Micato Musings


Feb

26

Cheetah Takes the Prize as Micato Photo Contest Winner

Posted by: Micato

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.”

Cheetah-Seeks-Vantage-Point

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. 

 

Feb

11

Getting Wrapped up in the Wonders of Jaipur

Posted by: Jane Carswell

by Becca Hensley

Today, I’m in Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan, India’s most awe-inspiring state.  Visiting for the second time with my friend, Kevin, we are ensconced at the Oberoi Rajvilas, a lavish five-star palace meant to mimic a maharaja’s country estate. Not far from the city’s frenzy in the countryside, with its own temple, walled gardens and private villas, this stately hotel has the appeal of a haven from pandemonium. We’re waiting to be reunited with our Micato guide, Hem Singh—a resident of this ancient capital, known for centuries as “the Pink City.” Hem has promised to join us for tea to make plans for our foray into this undisputed capital of intrigue, shopping and the arts.

A dead ringer for a Bollywood cast Sean Connery, sporting a prodigious mustache, Hem is sometimes called the most famous guide in India. I’m certain, though, that his celebrity extends beyond this nation to embrace the entire world.  Nobody having seen Hem can forget him. Dapper and jaunty, Hem mirrors Jaipur, his luxuriant city. Forever bedecked with a hat, he dons jodhpurs, immaculately pressed shirts and leather shoes which curl at the toes and vaunt gold filigree—like what you’d expect a magical genie to wear. Walking through town with him is to trek with royalty. I personally have seen people bow to him, cars and elephants stop at the wave of his hand, and bartering hawkers tremble in trepidation.

Today, he surprises us by remembering our interest in turbans. “So, I thought I would teach you to wrap a turban today,” he says. That’s so Hem. He doesn’t miss a thing. We’ve been entranced by Hem’s headwear both times while travelling in India. You see, Hem doesn’t just wear handsome hats. Hang out with him long enough and you’ll likely find Hem’s debonair head capped with a silk turban. Rambling through India, we’ve seen our share of turbans, and Kevin and I had been wondering about just what they mean and how in the world you get one to stay on your head. Hem brings along a bolt of orange and gold cloth. He tells us it takes nearly 30 feet of material to create the perfect head wrap. And, I’m stunned. I wore a sari the last time I visited Jaipur with Micato, which meant I was wrapped by the Oberoi “ladies in waiting” in 18-feet of emerald green raw silk, an adventure that opened my eyes to how much cloth it takes to create this elegant national Indian outfit. But 30 feet atop your head? That’s another story entirely!

Hem Singh, Micato India

Hem Singh with 30 feet of Turban Cloth!

Hem, utterly unperturbed, enjoys our excitement and lust for knowledge. Here, in the majestic gardens of Oberoi’s Rajvilas, he proceeds to wrap a turban for Kevin. It’s a sight to behold—like watching a fairytale character spin gold from straw or make stars from dust. Within moments, Hem’s created the Rajasthani version of a crown, and Kevin’s rocking it. Instantly, he is transformed from curious American photographer to noble sire.  Though women don’t normally wear turbans in India, I can’t help myself. I want one, too. And, bless Hem Sing’s dignified heart, he wants to make me happy. So, he wraps one for me, as well. He does it right there at the Oberoi, where the coral-colored stucco walls and garden’s white columns form the perfect backdrop for our game of dress up. Peacocks croon their otherworldly song as background music. Long lengths of cloth puddle on the floor. Hem Singh’s covered with sunbeams of orange and gold as he works, twisting and rolling the fabric. At last, he finished mine. Giddy with turban joy, we do a photo shoot. We’re American tourists in turbans, and Hem Singh, laughing at our ebullience, smartly attired in blazer and cravat, leather hat at a rakish angle, poses, too.

Becca Hensley and Hem SIngh in Jaipur

The Fine Art of Turban-Wearing in Jaipur

As it happens, it takes some training to wear a turban. After an hour or so, we feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world, so we leave our turbans behind and head to the city centre to sightsee. “How DO you do it?” I ask Hem Singh, as I rub away the slight headache left from the weight of the thing. He smiles, demurely. “Its an art,” he says, shrugging, giving me his arm so he can escort me through traffic as thick and unyielding as molasses. We’re off to explore the Spice Market in the centre or Jaipur. Here, an exotic perfume greets us amid the grit of the immense city. There, carts, stands, buckets, wagons and store windows hold golden curries, black, smoky cardamom, pungent coriander, shelled pistachios and salts. Men in white gowns (and snow-colored turbans) make tea using outdoor burners, their silver ladles dipping into the masala-spiced liquid. We taste betel leaves wrapped around spices—aniseed, cloves, rose petals. And, we devour sweets, such as mawa kachori and deep fried, honey-flanked ghewar.

That night, we’re in for another surprise. The day before Hem has asked us to choose some colours and textures from a room full of cloth. A tailor measures us. When we arrive back to our suites at the Oberoi, we find that someone has filled our bathtubs with bubbles and rose petals, and left us each a parcel. Inside, I find a beautiful sari, and Kevin discovers a long, Hem Singh-worthy tunic and a matching turban—each made from the cloth we had chosen the day before. With today’s parcel, we also receive a written invitation from Micato to join Hem Singh and a host of locals—including the Maharaja of Jaipur and other luminaires– at the City Palace for dinner. This is something unique which only Micato can offer—and it is worth every string they pulled to make it happen. We arrive though arches and colonnades to be doused in flower petals, to see life-size marionettes dancing, adorned elephants standing at attention, camels swaying to flutes and other instruments in play, and a legion of dancers twirling. In the Maharaja’s royal dining room, we dine like members of the court on platters of rich Rajasthani cuisine.

And, all through the fete, there’s princely Hem Singh. His turban, as orange as the full moon that illuminates the sky, shines bright, a symbol for the glamour of Jaipur itself.

To discover the secrets of Jaipur with Micato India, contact our India Specialists at India@Micato.com.

Feb

05

Helpful Tips for Overcoming Jetlag

Posted by: Micato

By Leslie Woit

Apparently, you know you’re getting old when you consider the quality of your sleep a valid topic of conversation. Thankfully that doesn’t apply to international travellers like us.

Trans-meridian travel is tiring and jet lag can affect anyone. We ask Dr Rozina Ali, microvascular plastic surgeon and presenter of the BBC science program “Horizon, The Truth about Looking Young” for a hard science approach to battling jetlag.

What is jet lag?

international-time-zone-clocks

Crossing time zones can make you feel ‘zoned out’.

It’s a temporary sleep disorder caused when your circadian rhythms — the body’s internal clock – are out of whack. Your eyes may see Zanzibar, but your body says “zzzz”.

What can we do on the journey to encourage sleep?

The first thing to do on a night flight is to put yourself in a place where sleep is a possibility. Wear comfortable clothes, pack your bed socks, try to relax yourself, avoid adrenalines, caffeine and drink plenty of water: Dehydration can make jet lag symptoms worse. Get yourself in dark, quiet conditions by wearing an eye mask and blocking up your ears. We have a hormone in us that responds to darkness: the melatonin in you is saying ‘It’s dark, go to sleep now’. After, in order to wake up and stay awake longer, we can use sunlight as a powerful tool for regulating the sleep-wake cycle.

How does light therapy work?

Your body clock is influenced by exposure to sunlight. When you travel across time zones, your body has to adjust to a new daylight schedule. A good walk in the sunshine can ease that transition.

How about coffee and a cold shower?

We often don’t have the luxury on a holiday of adjusting gradually, an hour per day. So you have to give yourself a new sleep cycle straight away, or risk missing out on precious moments of our hard-earned vacation. That means staying up as long as you can the day of arrival. A little caffeine and some stimulants can keep you awake longer.

Is there a more natural approach than sleeping pills?

Melatonin is a hormone that controls the day-night cycle. As a supplement, it can be a sleep aid taken in the evening together with light therapy in the morning — a standard treatment for sleep disorders. When used several hours before sleep, small amounts of melatonin shift the circadian rhythm, helping you get to sleep quicker. It is a hormone and not available in some countries and there have only been a few long-term clinical trials. Melatonin is used, but it doesn’t mean it works. As a placebo, if you expect it to work, it may work for you.

What if I can’t access melatonin?

You may choose to supplement your body’s melatonin by taking 5HTP, a naturally occurring amino acid. It is required in the biosynthesis of two really important neurotransmitters: serotonin and melatonin. So in fact it’s even better than just taking melatonin because it may make you happy too!

What makes you happy?

The weathered sandstone of Petra, the Sydney Opera House, the boutiques of Paris… sundowners during an African sunset, the low golden light in Zanzibar, the friendly bustling markets of Dar e Salaam, the red sands of Mali and being utterly lost… and found in Timbuktu. These are moments worth staying awake for!

Sunset-in-Africa.

Sunsets in Africa are worth staying up for!

 

How do you overcome jet lag? Please share your travel tips in the comments space below.

 

Jan

23

Micato’s India and the Magic of Hem Singh

Posted by: Micato

They say it’s not what you know, but who you know. And while that old adage shouldn’t dissuade us from learning as much as we can, it’s true that it can be helpful to have the right friends on your side.

At Micato, we’ve seen even the savviest of travellers breathe a sigh of relief when they hear of our offices in-country that exist to act as that friend away from home. And whether you’re looking for a restaurant recommendation, emergency prescription refill, or virtually anything else, Micato ensures that a friend with trustworthy advice is only a phone call away.

But sometimes, it helps to have friends who are capable of solving the unsolvable, be it by magic or pure talent. Such is the case with Micato traveller Becca Hensley, who recently wrote the following story of her travels through northern India with Micato and our indispensable team on the ground there including our extraordinary Indian Tour Directors.

“When my camera breaks just an hour before my friend and I reach Agra in central India, I slip into despair. It’s bad enough that I’ve missed the chance to photograph my first snake charmer and his undulating cobra, lost the opportunity to record a painted elephant walking down the road amid cars overstuffed with people and camel carts, and been robbed of the shot of a group of women, colorfully clad in saris, balancing towers of cow pies on their heads. But now, just minutes away from my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, I must face the fact that I’ll be documenting that “wow factor” moment only with my eyes.

It’s then that I decide to share my gloom with our private guide, Mr. Hem Singh. “Give it to me,” he says. “I know someone who can fix this.” In a jiffy, Singh makes a call in lilting Hindi. As we bump through the glutted city traffic, I spy unattended little children in school uniforms boldly crossing the busy streets, and marvel over a man riding a bike loaded precariously with a tilting mountain of poppadums, or Indian flatbreads. Suddenly, as we idle at a red light, a motorcycle with two riders pulls up beside our van. Without saying a word, Singh hands my camera to one of them – just as my jaw drops and the motorcycle whizzes off in a whirl of traffic .

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Taj Mahal

Five minutes later, checked into the fanciful, Mughal-inspired Oberoi Amarvilas, my camera has become a distant memory. The vision of the Taj Mahal from the hotel’s balcony, lit violet by a golden ray of sun, obliterates all other thought. Nearly close enough to touch, the Taj floats in the air like a mirage. As my friend frantically clicks his camera beside me, Singh approaches and asks: “Do you want to use mine?” Without taking my eye from the view, I reach for what he presents and, upon focusing, realize it’s my camera – not his, but mine – that he puts in my hands. “What?” I mutter, ecstatic, but utterly confused as Singh laughs heartily at my amazement, then shrugs as if he’s used to waving his wand and conjuring such magic.

And so begins our journey of contrasts and enchantment,  led by the miracle worker, Hem Singh – a guide so famous he’s reputed to be the most photographed man in India. Fortunately, for the next 12 days, Singh is ours alone as we travel from Agra to Udaipur to Mumbai, all the while admiring his singular ability to follow one magic trick with the next.”

To experience the true magic of India, and that of Hem Singh, contact our Micato India Specialists today.  And while we can’t guarantee that your camera won’t break, we can guarantee that Mr. Singh has many other tricks up his sleeve that will provide you with an incomparable glimpse into the heart of India.

Becca Hensley’s article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Virtuoso Traveler and this excerpt is reprinted here with their permission. For the full article, please visit the Media section at Micato.com. To request more information on Micato’s India, email us at India@Micato.com.

Jan

16

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

Posted by: Micato

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)

 

 

Jan

07

Going Solo on Safari

Posted by: Jane Carswell

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.

Dec

24

Happy Holidays from Micato Safaris

Posted by: Jane Carswell

Happy Holidays from Micato Safaris

Dec

11

Liquid Rituals on Safari in Kenya

Posted by: Micato

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.

morning coffee in Kenya

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.

Oct

30

The Micato Happy Video

Posted by: Micato

Happy dancing on safari with Micato!

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

Aug

18

Gazing Into Gentle Brown Eyes

Posted by: Joy Phelan-Pinto

post3_header
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!

dp_dancing
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.

tonnie_friend

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.

photographing

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