Micato Musings


Posts Tagged ‘Kenya’

Girl Enters Kenya Tree House As a Princess, Leaves as a Queen

  • June 8th 2012

On a starry February evening in 1952, Princess Elizabeth ascended into the leafy heights of a 300-year-old ficus tree in Aberdare State Park to attend a state dinner at the Treetops Hotel. The 25-year-old was on safari in Kenya with her husband of five years, Prince Philip.

They had no reason to hurry their meal that evening, overlooking the great expanse of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya beyond. Yet unbeknownst to them, many hundred miles away King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, was breathing his last. He died while they were at dinner, though Elizabeth did not hear the news until after she had descended from the rustling tree.

“For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen—God bless her,” wrote Jim Corbett, resident hunter at Treetops.

We can only imagine that fateful evening when Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II. The thin spicy air of the Aberdare Mountain Range, scented of wild mint and bush sage. The far-off roar of a lion hunting in the night. The soft, mournful sounds of night birds, and the comforting stillness of the million and one stars glowing undiluted from the equatorial sky. The knowledge that her beloved father had died, and that she would return to Britain as Her Majesty.

Sixty years later, Queen Elizabeth II still reigns and the Royal Family continues their jaunts to Kenya—indeed, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton on safari—and we can only imagine that both the place and the experience remain close to her heart. It’s been a long and fascinating sixty years, and to think, it all started in a tree house in Africa…

Staff on Safari: Seeing Mt. Kenya on Horseback

  • January 19th 2012

I prefer to walk or bicycle whenever possible—that’s partly why I’m a converted New Yorker. Fortunately, options on safari with Micato are as varied as you want them to be. While preparing for my safari it was the alternative game-viewing opportunities that I looked forward to the most, but one stuck out for me especially: horse-back riding. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was twelve, but when our group arrived at Mount Kenya Safari Club on a fresh, misty day in November, I decided to give it a try.

As it turns out, horseback riding is the best thing to do when you’re 7,000 feet above sea level in Central Kenya. My guide was a taciturn young Kikuyu man named John, and one other member of my party joined me—a more experienced rider named Steve. Steve and my horses were named, respectively, Nat King Cole and Caspar. They were both gentle and sweet, and Caspar had a fondness for meadow grass that he indulged in whenever possible. Appropriately geared up, we ambled off of the Safari Club’s extensive property and into the montane forest.

The author on "Caspar"

The air was rich and spicy with the scent of cedar trees and sweet mint bushes, grounded by the earthier smells of wet grass and horse. Herds of zebras clustered together in the clearings, incongruous in the highly English-looking meadows.

Through the trees was the faint blue silhouette of Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa (after Kilimanjaro), and the highest in Kenya. It felt good to be sitting tall, using my body to guide Caspar, and breathing in this impossibly clean air.

John pointed silently to the right—there was a rare albino zebra, white with very light brown stripes, just standing and staring at us, munching grass. A waterbuck, big in the chest and shoulders, jumped out and ran past the unfazed zebra. They were all so accessible, being eye-level with my horse. The wildlife was just an added bonus. I was focused on Caspar, remembering how to post, and grinning uncontrollably at being out on a horse with these green mountains and mist, cedar trees and baboons.

Yes, I also rode camels, but that's another story...

I was still grinning a few hours later when we trotted back up onto the Club’s grounds, passing the hedge-maze and the pool and coming up to a stop in front of the main lodge. Sadly, I parted from Caspar and headed into the lodge, a structure seeped in the history of past guests, including Bing Crosby and Winston Churchill. I had missed high tea, but the woman waiting on me, knowing that I had wanted the experience, brought me my own pot of tea and a slice of chocolate cherry cake. It was exquisite, just like the rest of the day.

Post by Mary Mann, Micato New York staff writer

Kenya Creates a New National Park: Setting Aside Even More Land for Wildlife

  • December 8th 2011

Christmas has come early for Kenya’s wildlife. This year, the towering giraffes, lumbering elephants, leaping gazelles and sauntering big cats have been given the greatest gift that Kenya’s government could give them—its protection.

Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki affirmed the country’s commitment to conservation this past November, when he designated a 17,100 acre piece of land as Laikipia National Park. Top priority for this park? Opening relevant corridors to wildlife migration—a key piece of the conservation puzzle for grazing animals like wildebeest and Cape buffalo, as well as the predators that stalk them as they migrate.

This new park is a sparkling addition to Kenya’s already quite brilliant crown of national parks, from Amboseli and the Maasai Mara in the south to Mt Kenya and Samburu in the north. These parks are known for their magnificent and abundant game. Of course, wildlife has no borders—animals can be found roaming freely throughout Kenya. The downside of this is that sometimes migrating herds find themselves on the highways and byways of the populated portions of the country or worse: in the crosshairs of a poacher.

The need for proper migrating pathways is so pressing that the government even constructed an underpass just for migrating elephants, which opened almost exactly a year ago. The biggest land mammal in the world, a herd of migrating elephants presents a daunting challenge to city planners. The government hatched this conservation scheme, and the results were astounding: the elephants compliantly used the tunnel, and both villages and elephants were saved.

With the dedication of Laikipia National Park, Kenya is again asserting the country’s commitment to this one goal: that its people and wildlife coexist safely and harmoniously.

“The government is convinced and committed to wildlife conservation in the natural habitat,” asserted the President, assuring the press that Kenya has more than adequate land to protect its wildlife as well as house and feed its people.

Laikipia National Park is ideally situated between two of our favourite private reserves in Laikipia Plateau—Loisaba and Lewa Downs—and thus can act as a bridge of safe crossing for migrating animals. It’s also a stunning new destination for anyone staying at either adjacent private reserve. The land is breath-takingly beautiful, dotted with a mix of acacia and prickly-pear cactus and capped with a massive sky. The plateau is also at quite a high elevation, with views of Mt. Kenya, so the evenings in Laikipia are crisp and cool and the big sky is thick with stars. This is a magnificent place, and the government’s commitment to keeping it that way is truly admirable.

Flamingos Aplenty and Archaeology, Too: Why UNESCO Honours the Kenya Lake System

  • November 17th 2011

Four million Lesser Flamingos make the three lakes of the Kenya Lake System their home. To put that into perspective, that’s more flamingos than there are humans in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, combined!

For most of the year, the flamingos move between Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita, foraging in their shallow alkaline depths. When they move from one lake to another, they rise together to fly away in one great, pink sheet—like a living sunset.

As the Kenya Lake System is the single most important foraging spot for the Lesser Flamingo, there is truly nothing like this breathtaking spectacle anywhere in the world. And this is only one of many reasons why the Kenya Lake System was named a UNESCO site this year, and granted all the protection that entails.

The three lakes are treasures in and of themselves, as their high alkaline content (the reason why they’re called “soda lakes”) makes them perfect for the abundant growth of green algae, which in turn nurtures an astonishing diversity of wildlife.

Not only home to the flashy flamingo, the lakes are also vital nesting and breeding grounds for Great White Pelicans, and are home to over 100 species of migratory birds including the Black-Necked Grebe, African Spoonbill, Pied Avocet, Little Grebe, Yellow Billed Stork, Black Winged Stilt, Grey-Headed Gull and Gull Billed Tern.

Not a keen birder? That’s okay. “Diverse wildlife” really does mean diverse. Birds share this property with sizeable mammal populations, including black rhino, zebra, Rothschild’s giraffe, greater kudu, lion, cheetah and wild dogs. The simple life-giving presence of water and algae sustains an eco-system that encompasses fish, birds and all sorts of mammals, including, of course, humans.

In fact, as the lakes are nestled on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, the animals share this part of Africa with some of the greatest finds in archaeological history. This area was the birthplace of mankind, and when you’re there you can feel the truth of that. Standing next to a soda lake, watching a sheet of flamingos rise and a rhino lumber by, you’re transported to the earth of our first ancestors, born in this land of hot-springs and geysers, sheltered by the steep escarpment of the Rift Valley.

An Easy Way to Help Kenyan Girls Live Better Lives

  • October 20th 2011

868,000 Kenyan girls miss nearly a week of school each month because they can’t afford to buy sanitary pads.

Appalled at this number, Lorna Macleod, the executive director of Micato Safaris’ nonprofit arm, Micato-AmericaShare, founded a separate non-profit focused on getting sanitary products to girls who need them most. This program not only keeps at-risk girls in school, it also helps protect them from predation and sexual diseases. Thus Huru International was born.

That was in 2008, and Huru has been distributing kits containing reusable sanitary pads to girls in Kenya ever since, having put Huru Kits in the hands of over 20,000 girls. The kits are manufactured at a workshop based in the Micato-AmericaShare Harambee Centre, which is staffed by members of the community.  Huru Kits are distributed throughout Kenya with the assistance of more than 30 local partners. Kits are delivered through school-based information sharing events, which engage girls in discussions and activities focused on HIV prevention. In just three short years, Huru has found partnerships with many well-respected organizations, including Johnson & Johnson, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, among others.

Most recently Huru has partnered with the o.b. Brand on a Share-it-Forward campaign with the potential to raise $25,000 for Huru. To put that number in perspective, for every $25 donated, Huru can supply one girl with all the sanitary supplies (including underwear, reusable pads, soap and even life-saving HIV/AIDS prevention information) that she’ll need for between one and two years.

It’s a simple campaign—from now through December 5th, anyone who “likes” the o.b. Brand Facebook page may share a message about Huru’s mission with all their Facebook friends at Facebook.com/obmightysmall. For every individual that shares the message, o.b. will donate $1 to Huru. If the donation goal is reached, that means that 1,000 more young girls will be given the gift of education, safety and hope.

115 million children worldwide aren’t getting an education. Most of them are girls. Isn’t it time to Share It Forward?

Dr. Livingstone, We Presume

  • August 25th 2011

In the 12th century, crusaders in Africa returned to Europe with beauty-glazed eyes, raving about unbelievably giant and gentle animals with curved and glimmering tusks and preposterously long noses; they partially made up for this seeming madness by bringing home novelties of sweet-scented oranges and cloves for their wives.

Nearly a thousand years later, when it seems practically impossible to “get off the grid,” there are great swathes of Africa that can still be called virgin wilderness, and much left to be learned from the ways and mores, sights and sounds of this ageless land, where wanderlust so often plants its tattered and brilliant-coloured flag.

Two of Africa’s most iconic explorers were Dr. Livingstone and H.M. Stanley. Their classically British meeting in the jungle is iconic—having been immortalized in film and song—and their individual journeys seem crafted from the stuff of fireside tales and swashbuckling children’s books. Micato has immortalized the men, too, as their adventuring serves as a blueprint of sorts for two of our most popular journeys, the The Stanley Wing Safari and The Livingstone Wing Safari.

Livingstone’s Africa

Livingstone moved to Africa as a missionary, but soon discovered that his passion lay in exploration. He quit his evangelical position and with the help of a very handy friend, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, was appointed to the dreamy-sounding position of Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa.

Thus began his beloved but ill-fated explorations. First he went off to open up the River Zambezi for trade, however the river was completely impassable due to churning rapids. He then attempted to navigate the Ruvuma River, but was thwarted yet again, and his crew disappeared quickly, dying or jumping ship. Alone and unsuccessful in the rough country, Livingstone nevertheless refused to throw in the towel, famously declaring “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

And, remarkably, he did go forward, safely extracting himself from the wilderness. The wilderness, however, did not extract itself from him, and Livingstone returned to Africa soon enough. This time he was bound for Zanzibar, to seek the source of the Nile. His luck had not improved, and three months in found him down and out once again, with pneumonia and cholera. His supplies were stolen, and with little hope, friend, or food, he hitched a ride with a caravan of traders as far as Bambara, where he was caught by the wet season. In exchange for desperately needed food, Livingstone agreed to eat his meals in a roped off open enclosure for the entertainment of the natives.

He took it all in stride, and his pains and pangs contributed greatly to western science and cartography—he “discovered” Lake Ngami, Lake Malawi, Lake Bangweulu and Victoria Falls, and his many geographical observations enabled large heretofore unknown regions of Africa to be mapped. For his trouble, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London and was made a Fellow of the society, but his wandering heart couldn’t rest, and soon he was back in Africa and, naturally, back in trouble. He lost contact with the world for six years, and was presumed dead.

The Famous Meeting

Enter H.M. Stanley, a decidedly shiftier character. Born John Rowlands in Wales, Stanley moved to the U.S. at 18. Searching for a new life, he found a new name, adopting that of wealthy trader Henry Hope Stanley, whom he worked for, befriended and idolized.

Stanley served reluctantly in the Civil War, fighting first for the Confederate army, which he deserted, then for the Union navy, which he also deserted. Clearly not cut out for the military, Stanley took up journalism, to much greater success.

And thus Stanley embarked on a mission that quickly began to fall into shambles, mirroring Livingstone’s own disasters—Stanley’s horse was bitten by a Tsetse fly and died within days, the members of his entourage either deserted or died—but in the end he was victorious. He found Livingstone.

The moment is enshrined in our cultural consciousness as a pure representation of the famous British calm under fire. After a harrowing journey, accompanied by a skeleton crew of sickly porters, Stanley came across a sole white man in a village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. He approached the man and allegedly said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

This was most likely Livingstone’s first encounter with a fellow countryman in six years, and these were years in which he had battled illness and even believed himself to be on the brink of death. Upon meeting Stanley, Livingstone reportedly smiled and responded “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

It’s the very picture of a polite introduction at a high society social gathering, and the dissonance of this highly civilized interaction within the highly wild surroundings captured minds and hearts: a triumph of manners over circumstances that is unequalled. The same still holds true in some of our favorite lodges and camps. Come join us in Africa and see for yourself—the grandeur of the days of Stanley and Livingstone lives on.

Tribe in Focus: Samburu

  • August 11th 2011

In the northern reaches of Kenya, in a great swathe of the Rift Valley between Mount Kenya and Lake Turkana, lies Samburuland. As the name implies, this is home to the nomadic Samburu, one of the most fascinating tribes in Kenya, and the de facto guardians of the virgin wilderness of Samburu National Reserve and Buffalo Springs National Reserve.

Samburu warriors

The Samburu, cousins of the Maasai, have been called the “aristocrats of the nomadic tribes” (and in the New York Times, no less). Levis, Dockers and button-ups have yet to infiltrate their lives—they continue to dress as they always have, draped in lavish, brilliantly coloured fabric, the women wearing strings of beads and the men in feather plume headdresses. Their lives are carefully structured in a hierarchy that favors elders and values honor and respect above all else. Life transitions are celebrated with care and great pomp: from circumcision to weddings, births to funerals.

Age and the size of a man’s herd are the primary status and wealth indicators. Both are focal points in Samburu mythology, which traces the Samburu’s origin to the god Nkai, who lives on Venus (a planet clearly visible in Samburuland skies). Legend has it that Nkai sent the Samburu to Earth via a long rope, later using the same interstellar rope to send them a gift of cattle. The Samburu flourished, but over time the respect of the warrior class (young men) towards the elders began to wane, and their contempt did not go unnoticed. Nkai, in a rage, sent forth a massive thunderstorm that severed the rope between Venus and Earth forever.

This story reinforces the dominant roles of the elders in Samburu society,and underscores the belief that an elder has the ability to curse disrespectful warriors. Because this belief is so widespread, elders are careful about who they curse and why, and reckless young men are quick to make amends if they do something to warrant a curse – especially if the elder cursing them happens to have an eligible young lady in the family.

A group of Samburu women prepare for a traditional dance

Cattle are the literal lifeblood of the tribe, and Nkai’s “housewarming present” to the original Earth-bound Samburu. Traditionally the tribe has relied solely on herds for food, living off a diet of meat, blood and milk. This diet is still largely followed, although the popular additions of maize meal porridge and tea with milk and sugar have become staples as well.

This tribal way of life—centered on cattle and warfare, with major transitions marked by age-old rites of passage—is strong in Samburuland, and the people have yet to be lured by the purported benefits of modern life.

The Samburu’s lack of interest in an urban, westernized lifestyle has been an inspiration for Hollywood since the ‘50s, when tribal members took to the screen to act in the background of Mogambo while Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly fought over the attentions of Clark Gable. The 90’s Kevin Bacon movie The Air up There has a Samburu man (Charles Gitonga Maina)  in the starring role, and the Samburu way of life in this movie is eerily reminiscent of the ideal world of the Na’vi people in James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.

The Air Up There was filmed in Kenya and South Africa

In the information age the Samburu’s authentic way of living, so close to the land and tied to their immediate community, is a refreshing rarity. Travellers seeking insight into genuine African culture need look no further.

 

Meander to Mombasa When Next in Kenya

  • July 21st 2011

Offshore in Mombasa, Kenya. Flickr/Mckaysavage

One of the better-kept secrets in our beloved Kenya is the coastal city of Mombasa, roughly 300 miles southeast of Nairobi. Make the journey and you’ll be rewarded with white sand beaches as only the Indian Ocean can deliver them. And if you’re an architecture fan, we’re certain you won’t tire of taking in the Arabic and Portuguese influences that pervade the buildings here.

One of Mombasa’s most beautiful buildings is Fort Jesus,which was recently declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The military fort was built in the 1590s to protect the city, and its design reflects “the Renaissance ideal that perfect proportions and geometric harmony are to be found in the human body,” according to UNESCO. If you visit you’ll also note that the moat is still intact, which is not something you see every day.

Fort Jesus in Mombasa. Flickr/snowflakegirl

Beyond the picturesque beaches and honoured buildings, Mombasa is a friendly, fun city that sometimes flies under the radar of our travellers, who tend to add a Zanzibar side trip to their safaris when they’re in need of an Indian Ocean getaway. We love Zanzibar, too, of course, and perhaps if Mombasa had had a Billy Joel song named after it, it would be just as popular. That said, if you want to head off the beaten path to a coastal gem, we would be delighted to add Mombasa as an extension to your safari.

Whether holidays or houses, Micato helps build dreams

  • June 16th 2011

“You will be at ease only in your own home” – African Proverb

As a safari company we have lots of practice helping people build their vacation dreams, and with our nonprofit arm AmericaShare we’ve learned how to help children build their futures. This past week, our New York office decamped to New Jersey for a day to build… a house?

That’s right, although our expert Safari Specialists know much more about luxury lodges and helicopter excursions then they do about hammers and shovels, they have nevertheless been trekking out to Paterson, New Jersey and working with Habitat for Humanity there for the last ten years.

Yet being an expert on Africa and volunteering to build a house aren’t as mutually exclusive as one might think. Of the hundreds of families that Paterson Habitat has helped, a significant portion of them have been Kenyan – in fact, 10% of all non-designated contributions go straight to their global partnership in Kenya. The direct cost of a Habitat house in Kenya is $1,000, so you can imagine how far even 10% of funds can go – HFH Kenya has helped to put a roof over the heads of 5,000 Kenyan families in the last 27 years alone!

In our experience in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi, where AmericaShare is based, we’ve grown used to the sight of ramshackle huts constructed of corrugated tin with rusted holes, each one-room building home to a multitude of family members. We’ve been inside some of them, stepping onto the clean-swept dirt floors, and marveled at the enduring smiles on the faces of the people who live here, making the best of what they have, as little as it may be.

Habitat has given our friends in Kenya, and people like them around the world, a reason to hope for something better. We were able to witness this firsthand in Paterson, as we dug holes and lifted cement blocks alongside local Habitat house recipients, who work for “sweat equity” on their new homes. One young woman spoke shyly about how excited she was for a real home to share with her mom, and the hope it gave her to someday realize her dream of working in the fashion industry.

Her words are echoed by the Kenyan’s who have received homes from HFH Kenya, with Paterson Habitat aid. A home can make a life, as Kisii, Kenya native Ruth Kwamboka Gisemba articulates perfectly:

“Like an old rugged cloth, my life was in a mess before I owned a HFH house.”

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” -Henry David Thoreau

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.

Micato_Safaris_Maasai_Mara

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.

Micato_Safaris_Maasai_Village

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.