Virtuoso Life July 2019 Into Africa: The Upchurch Family’s Sustainable Safari

Into Africa: The Upchurch Family’s Sustainable Safari

The Upchurch family with Micato Safaris’ Anna Pinto (at left) and others in Kenya.
The Upchurch family with Micato Safaris’ Anna Pinto (at left) and others in Kenya.
Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch and his wife, Jessica Hall Upchurch, Virtuoso’s sustainability ambassador, headed to Africa recently for more than three weeks of exploration, family time, and wildlife viewing with their sons: Clay, age 14, and Benji, age 10. Here, a look at their four-country, sustainability-focused itinerary – along with insights on the experience from the family and safari insiders.
Day 1 
South Africa
Arrive in Johannesburg.

Day 2
Transfer to Wilderness Safaris’ Little Vumbura Camp, located on an island in the lush Okavango Delta.

Wilderness Safaris, a bellwether of sustainable tourism, is deeply invested in conserving and restoring African wilderness and wildlife. Since the late 1980s, the company has operated the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, an organization dedicated to animal conservation, community empowerment, and anti-poaching efforts. Wilderness Safaris also supports the non-profit Children in the Wilderness, which educates African children about caring for their environment. Last year the company contributed an estimated $14.7 million to conservation through its various projects.

“At Wilderness Safaris, we believe that purpose is the most important element of today’s safari experiences. Superb local hospitality, delicious food with a local flair, and beautiful camps built with a light eco-footprint in extraordinary wilderness locations are a given; what we believe in is offering life-changing journeys with a purpose – journeys that inspire our guests and help drive positive change in the world.” – Keith Vincent, CEO, Wilderness Safaris ​

Days 3-5
Game drives and exploration at Little Vumbura Camp.

“Most people, of course, want to do the ‘big five,’ but Benji was really adamant about seeing the termite mounds. We have so many pictures of him with termite mounds! We came to find out, the termites are so critical to the ecosystems of this area. Seeing them brought us back to the idea of the big and the small. The big things – the elephants and the rhinos – all matter, but so do the termites and the insects. In sustainability too, all of our small actions add up to a big impact.”– Jessica Hall Upchurch

“Even being little, you can make a big impact.” – Benji Upchurch
Benji Upchurch at Singita Sweni.
Benji Upchurch at Singita Sweni.
Day 5 
Transfer to Wilderness Safaris’ Linkwasha Camp, on a private concession at the southeastern corner of Hwange National Park.

“One of our favorite guides here, Sam, told us his father was ashamed he wanted to be a guide. But when he arrived home as the first owner of a vehicle in his village, his father was immensely proud. Seeing Sam tear up telling us his story was a moving reminder of the positive impact of travel on the smallest of local economies.” – Matthew Upchurch

Days 6-8
Game drives and local community experiences at Linkwasha Camp.

“It was really powerful going into the village and seeing how Wilderness Safaris serves its actual needs. They’ve built a real rapport with the local villages and they have been able to bring young people into tourism.” – Jessica

Days 8-11
South Africa 
Singita Sweni, Kruger National Park

Singita was founded expressly for the purpose of conserving wildlife. Today, the group helps protect more than 1 million acres throughout Africa and gives back to local communities through education, enterprise development, and environmental training designed to minimize poaching by providing locals with economic opportunities.

“Our guests have exclusive access to some of the most pristine wilderness areas on the continent – a direct result of our 100-year purpose to protect and preserve Africa’s wilderness for future generations. Joining hands with our conservation partners in the various regions where we operate, we’re able to achieve extraordinary successes in wildlife conservation and community partnerships, which in turn benefits our guests, who experience the wildlife in all its natural glory when they visit our lodges.” – Luke Bailes, founder and chairman, Singita
Singita Sweni lodge.
Singita Sweni lodge.
Days 11-15
South Africa 
Singita Boulders Lodge on the banks of the Sand River in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

Leopards, lions, rhinos, elephants, and many other species make appearances during game drives from this lodge in the country’s northern reaches.

“Every aspect of how we design, build, and operate our lodges is guided by the One Planet Living sustainability framework set out by the UK-based charity and social enterprise Bioregional. This commitment encompasses a range of measures that ensure we tread lightly on the earth and is woven into everything from our staff culture to carefully designed guest experiences, as well as our farm-to-table food, solar power plants, and sustainable supply chains. It’s a culture that seeps into every aspect of our operations – from general managers to housekeepers – and goes largely unseen by guests.” – Luke Bailes

“A big initiative for Singita is their culinary school. Matthew and I are now looking to sponsor a student through this school. Philanthropically, we did things all along the way on this trip. We have the philosophy that these companies we work with are doing great things and making huge impacts. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We work with people who are already doing the right things and fulfilling true needs in the world.” –Jessica
Singita Boulders Lodge. 
Singita Boulders Lodge. 
Day 15 
Transfer to Nairobi, Kenya, for the Micato Safaris portion of the trip, beginning at Giraffe Manor, where resident Rothschild’s giraffes occasionally pop their heads in first-floor windows.

Micato’s long-standing commitment to sustainability permeates everything it does, from the company’s charitable arm, AmericaShare, to its staff’s emphasis on environmental best practices (all safari directors are university-educated wildlife specialists). Micato was one of the first safari companies in Kenya to recycle plastic water bottles and is in the process of switching entirely to glass – and for every safari it sells, it sends a child to primary school.

“During our 50 years in business, we’ve tried hard to partner with the safari camps and lodges who most share our environmental ethos.” – Anna Pinto, executive director, Micato Safaris

Day 16
Lunch with sponsored children at Giraffe Manor and a visit to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

“We had lunch with two kids we’ve sponsored through AmericaShare, Dennis and Elizabeth. We’ve been sponsoring Dennis for nine years, and he’s about to graduate from high school this year. It’s given him a full education, food, a roof over his head. We write letters back and forth with him all the time. Dennis and Clay really clicked, and that was fun to see.” –Jessica

“Visiting Giraffe Manor was incredible, especially because my father, Jesse, donated the land to found it. Clay and Benji loved hanging out there with Dennis and Elizabeth. Watching them laughing, getting past their shyness with each other while a giraffe looked over their shoulders – it doesn’t get any better!” – Matthew
Jessica Upchurch at Giraffe Manor.
Jessica Upchurch at Giraffe Manor.
Day 17 
Transfer to the Maasai Mara for ME to WE activities. 

The included a visit to WE College in the Maasai Mara, which allows students to pursue a postsecondary education; a tour of Bogani Tented Camp and a hike with a Maasai warrior to learn about medicinal herbs; and a visit to Baraka Hospital.

ME to WE trips create sustainable, positive change in the communities we work with and the opportunity to form genuine, organic connections with community members who we’re honored to call family. They welcome travelers into their homes and lives, inviting them to explore their culture in the most immersive way. ME to WE partner communities have hosted more than 40,000 travelers since 2002. Over the years, the contributions of ME to WE travelers have directly supported WE Charity in establishing two full-service clinics and one hospital in the Narok region of Kenya; the construction of three high schools and one college, with accompanying scholarships, providing education to 11,500 Kenyan students in 24 Maasai Mara communities; and many more projects creating impacts in countries around the world.” – Roxanne Joyal, CEO, ME to WE

“The existence of Baraka Hospital means that for the first time in this area, women who are having issues in childbirth have a place to go. They can still do a home birth, which is what a lot of women want, but if there’s a need, they can actually now bring the mother there. They can get good prenatal care too.” – Jessica
Clay and Benji Upchurch with a Maasai warrior.
Clay and Benji Upchurch with a Maasai warrior.
Days 17-22
The Micato safari resumes at Ol Jogi Ranch, where photo ops included a family portrait with an elephant.

“My school has a charitable giving program where we can nominate organizations for donations. I love animals, and I was so amazed by the anti-poaching program at Ol Jogi that when I came home, I advocated to get $3,000 donated to their efforts.” – Clay Upchurch

Day 22
Transfer to Mukuru in Nairobi for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Virtuoso Upchurch Learning Centre.

“My family has long believed that the most powerful tool for sustainable change in Africa is education – not just of our travelers, but within the communities where we travel. That’s why for every safari we sell, through the Micato One for One Commitment, we send a child to school. It’s why our nonprofit foundation, AmericaShare, is dedicated to educational and community outreach. Our friends at Virtuoso, including Matthew and Jessica Upchurch, have played a major role in these efforts through their funding of a special-needs classroom in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum and sponsoring children for boarding school in the Micato-AmericaShare School Sponsorship Programme. Whenever Virtuoso travelers are on safari with Micato, they’re doing a great deal to support educational and sustainability efforts in Africa.”
Anna Pinto
Clay Upchurch at Ol Jogi Ranch.
Clay Upchurch at Ol Jogi Ranch.
Presentation of lacrosse equipment at the Harambee Centre.

“We brought a donation of lacrosse equipment over to the Harambee Centre. That was one of the things that Clay really wanted to do. We got to play with the kids there too. We’ve always found that a ball is a great way for kids to interact out in the world.” – Jessica

Visit to Huru International, a program for which Micato is a major donor.

The organization manufactures and distributes reusable sanitary pads to young girls and has helped 165,000 young women stay in school during their periods.

“It’s so empowering for these young women to have access to these resources and to feel like they can continue on with their lives.” – Jessica

Overnight at Hemingways Nairobi hotel, a 45-suite, plantation-style property in the suburb of Karen.

Day 23
Visit with two newly sponsored children (through AmericaShare) before departing for home.

“Taking so much time together as a family was so delightful. It really helped us to better connect with each other and with other people.” – Jessica

“Since I was a child, I’ve felt that Africa is magical, so seeing our boys transformed by the destination was also magical. You leave Africa, but Africa never leaves you.” – Matthew

Their Hosts: Virtuoso Tour Operators in Africa

Wilderness Safaris

Owns and operates more than 50 camps throughout Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Founded in 1983.


Owns 15 lodges and camps in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda. Founded in 1993.

Micato Safaris

Respected family-run safari operator in southern and East Africa. Founded in 1966.

ME to WE
A social enterprise founded in 2009 to provide domestic and international economic opportunities to WE Charity. WE Charity empowers communities to lift themselves out of poverty through a holistic, sustainable international development model called WE Villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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