Virtuoso Global The Perfect Sundowner in East Africa

The Perfect Sundowner in East Africa

In East Africa with Micato Safaris.
In East Africa with Micato Safaris.
In Kenya, just west of the Great Rift Valley, the late afternoon light turns a ridge to brilliant gold. Denis, my Micato Safaris guide, arranges a blanket with the adept care of a gardener planting rare heirloom seeds. He motions for me to sit down and take in the view.
 
This moment, with Africa as our personal auditorium, is a classic Micato experience. One of the most celebrated safari companies in the world, offering myriad soul-stirring experiences in India and across Africa, family-owned Micato is best known for treating guests with the intimacy of friends and the type of coddling normally reserved for royalty. (Owners Felix and Jane Pinto have even welcomed safari-going guests to their home in Nairobi for years.)
A close look at zebras and a giraffe in East Africa.
A close look at zebras and a giraffe in East Africa.

Here in East Africa, the wind delivers the cries of animals: baboons fighting like naughty children, elephants braying, and hyenas shrieking with characteristic discontent. As I await like a princess overseeing the bush, my guide brings me a chalice – literally a silver drinking cup – full of rosé wine (apparently he has found a stash) and offers me cheese biscuits from a porcelain plate. He sits beside me, our driver nearby, and in companionable euphoria we watch the sun fall fast into the scrubby textures of the Laikipia plains. During our sundowner (the classic African end-of-the-day safari ritual), we watch the huge sky turn opaque. Alone with Africa and these two fine men, I feel like either the first or the last woman on earth – and I don’t want to leave this place. Ever. I don’t want to move from the blanket, and Denis is reduced to coaxing me back to the car. “There’s a better sundowner tomorrow. Just you wait,” he says.
 
He doesn’t lie. On my Micato Safaris trip we see many heart-stopping sundowns. It feels like his personal goal is to astound me with the setting sun. While he can’t order up the animals we see, synchronicity plays a role, and we find multitudes of them: dazzles of zebras, parades of elephants, coalitions of cheetahs, and obstinacies of buffalo. Zebras and giraffes even pass just a few feet from me during the middle of the day, as I work outdoors on my balcony at Segera Retreat, a small safari resort that showcases one of Africa’s finest private African art collections, from statues to installations.

Micato deftly deduces what I can’t put into words myself. Africa isn’t just that checklist of the Big Five or adrenaline-charged adventure; it’s not only those glamorous safari lodges, so evocative of Hemingway heyday romance, or the incomparable, seamless Micato service. Soulful Africa delivers something more profound in the vastness of its nature. And Denis, with the total focus typical of Micato, crafts our sunset experience each day to showcase the heartbeat of the bush. 

Sundowners at Segera Retreat.
Sundowners at Segera Retreat.

After our time at Segera Retreat we fly to the Chyulu Hills, a volcanic, mountainous wonderland in eastern Kenya, rife with elephants, leopards, and even rare black rhinos. Our luxury transfers in small planes landing and taking off from remote air strips and comfortable safari vehicles on bumpy roads have the ease of a magic carpet ride. There’s always someone to hoist my bag, hand me a cold drink, or give me a wet cloth to wipe my hands and face. Like writer Karen Blixen, whom Micato has made sure I channel, and her entourage of loyal helpers, I don’t have to worry about anything but drinking in each sight.
 
We are picked up on the air strip by Winston, a Maasai warrior who will accompany us for the next three days, and then drive to ol Donyo, a private Relais & Châteaux ranch in the wilderness. There, we participate in unconventional game drives. We ride bikes through the bush, hike miles over acacia-peppered land for an alfresco brunch, and ride horses surrounded by a tower of giraffes and some curious ostriches. Each night Micato leaves me a pillow present, always something I would have bought myself, such as a beaded Maasai-made necklace, plus a poem or quote about Africa.
 
But the highlight of each day at ol Donyo – as at Segera – is the sundowner. At each sundowner location, we watch the sky as it explodes in color. Though I am distracted by wildlife sightings, I still notice how Winston and Denis whisper when they think I don’t hear them, as schemers do, their voices feverish with enthusiasm. Each day, they provide the gift of another unforgettable venue in the bush’s vast nothingness, amid a stillness so dense it seems profound enough to whisper the meaning of life.
 

Sunset at ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya.
Sunset at ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya.

During the day, we scramble up kopjes, burnished bronze-hued outcroppings that rise imperfectly across the African landscape and add to the bush’s distinct otherworldliness. Normally, you drive beside the kopjes or stop in their shade for a break from the burning sun. This time, we leave the car behind. Winston and Denis tote picnic baskets, and we clamber up a crevice in the rock.
 
At last we stand high above the landscape, a patchwork of emerald and black stones below, the volcanic mountains just beyond. On a flat place, we dance around on the kopje and peer at some baboons, who stare back. We’ve offended them by invading their secret spot. As always, besides the three of us, there’s not another human being in sight. And once the apes leap across an impractical gap to another kopje to claim new territory, we are truly alone. We humans play, finding a smaller, rounded kopje that balances impossibly, as if stacked by supernatural beings. Frivolously, we take photos of each other pretending to push the rock, its location near the edge creating the illusion that we are actually moving it. Later, we settle onto an unfurled blanket. I sip from my silver chalice and chat with the Micato team; the baboons howl. When the sun finally starts to plummet, we all become silent, as a prelude for what’s to come. When it disappears below crimson ribbons, we cheer. The baboons have long gone.
 
Back in Nairobi, sorry to leave Africa and missing it already, I think of Ernest Hemingway’s words in Green Hills of Africa: “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” 

Lucky for me, Micato, the masters of the unexpected extra, has something in store that’s better than any sunset: a visit to Harambee Centre, the community facility in the crowded Mukuru slum. 

Micato-AmericaShare’s Harambee Centre in Nairobi.
Micato-AmericaShare’s Harambee Centre in Nairobi.

AmericaShare, the nonprofit program Micato founded more than 30 years ago, has enhanced the lives of thousands by sending one child to school for every safari sold. As I walk the streets of Mukuru with Cliffe Lumbasyo from Micato and the AmericaShare team, they’re greeted as family and friends. At the Harambee Centre, I’m given the chance to go into the library and choose a new book to present to the students. “Will you please write in the front of it?” says a shy little girl who has been holding my hand. “They love that most of all,” Denis, still with me, says.
                                                                             
I open a book of poetry and scribble as neatly as I am able: “Never give up. Work hard. Be happy and kind. And, always believe in magic.” In a halting voice, the child reads my words aloud. She looks up at me, because she knows. “Now a part of you will stay in Africa always,” she says. “Yes,” says Denis, and I know he’s right. 

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