virtuoso global January 2020 What to Expect on Your First Safari

What to Expect on Your First Safari

Female lions keep watch over the Maasai Mara grasslands.
Female lions keep watch over the Maasai Mara grasslands.
An expert outfitter helps travelers create their ideal African expedition.
You’ve picked the dates and bought the khaki vest. Now what?

Going on safari – whether that means witnessing the spectacle of migration, exploring the teeming savanna, or snapping photos of Africa’s “big five” up close – is a dream vacation for many travelers. Googling “where to go on safari” can be fun for the first 15 minutes, but for this type of blockbuster trip, teaming up with the right outfitter pays dividends. Felix and Jane Pinto, native Kenyans, founded Micato Safaris in 1966 and the Pinto family still runs it their way, with profound care for their guests at every stage of the trip and a 30-plus-year commitment to supporting on-the-ground communities. (Felix and Jane even host Micato travelers for dinner at their Nairobi home.)
 
From predeparture to long after returning home, here’s what to expect from a Micato safari.
Zebra and wildebeest often graze and migrate together, eating different components of the same grass species in a symbiotic relationship. 
Zebra and wildebeest often graze and migrate together, eating different components of the same grass species in a symbiotic relationship. 

Before: How to prepare

First, research. Micato hosts three types of trips: classic small-group safaris capped at 18 people, private expeditions for friends and/or family, and custom itineraries. (There are also multiday extensions for travelers who want, for example, to precede their safari with a gorilla trek in Rwanda or linger in Cape Town before flying back home.) As for where to go, eastern Africa is the classic choice, home to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, which together form a massive, bountiful ecosystem. In southern Africa, travelers come for the geodiversity of red deserts in Namibia, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Kruger National Park and the Cape Winelands in South Africa.
An elephant wades through the Xigera Concession in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
An elephant wades through the Xigera Concession in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Photo by Getty Images
Weight restrictions on bush planes dictate light packing. Micato makes this a nonissue with valet laundry service throughout trips and by loaning each guest Nikon binoculars. Weeks before departure, guests receive not only a packing list, but a hardy Marmot duffel bag – with wheels and a retractable handle – made exclusively for Micato.

Virtuoso Life editor-in-chief Elaine Srnka and a group of her family and friends recently spent nine days touring Kenya with Micato Safaris. “The luggage weight allowance may seem limiting at first, but you really don’t need to overpack, since laundry is included,” she says. “To avoid looking like you’re wearing the same outfit in every picture from your trip, pack a variety of scarves – they take up no space and serve as a bathing suit cover-up, a shawl for warmth or protection from wind and sun, or just a dash of style looped around your neck.”

During: What to expect when you’re there

Accommodations range from opulent lodges, such as the historic Fairmont The Norfolk in Kenya, to the tented Somalisa Camp in Zimbabwe. African dishes are available daily at every accommodation (think Arabic, Indian, and British culinary influences in eastern Africa; Dutch, French, and British in southern Africa). For the stretches of time between game drives, several lodges have swimming pools, and more-rural bush camps provide each traveler with a “gym in a bag” consisting of a yoga mat, jump rope, stretch bands, and weights. “Being a dyed-in-the-wool city girl, I was a little anxious about staying in a tent, but I wish all the hotels I stay in were as lovely and as comfortable,” Virtuoso advisor Kim Short says.
Between game drives, rest easy at the Fairmont The Norfolk.
Between game drives, rest easy at the Fairmont The Norfolk.
Photo by Fairmont The Norfolk
Upon settling in, guests should expect a warm and comprehensive welcome reception. “On the first day of our tour, Micato held a safety briefing,” travel advisor Mary Walker says. The safari company ensures top-quality safety and health care, including on-site doctors at most camps and lodges for minor scrapes, as well as a team of “flying doctors” who provide emergency treatment and transportation. 

Game drives are the centerpiece of a safari experience. Daily drives give travelers the chance to see elephants nibbling on trees, lions lounging in the sun, and countless gazelles moving across the savanna. In this wild setting, a plush touch is extra fun: Afternoon drives occasionally end with sundowner cocktails from a pop-up bush bar, complete with views of giraffes and zebras.
Not all game viewing takes place at eye level, however. Consider, for instance, a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over trumpeting elephants in the Maasai Mara. “That was our family’s favorite experience,” Srnka says. “Skimming above the tree line offered an entirely different perspective, and we watched herds of wildebeests, zebras, and elephants race below and then scatter as if part of a choreographed ballet. Afterward we touched down for a Champagne brunch, although we were already giddy enough from our recent flight.”
A hot-air balloon rises in the distance as a herd of elephants searches for new grazing grounds in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A hot-air balloon rises in the distance as a herd of elephants searches for new grazing grounds in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Photo by Getty Images
Micato wants guests to get to know African people, too: Travelers can meet with village elders, play soccer with local kids, and shop craft markets for woven sisal baskets, ebony carvings, and traditional jewelry. Through its Micato-AmericaShare nonprofit, Micato sends one local child to school for every safari purchased. Travelers have the opportunity to meet these students at the Harambee Community Centre in Nairobi, a gathering place with a library and computer lab maintained by Micato.

“The most meaningful surprise was the warmth and sincerity of the people we met, especially the wonderful children who have benefited from the Pinto family’s generosity,” Short says. “Everyone we met was genuinely kind. I think a lot of that welcoming spirit was a result of our group being associated with Micato and the Pinto family, who are just very generous and loved by the Kenyan people.”

After: The experience continues

Micato travelers say their trips have changed their lives, whether by showing them the majesty of animals roaming free, the consequences of poaching, or the difference a pair of shoes makes to an AmericaShare student. Safari-goers have the opportunity to sponsor a student, often an orphaned child who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford an education.

Srnka and her family brought home a powerful memory from the Harambee center. “We got to meet Peter, a high schooler whose education my family sponsors through Micato-AmericaShare,” she says. “After years of being pen pals, my teenaged kids loved finally meeting Peter in person.”

“Love and gratitude have stayed with me,” advisor Walker adds. “A trip to Africa should change your life and soften your heart. It should make you kinder to people around you and cause you to reflect on how you can make a difference in someone’s life, whether it’s sponsoring a child in Africa or doing acts of charity in your hometown – or simply being kinder to your own family.”

How to Go in 2020

A leopard sleeps on a perch in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
A leopard sleeps on a perch in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Photo by Getty Images
New this year, Micato Safaris has introduced a 14-day trip in Botswana and Zimbabwe that includes floating in the Okavango Delta to see its famous hippos, touring thundering Victoria Falls by helicopter, and catching the “big five,” along with smaller wonders such as wild dogs. Biweekly departures available now through December 31; from $13,950.

Micato’s new 15-day tour of Namibia and South Africa bookends a stay in Cape Town with wilderness expeditions to see rare black rhinos in Etosha National Park and follow wandering herds in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Biweekly departures available now through December 31; from $16,950.

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