Micato Musings

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The Language of African Trees, Part 2

  • January 12th 2016

And why the sin of anthropomorphism isn’t so mortal any more

By Tom Cole

Downstream from here—or is it upstream? I’m still a codex guy in a scrolling world—anyway, in this article I talked about how the sin of anthropomorphism isn’t nearly so mortal anymore, and about the erosion of the anthropocentric idea that of all the estimated 8.7 million species on our little planet, only us humans are capable of thought, emotion, and agency, not to mention empathy, sympathy, and intentional sweetness.

Now: how about plants?

Some of us may remember The Secret Life of Plants, a book from the deep ‘70s that raised a lot of eyebrows, spawned a whole genre of jokes, and inspired Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris’ pep talks to his marijuana plants.

Doonsbury Comic Strip with Zonker Harris

• DOONESBURY © 1974 G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

The Secret Life’s methodology might not have been up to scientific snuff, and its conclusions were a little—or way—over the top, but it planted a seed that has grown fitfully, but handsomely, and now seems certain that plants do indeed communicate. As Kat McGowan wrote in Wired (December 20, 2013), “The evidence for plant communication is only a few decades old, but in that short time it has leapfrogged from electrifying discovery to decisive debunking to resurrection.”

If you’re at all interested in the idea that plants are more—probably amazingly more—how shall I say…thoughtful than we ever thought, head straight to “The Intelligent Plant,” in the December 23, 2013 New Yorker. In it, Michael Pollan (author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, among seven other highly respected books) recounts the absolutely flabbergasting recent research.

To my mind, discovering running water on Mars is a big deal, but the ongoing revelation of the botanical world’s IQ is akin to the discovery of a species of little green surfers on the Red Planet.

Since I’m a Micato and an Africa lover, let’s do a little mind-popping plant observing at the place where man was born.

First, if you’ll pardon a digression that really isn’t: We mourn the passing last year of Peter Matthiessen, a guy I think should have won the Nobel Prize. He suffered a little because of the broadness of his interests. He wrote fictionally and factually on everything from Lake Baikal, to Zen, to the tragedy of Leonard Peltier, to you-name-it. I once spent a weekend at his home near the beach at Sagaponack, out on Long Island. I’m name-dropping, I know, but I want to tell you that rarely, if ever, have I met a guy so bright, humble, and vitally interested. Africa was especially close to Peter’s heart and it lost a valuable friend when he died. He wrote three books about the continent, African Silences, the sometimes overlooked Sand Rivers, and the magnificent The Tree Where Man Was Born.

We’ve often used a quote from that book in Micato publications, a quote I think brilliantly sums up why Africa so often makes visitors almost dizzy with unexpected cheer and a powerful sense of coming home.

The wild creatures I had come to Africa to see are exhilarating in their multitudes and colors, and I imagined for a time that this glimpse of the earth’s morning might account for the anticipation that I felt, the sense of origins, of innocence and mystery, like a marvelous childhood faculty restored. Perhaps it is the consciousness that here in Africa, south of the Sahara, our kind was born. But there was also something else…. the stillness of this ancient continent, the echo of so much that has died away, the imminence of so much as yet unknown. Something has happened here, is happening, will happen—whole landscapes seem alert.

There are bookfulls of ideas and insights in that quote, but let’s concentrate on the last, purposefully anthropomorphic words about entire landscapes being alert. It’s gloriously true of African landscapes and I don’t know if Peter was thinking of how acacia trees communicate with each other, but he certainly captured the constantly happening vibrancy of Africa’s living landscape.

Remembering some wonderful news about acacias, signature trees of African landscapes, I turn to a superbly informative book called Pyramids of Life: Patterns of Life and Death in the Ecosystem by Harvey Croze and John Reader, with a foreword by the great Darwinist Richard Dawkins (who reminds us that “We have Africa in our blood and Africa has our bones. We are all African.”)

I haven’t visited Pyramids of Life in a few years, and I’m thrilled to find that it was a 2004 Christmas present from two of Africa’s most fervent champions Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi, of the influential Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and the creator/operators of the hands-down most wonderful camp I’ve ever experienced, southern Kenya’s Campi ya Kanzi.

In a section called “A tree for all seasons,” Croze and Reader extoll the acacia, “Africa’s universal icon.” And here—you may be thinking: at last!—we get to a now well-documented but amazing acacian trait:

Acacias have been observed to provide an “alarm signal” to neighbouring trees. When antelopes browse on their leaves, they emit ethylene into the air and produce leaf tannin in lethal [my emphasis] quantities. The ethylenes can waft up to 50 metres from the “attacked” individuals. The exposed neighbours appear to be effectively warned of the impending dangers, for in less than ten minutes they step up their own production of leaf tannin…after a few minutes of browsing the herbivore finds his lunch going sour and wanders off to find something better tasting.


Giraffe eating acacia leaves in Africa

We don’ t think of it this way, but the peaceful giraffe is a predator, and the unassuming tree is the prey. But it’s becoming clearer that the tree is very aware of these power relationships, and is surprisingly capable of doing some subtle things about them.

We live with only fleeting awareness of a buzzingly communicative, cogitating world, rich with alert landscapes and complex animal and floral societies. Our increasingly deeper appreciation of our fellow creatures is a joyous awakening, a human faculty in restoration. And nowhere is that dawning consciousness more dramatic than in wilderness Africa, one of the few places on the planet where non-human nature is still benignly in charge.

An African Safari’s Most Wonderful Gifts

  • September 11th 2015

By Jack & Rikki Swenson

Beginning our recent safari with a visit to Samburu Game Reserve in Kenya, we were celebrating many milestones. This was to be our tenth annual Lindblad Expeditions/Micato Safaris East Africa Photo Safari that we would be leading with many of our favorite driver guides, and also our wonderful Micato Safari Director, Tonnie Kaguathi.

With us were a mix of guests, some of whom had previously been on safari, and others for whom it was their first time exploring this magical continent. Among our guests was one of our favorite traveling companions, Satish Nair, who had previously joined us on many trips including a spectacular Micato Safari in 2009. We were all extremely excited to be in Africa and venturing out on safari together.

After our planes landed in Samburu, we headed towards our camp on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. During this short drive we were amazed to encounter herds of elephants drinking at the river, reticulated giraffe, many antelope, the rare local Grevy’s zebra (which in previous years we had searched hard to find), and lions, too. It was quite a grand welcome and introduction for those who were on their first safari.

We enjoyed a similarly successful afternoon game drive that same day, had a lovely dinner, and retired for the night to the myriad curious sounds of the African bush. The following day was Satish’s birthday, and we lamented that we hadn’t brought a gift or even a card for him. I thought, “That’s okay, I’m sure we’ll have a special sighting of something today, and we’ll tell him that was our gift intended for him.”

Sure enough, only perhaps twenty minutes into our morning game drive as our vehicles were ambling through the lushly wooded riparian zone by the river, we spotted a pride of lions basking in the morning sun just a short distance upriver. Our vehicles soon reached the lions, and we had splendid views of two lionesses and their five cubs of varying ages in the crisp morning light. Soon the dominant male of the area arrived and we watched as they greeted, and then the females and cubs wandered along the river edges. I said to Satish in the adjacent vehicle, “Hey, I got you lions for your birthday!” He flashed a huge smile, and his eyes sparkled with delight.

Lioness in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya

Lioness (Panthera leo) surveying her surroundings from a fallen tree in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Photo By Jack Swenson

During the afternoon game drive, I was riding with Satish and his cousin, Sai. After watching groups of oryx, impala, Grant’s gazelles, and many more Grevy’s zebras, we eventually a found a female cheetah with her two nearly grown cubs resting in the shade of a bush. It was nearly sunset and time to be heading back towards camp. En route, our driver, Patrick, took a short detour to an area where there had been a report of a female leopard. As we eased towards the bushes where this young female leopard was resting, she emerged out into the open. She turned and began walking in our direction. Soon she was looking directly at us, and stalking towards us. I crouched down and shot a couple of photos from directly out the side window. Then, in a flash, she darted straight underneath our vehicle. What?! We’ve been on many safaris and have never had a leopard run under our safari vehicle. But, then again, this was Satish’s birthday and he’d come back to Africa in search of more memorable safari experiences.

female leopard Samburu Game Reserve

A female leopard (Panthera pardus) approaching, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya, Africa. Photo by Jack Swenson

At the end of the day, there was a cake and singing for Satish. We then told him that we couldn’t decide whether to get him lions, cheetahs, or a leopard for his birthday, so we got him all three. We all laughed with delight, knowing that this was simply the magic of being on safari in Africa.


Satish, the birthday boy, captured a stunning image of three cheetahs on the next morning in Samburu.  That photo was later chosen as the winner in the Micato Safaris May photo contest. You can see Satish’s photo and read the story surrounding it here.

Micato Safaris will again host Rikki & Jack Swenson on their 11th Annual Lindblad/Micato Photo Safari in 2016.  To learn more, or secure one of the few remaining spaces, contact Melissa Hordych at Micato Safaris on 1-800-Micato-1 or by email at inquiries@Micato.com. 

March and April Micato Photo Contest Winners Announced

  • May 22nd 2015

In March and April the submissions to the Micato Photo Contest were nothing short of spectacular!

Here now the winners, who not only gave us their stunning images, but also shared a few words about what these special moments meant to them.


March 2015
Dr. Allan Gold

Micato Safaris March Grand Prize Photo by Dr Allan Gold

On his recent Photo Safari with Micato and Lindblad Expeditions, Dr Gold captured this leopard resting in a tree.

In describing the moment, Dr. Gold says “I vividly recall being captivated by this stunning female leopard resting and observing from a low tree limb.  Late in the day magical light filtered through the yellow-barked acacia forest behind. We approached at the back of a small loop of road after crossing an open plain where impala and gazelles were grazing. We had ample time in the rich but fading light to photograph while the lady stood, stretched and readjusted her perch a few times before finally leaving for work. ”

March 2015
Maribeth Venezia

Giraffe Centre in Nairobi

Maribeth was given a warm ‘Welcome to Kenya’ at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi.


Maribeth describes her Giraffe Kiss moment in this short story:

“Our transportation to Kenya proved challenging. We left in a snowstorm and had to endure delayed flights, cancelled flights rerouting and finally – delayed luggage! However, once we arrived in Kenya we were in heaven! We were escorted to our hotel, had a delicious breakfast, freshened up and we were off to see the sights.  One of our stops was the Giraffe Center in the suburbs of  Nairobi. We ascended onto the viewing platform where one can interact with the giraffes. A gorgeous giraffe decided to give me a welcome kiss! I must say his tongue was a bit rough and hairy but I was thrilled to be part of this experience. Subsequently I had nuggets of giraffe treats and was most generous to my new friend. I did not want to leave. This was our  first day in Kenya, what a fantastic start! ”

April 2015
Lucie Fjeldstad


Sunrise over the Red Sand Dunes of Namibia.


Lucie recalls her recent trip where she captured the sunrise on Namibia’s sand dunes:

“It was our first time in Namibia. We were told the dunes were best with sunrise shadows so off we went at dawn. When we saw this serpentine ridge and its natural contrasting shadow we slammed on the brakes and shot this photograph. Fabulous unique landscape … truly beautiful!”

April 2015
Steve Kuriga


A Young Reticulated Giraffe Looks on with Curiosity.

Steve recalls the moment he captured this photo of a young giraffe:

“Dawn broke to a cloudless March sunrise as we ventured from Larsen’s Camp to Samburu. While alongside the wildebeest trails we came across a tower of giraffes feasting on nearby acacia trees. This calf was in constant visual contact with the vehicle as I focused and captured his innocence.”

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

What to Wear Out There: Safari Packing Tips from the Expert

  • January 16th 2015

by Leslie Woit

A member of the Micato founding family, Joy Phelan-Pinto wears many hats: chief creative officer, style czar, and packing expert, having been to more than 123 countries throughout her career. We recently sat down with Joy to pick her brain about the Three Cs of Safari Style – comfortable, casual, colour sensitive — and other tips for packing like an expert for an African safari.

I’m ready to pack. Where do I begin?

The hardest part is not to over pack. The tendency to over pack stems from thinking you’re going to be changing your clothes more than you are. Often on safari you’re too busy, you’re getting back late from the afternoon drive, or you don’t want — or need! — to change for dinner.

You’ve been known to encourage a policy of “light luggage, light heart, lots of bangles”…

Absolutely! Of course it depends on the camps—for some of the elegant, owner-hosted camps, I’ll usually pack a dress—but dressing for dinner is generally unnecessary. Safari is much more relaxed than many think. My method of “dressing” for dinner is to pile on a few extra bangles and maybe a Maasai beaded necklace.

How’s the weather?

Kenya and Tanzania are the lands of eternal spring but there is more variation in Southern Africa. But since the weather varies little throughout the year, and it’s rarely all that hot, I take one pair of shorts, maybe two, since I know that for the 6am game runs it’s cooler and I’m not putting shorts on. Convertibles can be a great alternative, too. I also pack one or two casual skirts and one dress. The rest are blue jeans and khakis.

About the khaki, will I feel foolish in all beige?

Does it have to be Marlin Perkins in head-to-toe khaki? No! But will you feel like a local in khaki? Yes. All the old safari hands in Africa wear khaki. The walking safari guides will definitely encourage you not to wear bright colours and studies have shown the animals notice bright colours. It is absolutely true that in East Africa lions will shy away when they see red, instinctively fearing you’re a Maasai warrior with a spear.


Joy Phelan-Pinto, Micato Safaris

Safari Style. Joy Phelan-Pinto and Dennis Pinto on Safari in Africa.

What do you take in the game drive vehicle?

Juggling a purse and a camera on my lap in a vehicle can be awkward so I always carry a collapsible bag or backpack to hold all of my stuff in one place on the vehicle floor. And I have neck cord for my sunglasses.

What items have you packed that you could have done without?

Too many shoes! The type of shoe is more important the quantity. When you’re sitting in a vehicle for stretches of time, you want something comfortable. If you’re like me, you may be jumping up on the seats to get a better a view of the ellies just off the road in which case you’ll want shoes you can easily slip on and off. For me, clogs are indispensable. And you don’t necessarily need great walking shoes every day, although hard-soled shoes are important. I learned this dancing around a camp fire with a Samburu chief when a one-inch thorn from an acacia tree went right through my sneaker sole into my foot…

Fold or roll?

Not only am I a roll-it person, I’m a stuff sack person. Any small bag would do but I strongly advise against using plastic Ziploc bags since they take 700 years to disintegrate. Stuff sacs are readily available, even on Amazon, and can be used forever. I put everything into colour-coded sacks— socks are blue, underwear is red, etc., making it it simple to find what you’re looking for in a small space. I learned this from travelling with children: three days into a trip they’ve turned the suitcase into a hurricane and I end up forever repacking the whole bag to get it all to fit back in.

What about electronics?

We’ve got that down to science. All the cords and chargers go into one stuff sack – the yellow one, for the power of the sun. The other indispensable item we travel with is a power strip. Outlets are never in a convenient spot in a hotel room and this way you won’t forget a cord hidden somewhere the room, and you only need one adapter plug for the wall.

Ive heard contrasting views on taking donations for school children?

We discourage handing out gifts directly to children, but giving school supplies such as pens and pencils to a school, church or tribal elder to distribute is a lovely gesture. Having a Polaroid camera to share photos with the kids is fun as well.

We’ve found the gift the children most appreciate is the company of our travellers, which is why we build a visit to the Micato-AmericaShare Harambee Community Centre into virtually all of our safaris. The interaction is an amazing experience for the children and our guests.

Whats the last step to your packing?

Once you’ve packed, remove one thing from each pile — then you’ll have space to shop. I do my best shopping in Nairobi: from jewellery to art, there are interesting colours and creations from unique artisans to tribespeople who all go there to sell where they can be closer to the distribution centres. You don’t regret what you did buy, you regret what you didn’t buy!

If you’re still struggling with how to pack or what to pack, call our Safari Experts at 1-800-642-2861.  If you need to flush out your wardrobe and are looking for tried and tested safari clothing and accessories, have a look at the Micato Safaris online safari shop.  

Lala Safari! (Safe travels, in Swahili)



The Micato One for One Commitment

  • April 22nd 2014

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.


How to Pack Like An Old Safari Hand

  • November 4th 2011

Wildlife. Captivating, prodigious, eternal wildlife. It draws you to Africa. But there’s one safari beast that may vex you more than any other.

We are, of course, talking about packing.

Let’s face it, nobody likes to pack, and packing for a safari seems particularly daunting. We understand. We’ve been there. And we here at Micato have tamed the packing beast.

We’ve experimented tirelessly with how to pack (Hint: rolling your clothes actually saves more space than folding) and we even equip all our guests with a safari bag for their smartly-rolled belongings. And of course, the Pinto family and the rest of the Micato team have extensively field-tested what to pack, resulting in the constantly evolving packing lists that we send to our guests.

Much of what we recommend in the way of clothing and supplies likely wouldn’t surprise you. But over the years we’ve learned that some items that may not seem obvious are ones we simply wouldn’t want to do without. Here are five of our top-secret essentials.


Not All Safari Vehicles Have Wheels

  • August 4th 2011

If the only place you’ve been on safari is in your dreams, during your dreaming you’ve no doubt imagined yourself on a game drive in a safari vehicle. And what would your dream safari vehicle be like? Ours, we hope.

Close your eyes and conjure the image. An ultra-soft seat with a headrest. Roomy interior. Above-average suspension. All combining for a very comfortable ride across the African plains.

Now imagine something else. Not all safari vehicles have wheels, at least not in Micato’s Africa.

A favourite vehicle among our guests is a hot air balloon, particularly when it’s floating over the sweeping savannahs of the Maasai Mara. We’re happy to offer the balloon ride as an extension or as an inclusion in our Micato Grand Safari.

Two of our sweetest safari rides have hooves. Every chance we get we create opportunities for our guests to safari by horseback, such as the guided rides through the Grootbos Nature Reserve on our South African Sweeping Sojourn. And our bespoke safari guests heading for the far reaches of Kenya naturally want a more customized ride, and that often involves a camel who with coaxing will convey you across the acacia-dotted Nandanguru Plains.

All of our safari vehicles get proper care and feeding of one kind or another, but the ones we fuss over the most are our dear guests, especially those who prefer to safari on foot. Yes, we’re stretching our definition here, but if you’re hiking, that makes you the vehicle, doesn’t it? And when it comes to hiking, nothing quite matches the simple yet spectacular thrill of tracking gorillas in Rwanda.



We hope visions of these traditional and “alternative” vehicles fortify your dreams and that upon waking you’ll think of us, as we’re fairly certain we can make your dreams of safari come true.

Happy 50th Birthday, Maasai Mara. You Look Great For Your Age.

  • May 26th 2011

Looking fifty is great if you’re sixty, comedienne Joan Rivers once said, but we don’t think our beloved Maasai Mara has too much to worry about when it comes to looks.

This breathtaking wilderness of the Serengeti plains dates back centuries, but the fact that it was only established as a reserve in 1961 is little known. It’s a fact we’re happy to celebrate. The Mara may be the heart of most of Micato’s East Africa safaris, but it’s also our home.


The hauntingly stunning Mara is storied for its sweeping savannahs and the hundreds of thousands of creatures tramping along its ancient migratory routes. If within a single morning on safari you’re angling to see the entire “Big Five” – for the record, African buffalo, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and lions – you’ve come to the right place.

Every superlative used to describe the Mara’s beauty is accurate. But for Micato, its innermost beauty resides with its people, the Maasai, which is why we arrange for our safari guests in Kenya to meet at least two Maasai Elders.

Language barriers prevent most travellers from actually talking with Maasai Elders, but while in Nairobi, our guests will have the chance to chat with forward-thinking English-speaking elder Simon Lenini Ole Kassi. Later, when we take you to a Maasai village, you’ll meet a less worldly elder and his family. The contrast won’t be lost on you.

Step inside the village mud huts and you’ll notice that they’re simple and unadorned. The same can’t be said of the Maasai, bedecked with brightly coloured beads and robes as well as face paint, a nod to the fact that the Maasai are warriors and were once considered fierce ones. But their warmth and hospitality will move you like no other experience on safari.


Visiting with the Maasai is just one way to harmonize with the beauty of the Mara. Your moment will come. It may happen when you’re spying crocodiles serenely basking in the sun or while you’re just as serenely floating over the Mara in a hot-air balloon. Or it’ll be after your game drive while you’re sipping a cocktail high upon the Mara Escarpment at sunset. Or, perhaps you’ll have one of those precious morning moments, devoid of human voices, when you step outside your tent and hear hippos bobbing and snorting in the river below.

Whenever and however many times it happens, we guarantee that you’ll fall in love with the Mara as we have, and as all Micato travellers have before you.

Happy Birthday, Maasai Mara. We wish you many happy returns.


  • December 3rd 2009

It happened this week:  a sudden spike in brochure requests and calls had us wondering if the Holiday Turkey Effect goes beyond mere post-Thanksgiving sleepiness.  Could it be that it awakens a desire to travel?

A closer look revealed something even better.  The holiday elves at Bing featured Travel+Leisure’s recent article “15 Life-Changing Trips” that highlighted Micato’s popular tree-planting initiative—a favourite with guests.  Plus, we have other ways that travellers can make a difference, even before they set foot in Kenya.  Thoughtful ways to assist include donating a book to the new library we’re building in one of Kenya’s most impoverished areas—with a $10 donation.  Or for something with a really big impact, sponsor an orphaned child to attend boarding school for a year (or more!).  Micato’s AmericaShare foundation offers a number of opportunities to join our work, and at costs that fit every holiday budget.  Read about How We Give Back or visit AmericaShare to learn more.

A wonderful start to the holiday season— Travel+Leisure and Bing’s mentions of Micato’s volunteer opportunities had our phones lit up like a Christmas tree!

Welcome to Micato Safaris Blog

  • October 19th 2009


Welcome to Micato Musings.  Soon, this will be a place for us to share some of our stories, questions, thoughts… the general meanderings of the Micato mind.  We look forward to interacting with our guests and friends on this blog, so please check back soon.

Thanks for visiting!

Micato Safaris