Micato Musings


Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Micato Safaris Photo Contest: January and February Winners Announced

  • March 23rd 2015

In January and February we received more stunning submissions to the Micato Photo Contest.  Our judges pored over the photos and have selected the following images as Winners and Honourable Mentions.

We asked the winners to tell us about the circumstances surrounding these incredible moments they captured.  We have included some of their responses here, along with the winning photos.

Photo of the Month WINNER, January 2015:  Eric Green

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Elephant Family by Eric Green

Eric recalls the moment he took the picture in this story he sent us:

“This photograph was taken in Tarangire Park, Tanzania in August 2013. While out on a game drive, we encountered a herd of elephants slowly approaching the road. The herd consisted of about 20 elephants of all ages. An adult female elephant with 2 youngsters (one juvenile and one calf) crossed the road directly in front of us. The rest of the herd remained on the other side of the road. As another vehicle approached, the adult female and juvenile immediately placed the calf in between them. The adult female then raised her trunk, followed by the juvenile, and finally the calf— the latter two were clearly imitating adult female. It was almost as if they were posing for a group photo!”

Photo of the Month HONOURABLE MENTION, January 2015: Lucie Fjeldstad

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Tiger relaxing at Tiger Canyons, South Africa by Lucie Fjeldstad

Lucie tells us of her passion for tigers in this short story:

“We first heard about John Varty’s Tiger Canyons Project two years ago (2012) right after a trip to Africa and wished we had known about his conservation efforts before we had gone. After seeing the National Geographic documentary “Tiger Man Of Africa” on his work with tigers and his plans to try and preserve wild tigers by moving some to a private reserve in South Africa we wanted to see them for ourselves.

When we travelled to South Africa in late 2014 we found Tiger Canyons to be totally engrossing. John took us around and showed us, up close and personal, his then 20 tigers (a month later the white tiger gave birth to 3 cubs) and 4 cheetahs (and a month later one of the cheetahs gave birth to 5 cubs).  Well, our timing may have been wrong to catch the young cubs but EVERTHING else was a feast for the photographer and a lifetime experience for the tiger lover!  We had a chance to see them sleep, play, eat, roam and even stalk each other in mock attacks.”

Photo of the Month WINNER, February 2015:  Bob Fjeldstad

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Lilac Breasted Roller by Bob Fjeldstad

Bob says, “This photograph was not planned as I was primarily shooting video with a new Nikon Coolpix camera but when we bounced along on a bumpy track my wife shouted out that we had just passed within twenty feet of Lilac Breasted Roller (LBR) which strangely enough did not fly off.  By the time we stopped we were easily 60 feet away and if you know LBR’s you know how little movement it takes to cause them to fly away.  But this new camera had a built-in lens that went from 24mm-1500mm so I changed the settings from video to still images, braced myself against the back of the seat, told everyone else to stop talking and not move a muscle, sighted in on the LBR, zoomed in as close as I could, held my breath and took the shot.”

Photo of the Month HONOURABLE MENTION, February 2015:  Chad J. Simmons

Photo by Chad Simmons

Mt Kenya by Chad Simmons

 

We asked Chad about spotting Mt. Kenya without the usual cloud cover, he replied: “Locals say he is sleeping. He must be very tired because as many travellers to this region of Kenya can tell you, getting a good photo of Mt. Kenya can be frustrating.  Even when the days dawn clear, the mountain is quickly covered by clouds. But one morning, as we were leaving for our game drive in Lewa Downs, we rounded the side of a hill, I looked through the trees and there it was.  We backed up to catch this image that characteristically was gone a few minutes later. My good luck and nothing more!”

“Locals say he is sleeping. He must be very tired because as many travellers to this region of Kenya can tell you, getting a good photo of Mt. Kenya can be frustrating.  Even when the days dawn clear, the mountain is quickly covered by clouds. But one morning, as we were leaving for our game drive in Lewa Downs, we rounded the side of a hill, I looked through the trees and there it was.  We backed up to catch this image that characteristically was gone a few minutes later. My good luck and nothing more!”

It is never too late to enter the Micato Safaris Photo Contest. Photos are eligible as long as they were taken on a safari, or journey to India, with Micato Safaris.  So set aside some time to look through your photos.  You never know, next month’s winning photo could be sitting on your hard drive and might earn you a $250 credit for Micato’s Safari Shop.

Discover Africa on a Walking Safari

  • March 6th 2015

By A. Ziegler

It’s undeniably exciting to ride along in a Land Cruiser with a guide who has just sighted a leopard or a pride of lions, and whose driver has hit the gas in pursuit of the best viewpoint to stop. It’s heart-pumping to feel your driver inching closer, but not too close, to a mother and baby elephant or a herd of angry-looking buffalo. East Africa is nothing if not massive, unpredictable and raw, and open-air safari vehicles are the ultimate front-row seats to one of Mother Nature’s most dramatic shows.

But on a recent Micato Safaris trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I discovered that moving slowly, paying attention to tiny details and even feeling unsure that I really wanted to see animals, brought a whole new excitement to the savanna. Bush walks, also called walking safaris, have been growing in popularity—and for good reason.

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A Bush Walk, or Walking Safari, at Mara Plains Brings Guests Close to Legendary African Wildlife.

There’s a frisson that comes from being so exposed. Although I walked with guides who are top-of-class in their areas, along with rangers who grew up in those particular corners of the bush and carry large rifles, it was a far different experience from being shielded by several tons of metal (which I’ve always been told animals don’t perceive as a threat or even as vehicle filled with humans). I felt exposed and vulnerable. And exhilarated. It’s exactly the kind of sensation that adventure travellers  of all stripes have in mind when they talk about getting out of their comfort zone—but not too far out of it, and never in a way that puts them at unnecessary risk.

To be clear: A walking safari isn’t exhilarating in an endorphin-infused runner’s-high kind of way. It’s not a fitness activity. While it’s mental change of pace from sitting in a Land Cruiser, I knew it wasn’t going to make up for all the excellent food and drink that I’d been enjoying. One of my walking guide’s first instructions was to move very slowly (the others: stay single-file, speak quietly if at all and be prepared to follow his lead in backing away, dropping to the ground or adopting other defensive postures, should the need arise).

Instead, what quickened my pulse was a heightening of my awareness; a sharpening of all my senses. I could catch the aroma of native plants, feel the sun warming my skin. I was getting a new perspective on the savanna: not the epic landscapes sweeping by as I rode in a high seat but the details of the ground itself. The experience presented me with an opportunity to tune in —to everything—with my two feet on the ground.

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Walking Safari at Ol Seki Camp, in the Maasai Mara.

I never thought I could share a naturalist guide’s enthusiasm for droppings and tracks, but I found myself growing increasingly fascinated with nature’s minutiae. I also learned as much, if not more, than I had on any number of game drives, on which everyone’s attention had been (understandably) focused on thousands of stampeding wildebeest or a cheetah stalking her prey.

Just as with the game drives, every game walk is different. At Mahali Mzuri, on a conservancy just outside Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, my excellent Maasai guide, who had grown up on that land and spoke fluent English, educated me about the plant life and medicinal traditions: a shrub fiber used as a tooth cleaner, a leaf used to fend off insect bites, and herb taken to relieve medical conditions. I came away with a deeper understanding of and respect for, the culture.

There was a thrill in a walking safari that was so different than a game drive: the rare sensation of being fully in the present moment. For me, going on foot let me contemplate the landscape up close. Most people go to Africa in search of lions and rhinos (and the zebras and gazelles that were around on my walks), not rodents and insects. The Big Five are indeed magnificent. But a walking safari showed me so much more: that the elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, lion ant, and rhino beetle—the so-called Little Five—are no less fantastic.

 

Cheetah Takes the Prize as Micato Photo Contest Winner

  • February 26th 2015

Every month our past safari travellers submit scores of eye-catching, often breathtaking photos to the Micato Photo Contest.  And every month, our judges have the unenviable task of poring over these very deserving images and selecting only one monthly winner as well as a runner-up.

We’ve long posted these winners to our website — they’re simply too good for us to keep to ourselves! — and going forward we’re also going to share them more regularly with our gentle readers here at the blog.

For December 2014, Micato traveller Lori Simmons was selected as the Grand Prize winner for her stunning cheetah photograph featured below.

We got in touch with Lori and asked her to share the story behind the photograph. Here’s what she told us:

My husband, son and I were on our morning game drive in Lewa Downs, Kenya, with our Micato guide and our two guides from Lewa House.  My husband noticed that all of the impalas near us were looking in one direction, and when I followed their gaze I saw what I thought were two big cats in the distance.  He confirmed through his camera lens that there were two cheetahs in the grass, so we drove to their location to get a better look.  After a few minutes of viewing at very close range, the young male walked over to our open-air vehicle and jumped on the hood.  He remained on the vehicle approximately 15-20 minutes and at one point he looked as if he would climb over the windshield and into the interior, but he did not.  We assumed that he just wanted a better vantage point, but we were very still while he was on the vehicle.  We all shot some wonderful photos and videos and will always remember this experience.  The six of us, “Our Team” as we referred to ourselves, forged a special bond that day.”

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This photo of a cheetah seeking a high vantage point earned Micato traveller Lori Simmons the Grand Prize in the Micato Safaris Photo Contest, December 2014

It certainly sounds like a safari moment to remember!  Thank you to Lori for sharing this story with us.

The Micato photo contest is open to all Micato travellers, recent and not-so-recent. So dig out your old photos and get in touch with us at photos@micato.com to submit your entry.  To see past Grand Prize winners and Honourable Mentions, visit the Micato Photo Contest online. 

 

Going Solo on Safari

  • January 7th 2015

By A. Ziegler

I wake up alone in my luxurious tent, after a cozy night deep in the Kenyan Plains surrounded by the sounds of nature.  I have space to gather my thoughts and dress in peace, before meeting my fellow guests—like-minded nature lovers who had been eager to meet a woman who went on a safari in Kenya by herself—for coffee and pastries as the sun crests the horizon, before we pile into Land Cruisers for the day’s first game drive.

The sense of wonder and anticipation, of never knowing at all what we’ll see, has made us fast friends. That, and being able to relive memories and share the day’s photos with those with whom we’re all sharing this experience.

This is why I’m often mystified that people think of travelling on an African safari as an experience that must necessarily be shared with loved ones: an über-romantic honeymoon, or a multigenerational celebration of a big birthday or anniversary. And those communal experiences and memories can indeed be magical.

Solo Traveller on Safari

One on One Sling-Shot Lessons from a Maasai Warrior

But having enjoyed several safaris on my own, I’d argue that an African adventure is just as compelling for solo travellers. It’s become one of my favourite suggestions when friends ask me where they can go by themselves, whether they want to have a major life-changing discombobulation after a breakup, or just hope to see a new part of the world without waiting for the perfect travel partner to materialize.

One thing I love about safari, both for solo travellers and for larger groups, is that it comes built-in with shared experiences and opportunities to socialize. Safari camps and lodges tend to be small, and the experience is communal. I love sharing Land Cruisers on game drives (though guests can request private vehicles), as well as sundowners and meals.

Safari guests—not to mention safari guides—are generally a lot of fun, as interested in wildlife as I am, and well-travelled and adventurous. How could I feel lonely among a dozen or so guests and camp staff gathered around a long table, trading stories about the game we’d seen and photographed that day, or our past and future travels, and maybe serving ourselves family-style from silver platters of delectable food.

Seasoned safari-goers are used to this setup—many of us consider it part of the experience—and are eager to welcome new people, even if they’ve come in a big group of their own. While I’ve treasured having time to myself to read, think or simply stare quietly at the landscape. I’ve been gratefully taken in by families in camps, and made lifelong friends. Once when I came down with a cold in Tanzania, everyone generously opened their medical kits to help me feel better.

Micato’s scheduled Classic Safaris are set up to encourage that balance of introspection and connection, as they put groups of guests together for action-packed, social itineraries through East Africa, with attentive Safari Directors and some of the best guides on the continent. But each day includes plenty of time to relax in camp, nap or have solo time—this isn’t the constant togetherness of a bus tour or cruise. And Micato trips have guaranteed departures, meaning that even if you sign up as just one, there’s no worry about a trip not meeting a minimum number of guests, or being moved from one departure date to another. You sign up, pay your deposit, buy your plane ticket and travel insurance, and you’re good to go. (And while there is a single supplement on the published rates, Micato will make efforts to pair potential roommates if people ask.)

On the flip side, if a traveller is going solo precisely because he or she craves solitude and space and time to think, or an itinerary that is entirely of his or her own devising, Micato can do that too. A Micato Bespoke Safari is a custom-designed, private experience. It might include steady companionship from a Micato Safari Director—one accompanies every Bespoke trip, offering information and insights on wildlife and Micato’s extensive efforts to do good in this part of the world (and provides the peace of mind that comes with knowing every detail is taken care of)—or if a guest doesn’t want to be social, there’s no pressure to spend more time beyond the game drives together, and no hard feelings if anyone asks to spend the evening with their book or their daydreams instead.

Curious about a solo safari?  Contact Micato’s reservations team (many whom have safaried solo themselves) to discuss logistics, travel plans and pricing.

Liquid Rituals on Safari in Kenya

  • December 11th 2014

by Leslie Woit

Waking to see the sun rise, pausing to watch it drop — ritual is at the heart of our ability to cherish great things in small moments. One place does this better than the rest. We raise our cups to Africa.

Nearly a week into the timeless rhythm of our Kenyan safari, fair to say we were getting a little Pavlovian about the day’s end.

Elegant ellies, stubborn rhino. Loping giraffe and a dazzle of zebra… as another afternoon’s extraordinary bush sightings drew to its end, our driver would begin to strategically loop back towards camp. Then with one more perfect day under our belts, like magic, as the light would wane so our thirsts would rise.

sundowner cocktails on safari in Africa

Sundowners on Safari

Parking the Landrover in pole position – one day near a cool river’s edge, next at the crest of acacia-speckled plain — out come the trestle table, the canvas chairs, perhaps even an impromptu camp fire to really get stuck in. Just as the red ball slowly begins its magic act, we’d clink glass to glass and toast the incredible good fortune that delivered us here.

One day our trusty Micato guide, that wily magician, surprised us when he jammed firmly on the brake. Voila, the ultimate dusky spectacle: we are nearly nose to nose with four lionesses languidly stirring from an afternoon’s snooze. For this spellbinding performance, we sit quiet as mice in Landrover Theatre – while he dips silently into a well-stocked cooler box, swiftly pressing filled glasses into our hands. “To lions. To life.” Sundowner dynamite.

What’ll you have? Traditional sorts plump for a classic G+T, whose tonic water has been a stalwart safari tipple since colonial times. (The quinine is meant to harbour mosquito-repelling qualities; the gin’s to make the medicine go down.)

For some, nothing cuts through the heat of safari day like an icy beer. Africa’s favourite beers even come with evocative names: Lion Lager, Black Label, Serengeti…. In Kenya, Tusker Lager is named for brewery co-founder George Hurst, fatally gored by an elephant in 1923. Cheeky or what.

Locals ask for Dawa. Swahili for “magic potion”, it’s a classic Kenyan cocktail of muddled lime, honey and brown sugar that meets ice and vodka. And soft drinks here are no pushover either: the up-the-nose pleasure sensation that accompanies the first swig of Stoney Tangawizi is a doozie. “Mainlining liquid ginger,” says one devotee.

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The Arrival of the Coffee in Meru National Park.

Dawn, and time for more elixir. An early yet gentle tap at our tent signals The Arrival of The Coffee. The scent of rich Kenyan brew instantly wafts through the veil that envelops our four-poster bed. They’ve been growing in Kenya since 1893; that famous coffee-grower, Karen Blixen, got her plantation up and running in 1914. And there’s tea too, of course: Kenya cultivates about 50 varieties of tea and over 90 per cent is hand-picked – only the finest top two leaves and the bud. Whatever you favour, its ritual delivery to your bed (or balcony, if you’re less of a morning refusenik than me) accompanies not merely the rising of the sun but the escalating cacophony of birds and beasts that is Africa’s wake up call.

Let’s drink to that.

The Micato Happy Video

  • October 30th 2014

Happy dancing on safari with Micato!

{It’s even better in full-screen mode! Click the white box in lower right corner of screen.}

Gazing Into Gentle Brown Eyes

  • August 18th 2014

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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.

Peaceable Kingdoms

  • July 15th 2014

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.

(more…)

Nairobi: Returning Home

  • July 1st 2014


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. (more…)

Greetings from Micato’s Africa!

  • June 26th 2014

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

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