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Heading out on a Kenya Safari for the first time since the pandemic began, I naturally had concerns that gave me pause. How would the flight be? The airports? The camps and lodges? The safari experience itself?
Was I crazy to be doing this at all?
Despite these initial concerns, there was one thing I knew for sure: Micato would take care of me.
My relationship with the company goes back decades – since I was a twenty-something trip director helping with large groups of cruise ship passengers and VIP incentive clients until now, when I serve as Micato’s Director of Communications.
During my time spent in East and Southern Africa over the years, I have been fortunate to develop a rewarding relationship with Micato Africa founders, Jane and Felix Pinto – two of the hardest working people I have ever had the pleasure to know and perhaps one of the very first “power couples.”
From Micato’s earliest days, Felix could figure out every last detail of large group’s overland movements – with hundreds of people heading to dozens of bush camps – in his head(!) while Jane insisted on meeting each and every guest who comes through Nairobi – many times more than once. Jane never fails to ask me about my sons and makes sure to send something along for them since, well, that is “Mama” as she is affectionately called by all of her staff.
This almost preternatural hospitality — second nature to Jane and Felix – is what they’ve looked for as they’ve hired every member of their team because it is something that cannot be taught.
So, how would it be now? I wondered, as I was sitting aboard the ultra-comfortable and oh-so-sanitized Qatar Airways’ flight, where I could not have felt safer due to their scrupulous precautions. The flight crew wore masks, surgical gowns, and gloves and leapt up every time to check the lavatory was properly sanitized the moment anyone was heading toward it. How would it be now that Micato’s extensive COVID protocols were in place? Would the interaction with Micato – and others – still feel as genuine and warm as it had time and again for decades?
I need not have worried; from the moment I stepped off the plane in Nairobi I was immediately back in the Micato fold… where even with masks and social distancing I experienced the warmest of welcomes.
And this warm Kenyan hospitality continued throughout my trip — from the gracious room stewards at Nairobi’s Hemingways hotel (my personal favourite!) all the way through my safari. Hemingways is ideally situated in the suburb of Karen, outside of the hustle and bustle of downtown Nairobi, so you can start to unwind from the moment you arrive. The airy, spacious layout of the rooms and of the hotel, in general, is enjoyable at any time, but reassuring indeed, during the days of COVID.
Our first stop in the bush was at Ol Donyo Lodge, a lovely Great Plains property situated in the Chyulu Hills. Upon landing, we were greeted by four-legged friends—a trio of cheetah brothers – an auspicious start to our two days there.
Ol Donyo is one of only two Relais and Chateaux properties in Kenya and I could easily see why. The suites are beautiful and each has a private plunge pool overlooking the savannahs. The property also has a “hide” where you can sit up close and personal with the animals that visit the watering hole there. We were lucky enough to watch a group of bull elephants enjoying a drink – oblivious to us just a few feet away. The property’s Covid protocols at Ol Donyo were impressive and reassuring – and not incidentally, in keeping with Micato’s protocols, because that’s what the company demands from all of its lodging partners. And the new procedures put in place for our well-being did not hinder the experience there in any way.
After Ol Donyo we headed to another gorgeous Great Plains property, Mara Nyika, in the Naibosho Conservancy, which borders the Maasai Mara. Here we once again experienced excellent game viewing and gracious hospitality as well as uncompromising COVID protocols. Thus far, nothing was interfering with my overall safari experience.
Next we were off to our first stop in Laikipia, the exquisite private villa, Arijiju, in the Borana Conservancy. It is truly difficult to describe this property adequately without comparing it to a museum since everywhere you turn, you see something beautiful – from the decorated bars of soap and leafy sprigs of green in the bathroom, to the pampering bed covers and morning tea service replete with roses — every small detail is in itself a work of art. After two sublime days at Arijiju, where we experienced the genuine caring and companionship of the property’s lovely General Managers, Della and Rich, it was hard to leave. And I can’t write about this property without mentioning the in-house spa therapist, Frieda, who went above and beyond to take care of my group – and who stirred up a plant-based essential oil recipe of hers when she noticed I was having sinus issues.
Leaving Arijiju I was doubtful that anything could rival such a place, but was more than pleasantly surprised upon arriving at Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy, which is superlative in every way. Situated on 58,000 private acres, Ol Jogi is arguably one of the most exclusive properties in all of Africa and is consistently recognized with awards by Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure. From Fred, the House Manager, to its head Guide, Johnnie Cross, and its lovely hosts, Carol and Jamie Gaymer (Guest Liaison Manager and Head Wildlife Conservation Manager respectively), we received the utmost in hospitality. One evening atop a rocky overlook we were treated to Sundowners, which Carol christened ‘Dom on the Rock,’ as we toasted the sunset with glasses of fizzy Dom Perignon.
And that was just one decadent enjoyment. Fred, who originally hails from France, makes sure that full-sized his and hers Hermes toiletries are provided in all guests’ rooms. Each “cottage” has a theme and I was happily in the “cheetah cottage” where even the glass-paned windows depicted cheetahs. Fred will gladly provide a tour of the estate’s walk-in china cabinet (a misnomer, as it is the size of a small bedroom) where there are luxe Christian Dior and Limoges china sets. During the tour, you will also visit the silver room, which holds every imaginable serving utensil that one could imagine — from bee-shaped honey decanters to serving platters of every shape and size.
Even more impressive than the luxe accommodations at Ol Jogi is the commitment to conservation that is an overarching part of the place’s ethos. Our group sat riveted by Jamie Gaymer’s tales of rescues undertaken by his Wildlife Rescue Centre and we were thrilled to get to meet some of the rehabilitated rhinos and elephants. To hear Jamie speak about “his rhinos” is like hearing someone talk about their own children; it is clear that he cares deeply about each and every one.
Again, I had my doubts when leaving Ol Jogi that the group could not help but be let down by our next and final stop, but once again it was all for naught. Segera Retreat is exceptional in its own way — from the gorgeous thatched-roof villas, which are a designer’s dream, to the captivating sculptures on the grounds, to the cheerful chalkboard messages wishing you a good morning, a welcome back or whatever the case may be.
It soon becomes clear that the orchestration of every last detail here is the result of the untiring efforts of the property’s GM, Jens Kozany. Jens is the quintessential host who personally handwrites each and every welcome letter and knows how to provide the perfect combination of privacy and attention. Jens’s enthusiasm about the numerous conservation initiatives undertaken by the Zeitz Foundation is clear – and the more you hear Jens talk, the more you want to help.
One afternoon we had the pleasure of witnessing the Retreat’s tracker dogs re-enact a poacher chase. These bloodhounds have helped deter would-be poachers in the area, along with their rangers, and it is a thrill to see them simulate their work. Plus, they are adorable to boot!
As a final hurrah, Jens arranged a special surprise for us – a helicopter excursion to Mount Lolgurugi, where we landed for a delicious picnic breakfast. Seeing the bush by helicopter was a first for me – but certainly not a last – as it was so breathtakingly beautiful.
The Tropic Air helicopter was a “limousine” of helicopters and I felt completely at ease in the care of our pilot, Ben. I highly recommend adding in a helicopter tour into a safari, as it takes you to places you may not otherwise get to visit and provides a splendid vantage point.
It was upon leaving the Segera airstrip that I noticed something I hadn’t before – even in all my years of travelling to East Africa. Kenyans do not simply wave hello or goodbye with one hand – like we do here in the United States – but instead, they give it their all — waving with both hands and with much enthusiasm.
It occurred to me that this small difference in our gestures encapsulates something much more. I would argue that it illustrates the very nature of the Kenyan people:
They do nothing halfway.
Their caring and kindness is whole-hearted and genuine and they will expend every effort to ensure your well-being.
Upon my return, I was asked what it was like to be in Kenya during the pandemic, and my honest answer is that I have never felt safer, better cared for, more pampered, more aware that everyone I met, everywhere I went, was deeply concerned about my welfare.
And as for the hospitality, that was there, too, of course. The Kenyans have it well in hand… both of them.
Emily Baldwin travelled to Kenya in October, 2020. To start planning your Micato Safari request our full colour 2021 brochure and then contact a Safari Specialist. We love to talk safari!