citizenry of enlightened, beautiful people.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jul

01

Nairobi: Returning Home

Posted by: Joy Phelan-Pinto


We New York Pintos are good travellers. We pack fast (and plenty!), seamlessly hauling myriad bags through airports, and have perfected the security dance of removing shoes and laptops in a family-conveyor-belt fashion. We love a good flight, watch a movie (or two, if you’re a Pinto teenager), sleep like babies until touchdown in Heathrow, and repeat the process on the next leg of the journey. Read the rest of this entry »

Jun

26

Greetings from Micato’s Africa!

Posted by: Joy Phelan-Pinto

The Pintos (from left): Dennis, Joy, Felix, Jane, Sasha, and Tristan

Hello Friends,

Travelling as always with children Sasha and Tristan in tow, we have touched down in Nairobi.

Our annual summer migration from New York City to Africa is officially underway. Following tradition, we will join the elder Pintos for a month-long, three-generation safari, exploring all the delightful corners of Kenya and Rwanda.

Over the coming weeks we invite you to visit this blog, where we’ll post highlights and discoveries from our travels, including photos of magnificent vistas and creatures that never fail to take our breath away, no matter how often we visit.

We sincerely hope you enjoy these dispatches from Micato’s Africa.

With warm regards,

Dennis and Joy Pinto

P.S. If you have not yet subscribed to this blog and would like to receive e-mail notifications when new dispatches are posted, fill out the subscription box in the upper right corner of your screen, or click here to subscribe.

May

09

Finding the Big Five: Africa’s Most Sought-After Animals

Posted by: Micato

Stalking one creature for hours, days, even weeks, was not uncommon in the hunting safaris of yesteryear. Hemingway spends the entirety of The Green Hills of Africa searching for kudu, a breed of antelope with horns so curly that they look like something out of Dr. Seuss. Beryl Markham chronicled the unpleasant conditions that surrounded elephant hunting in West with the Night, from being cornered by a frightened bull to losing her compatriots deep in the bush. Today, with the changing of the times signaling a growing awareness of the merits of conservation, safaris are no longer synonymous with hunting. And of course, the only shooting that has ever happened on a safari with Micato is with a camera. But a safari still requires cunning, a predatory instinct for where to find the creatures you hope to see, and The Big Five—the lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, and black rhino—remain the most sought-after animals: the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Elusive, fast and dangerous, each animal has, in its own right, earned its place on the list of the most coveted safari sightings.

1. The Lion: Royal for a Reason Read the rest of this entry »

Apr

23

Our Community Commitment

Posted by: Micato

Young Micato Traveller Olivia and South Africa "Hero" Rosie

Young Micato Traveller Olivia and South Africa “Hero” Rosie

From Micato’s first days in business nearly 50 years ago, we habitually spent time in Kenya’s schools and orphanages. These early visits were prelude to our founding AmericaShare in 1986 and creating the Lend a Helping Hand safari option, where travellers learn how our Harambee Centre is changing lives in the Mukuru slum. In South Africa, Micato guests visit the Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town and meet Rosie, who wakes up at 3:30 a.m. daily to cook meals in her small kitchen for the neediest in her community.

For evidence that community visits impact our travellers, there’s no better example than 9-year old Olivia Berger, the youngest Micato guest ever to visit the Harambee Centre and Rosie’s Kitchen on two separate visits to Africa.

Read the rest of this entry »

Apr

22

The Micato One for One Commitment

Posted by: Micato

If you’re not familiar with the Micato One for One Commitment, the concept is simple. For every safari sold, Micato pays the fees required to send an African child to school—a child who would otherwise stay home due to extreme poverty.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jul

26

Our Favourite Sundowners: A Slide Show

Posted by: Micato

The Swahili word for sunset is magharibi. In Afrikaans, the sun dips behind the hills and the plains turn fiery red and gold at sonsondergang. And in Zulu, the magical time when we have our end of day drinks is known as ukumuka kwelanga.

At Micato , the word for an unbelievable sunset enjoyed with a cocktail in hand is sundowner. No matter what language you use to describe the moment, affection for the experience appears to be universal. It’s usually our guests’ favourite time of day. Ours, too.

Gotcha!

Not so fast, junior.

Well played!

There is an undeniable power and romance in a sunset, wherever you are—it’s a daily piece of artwork, given to us free of charge. In Africa’s untamed wilderness, the impact of a melting, coppery sunset is a hundredfold. Sit on a hilltop above the world, look out at the animals interacting as they have for hundreds of years, feel the warmth of a crackling fire and a glass of whiskey or wine: you’re living a quintessential sundowner.

Loving sundowners as we do, we of course have our favourite spots to indulge in them. Our past travellers will recognize some of the sundowner locations featured in the slideshow above, and maybe relive a moment from their own safari. Our future travellers will see places they simply must visit. Whether arousing passions or relaxing minds, an African sundowner is an experience of a lifetime.

Jul

12

World’s Best Safari Outfitter…Nine Times and Counting!

Posted by: Micato

The results are in!

For a record ninth time, the readers of Travel + Leisure have named Micato Safaris the #1 World’s Best Safari Outfitter. For the past eight years, our winning title has been Worlds Best Tour Operator and Safari Outfitter but, interestingly, this year Travel + Leisure separated the categories of Tour Operator and Safari Outfitter—perhaps because we monopolized the double title for the past eight years!

Micato offers a singular African experience that’s authentic, luxurious, adventurous, personal, and life-changing. These words have always been synonymous with “safari” in our book, so our new title suits us just fine.

The Micato founders, the Pinto family, were born and raised in Kenya, and from the beginning crafted an experience like no other. Micato Safaris was the first safari outfitter of note to hire local African safari guides—breaking the myth of the “great white hunter” guide and setting the precedent for sustainable safari guiding, and ensuring a future for the bright graduates of African wildlife guide colleges.

Micato was also the first safari outfitter to integrate itself into desperately impoverished “informal settlements”—which Americans refer to as slums—and make a difference by building a community and training centre, sending orphaned  and vulnerable children to school, initiating community outreach and educational programmes, and providing much-needed services such as a fresh-water bore hole and a library. Our non- profit arm Micato-AmericaShare has been serving the community in this way for 25 years.

We were also the first company to travel between camps and game parks via bush flights, saving valuable game-viewing time and offering guests a chance to view the breathtaking sweep of savannah, mountains, rivers and plains (occupied by herds of elephant, buffalo, wildebeest and giraffe) from the sky.

From Micato’s very inception, we were the first and only outfitter to invite all of our travellers home to dine with the founders of Micato Africa, Felix and Jane Pinto, or at the home of their close friends in Cape Town for South African travellers. This was also a first, and is still something unique to Micato.

Our most important and exciting innovation? We are the first and only operator to set up a sustainable program that funds one child’s education for every safari we sell: we call it our One for One Commitment, and it changes lives.

Ground-breaking giving and innovative travel: these features have come to define us over the years. And this year, we’ve revolutionized the safari experience yet again…

Now Micato offers the virtually unprecedented luxury of including all tips during your trip—even to Safari Directors and Driver Guides—a feature rarely offered anywhere in the world. Micato guests can simply relax and leave the tipping to us. It’s that simple.

Through the years, we’ve kept pushing boundaries, and our growing list of “firsts” is no doubt part of the reason why our travellers consistently name us #1 World’s Best. Tour Operator, Safari Outfitter… either way, we’re simply proud to be exceeding our guests’ expectations every day.

Jun

28

The Elusive Leopard Tells All

Posted by: Micato

Elusive. That’s me. Solitary, secretive, nocturnal… notorious for my stealth: the life of a leopard is much like that of a reluctant member of the royal family. So why am I writing a blog post for Micato Safaris? Well, it’s primarily because I just want to be left alone, and the rest of the Big FiveElephant, Lion, Cape Buffalo and Rhino—would not stop bugging me until I wrote about myself and completed the collection. So to get a little peace and quiet, I agreed to spill my secrets.

They Also Call Me:

In East Africa, where they speak Swahili, I’m known as Chui. The Setswana speakers in Botswana call me Nkwe. In parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe the Zulu people call me Ingwe; in other parts of South Africa and Namibia, people who speak Afrikaans call me Jagluiperd. (Which is sort of a funny mix between jaguar and leopard, isn’t it? We’re actually closely related.) My family members make all sorts of noises when they want my attention, from roars to grunts, but we’re famous for our purrs, which sound like someone sawing.

Best Places to Find Me:

This may impress you: my family has the largest distribution of any wild cat—East, Southern and Central Africa are the places where I thrive most, even in weird habitats where other large cats have long since disappeared. You can find me in such disparate places as Mount Kenya and Kruger National Park, and everywhere in between: I love the savannah and the rainforest equally. However, we haven’t heard from any of the North African family members in a long time, and I’m sad to say that they’re probably extinct.

I even have family members in Asia, though that portion of my family is small and scattered. You can find us in India, Southeast Asia, and China. I even have cousins in Russia who live in temperate forests, which get as cold as -13◦F. They don’t mind a bit—they have the most privacy of all of us. My theory as to why leopards are everywhere? Because we need so much space. Male leopards generally have a home range between 12 and 30 square miles, and there is rarely ever any overlap. I’m a lady, thus I don’t have qualms about making my home territory on a piece of land that overlaps a male’s home—as long as he doesn’t crowd me.

How to Find Me

Despite my family’s favourable numbers we are, as I said, reclusive. And if you want to follow suit, here’s a tip: learn to climb. This ability is something I’m known for. I rest in trees, lick myself clean in trees, drag my food up into trees to eat, jump up to 10 feet to get up onto a tall branch of a tree, and can even climb down trees headfirst. The black rosettes on my fur look a lot like the shadows of leaves, and my gift is to blend right in.

If you really want to see me (and I know for some of you it’s an obsession), stay at a lodge or camp that has a leopard blind. These fine people have learned that I like to do my eating in trees, where I can get away from those pesky other animals, so they hang meat right where I can smell it. You see, there is a limit to my solitude—I suppose I’ll let you see me in exchange for a side of beef.

Most Embarrassing Facts:

Quite honestly, nothing. I’m an all-star athlete—great at hunting, climbing, swimming, and running—and there’s no denying that I’m gorgeous. My lovely silhouette has been used as an emblem for sports teams and coats of arms in Africa, and I’ve been depicted in the art of places where I used to live but haven’t visited in ages, such as Greece, Rome and even England. Some call me proud—the Cape Buffalo even calls me a snob—but really I’m not. I’m just realistic about my talents and looks. And modest.

Favourite Food:

I love the hunt. LOVE it. Thus I’ll eat anything from tiny dung beetles to 2,000 pound eland—whatever allows me to exercise one of my favourite skills: stalking my prey with complete silence, then pouncing at the very last minute. Day-to-day I eat mostly antelopes and monkeys, but I’ve been known to catch rodents, reptiles, birds, fish and even smaller predators, like jackals. I even had an uncle who caught and ate a crocodile. Seriously. Don’t mess with leopards.

Everything Else:

Type: Mammal

Diet: Carnivorous (these brilliant teeth aren’t just flair, you know)

Average life span in the wild: Twenty years

Size: Between four and six feet long, plus the tail, which can be up to four feet long!

Weight: For myself and the rest of the ladies, we’re small: between 50 and 130 pounds. Males are bigger—they can get up to 200 pounds. All told, though, we’re the smallest of the big cats in our genus (Panthera), the other three being tigers, lions and jaguars.

Protection status: We’re classified as “near threatened” which makes me nervous…

Group name: A leap! Because we’re so darn good at jumping up trees, at our prey, and away from poachers.