The Best Way to Experience All Kenya Has to Offer
Two thousand and six was a challenging year for me. Personal struggles had taken their toll and I began to feel like I was surrendering my usual upbeat personality. I knew that something had to change and, like the rest of the “travel addicts” in our industry, an adventure was the perfect remedy to heal my soul. For years I havebeen planning African safaris for clients and for years I had intended to visit myself but to no avail. Brochures, pictures and stories from my mentors and African enthusiasts, Paul and Roland Largay, had me selling a destination that intrigued me, but for a multitude of reasons had thus far, eluded me. With each successful African adventure I crafted, my knowledge grew but Uncle Roland (as he is known throughout the industry) would always remind me, “You have to go to truly understand.” So in full Thelma and Louise style, my sister, Denise, and I began to prepare for our African adventure.
My overall goal was to experience Africa “Micato Safari style” and immerse myself in the exciting new trend in which guests stay at exclusive private homes, working cattle ranches and unique tented camps. Small hidden gems on private expanses of land and on the outskirts of the traditional national parks. Weeks of planning and personal recommendations from Dennis Pinto, Managing Director of Micato Safaris, had my sister and me off and running with an exciting itinerary, great anticipation and borrowed safari jackets that were two sizes too big. As each passing day brought us closer to our Girlfriend’s Adventure, we could barely contain ourselves.
In addition to becoming a magician packer, capable of single handedly trying to fit seventy-five pounds of clothing into a thirty-three pound capacity duffle bag, I was simultaneously engaged in pursuing my marketing and African Community projects. On previous trips my efforts had entailed extending a better understanding of world geography with my daughter’s kindergarten class by carrying and photographing “Flat Stanley” (a picture of a boy from a book) in exotic locales throughout the Far East. Lectures on my trip and on life in Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore followed my return. This trip to Kenya, however, was different, as I was planning to visit an orphanage in the Mukuru Slum in Nairobi with the Lend a Helping Hand on Safari program offered by Micato’s non-profit arm, AmericaShare. Preparations included a talk on Kenya to the first grade classes, a fundraiser in which students sold beaded heart pins handmade by an HIV-positive women’s group in Nairobi, handcrafted stuffed animals with notes from kindergarteners and fifth graders, a photo journal and the creation of a hand print banner.
My 33-pound duffle was now filled with the art supplies necessary for the children in Kenya to create and return their own banner. I was energized by the local children’s enthusiasm, their success in raising over $700 and humbled by the local press’s interest and involvement in the project. All we needed now was to depart on our journey.
Our odyssey began with two nights in Nairobi, providing an opportunity to see the sights and adjust to the time change. Our wonderful Micato guide, Kennedy, established our expectations of the trip and focused on our personal interests. He provided many helpful insights into both our planned itinerary and the various cultural regions of Kenya. His ability to seamlessly deviate from our originally planned route in order to incorporate our interests (we were convinced he had to have our room bugged!) magically resulted in a wonderful visit to the Elephant Orphanage on the way to Karen Blixen’s House and a private tea plantation for lunch. Our stay in Nairobi ended with a private dinner at the Pintos’ Nairobi home, a hallmark of the Micato experience. After seeing the sights and shops in Nairobi we were now ready to begin the safari portion of our trip.
Our early morning flight on a bush plane the size of compact car brought us to Loisaba, a private 60,000 acre working cattle ranch on the Laikipia Plateau. The flight was our first introduction to the natural beauty of Africa as our pilot flew at a low altitude, graciously revealing the rolling landscape of the African plains. Selectively dotted with herds of elephant and giraffe, the outlines of Maasai and Samburu Villages and the traditional red dresses of the inhabitants wonderfully contrasted with the earth tones of landscape. This was the Africa I had dreamed of, this was the Africa that everyone always spoke about in such reverent tones. We had finally arrived.
We arrived at Loisaba in the late morning. The game was plentiful and the park was vast. The view from the lodge, which sits on the rim of a large valley, was spectacular and all seven rooms had a deck overlooking a waterhole on the valley floor. There was a serene feeling throughout the entire property, and all staff and visitors willingly shared their daily experiences with one another. Our days consisted of game drives, swimming, visits to native villages, camel trekking and white water rafting. Evenings included socializing by the lodge’s gigantic stone fireplace and a gourmet dinner that would rival those served at the world’s finest restaurants. Our night game drive provided the finishing touch before we retired to our feather beds. This was truly paradise.
Our next stop was Borana Ranch, another working cattle ranch that offered a complete immersion into life on a Kenyan Ranch, with an emphasis on horseback riding. The lodge sits high on the walls of a gorge with spectacular views and luxurious thatched-roof accommodations. Our days were monopolized by games drives, massages, and a visit to a tannery staffed by local disabled and blind residents. The highlight of our stay was galloping on horseback across the plains with a heard of giraffe and zebra. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Our last stop was the Maasai Mara and Cottar’s 1920’s Safari Camp. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive about the idea of a tent, as my prior concept of camping was a power outage at the Four Seasons, but my uneasiness quickly evaporated as I discovered oriental rugs, antique furniture, flush toilets, in-suite hot showers and four-poster beds. This was camping on steroids or “luxury under canvas” and we loved it. The family who runs the camp, Nick and Betsy, could not have been more engaging or hospitable. Having raised their family in the bush with awareness on conserving and preserving the Mara, they entertained us with many stories of their life and cultural pursuits there. The camp was spectacular and on one game drive alone we spotted over forty lions.
Our last stop was the one I had looked forward to the most, the AmericaShare orphanage in Nairobi. We arrived in the early afternoon, and the journey through the Mukuru Slum was daunting to say the least. Although I had seen poverty graphically depicted in photographs, I had never personally witnessed nor understood it until now. As we turned the corner into the orphanage, I felt as though I was entering an oasis of hope. A place so physically close, but so spiritually removed from the rest of the personal hardships and challenges of the slum. It was as if the hands of God had mysteriously reached down and drawn a line between the pain of the past and the potential of the future.
To my wonderful surprise the children were smiling, laughing and playing games, just like my own children do. My personal sorrows were quickly replaced by feelings of joy, as the children sang and danced for us. We presented our gifts from the students and jointly created a handprint banner to return home. The experience was powerful and enlightening and magically displaced the wildlife of Kenya with the children of Mukuru as the true highlight of my journey.
I humbly returned home with countless pictures and amazing stories of Kenya, knowing that my life had been transformed and that my soul had been healed and indelibly etched with the smiles of the children in Mukuru. I am fortunate to include Kennedy, our Micato Safari guide, in my list of ‘true ‘ friends. My sister and I now have a personal relationship that transcends its former limitations, and the children of Bethlehem, Connecticut have a wonderful new understanding of Africa and its people. I would highly recommend this journey to anyone who is fascinated by culture and wildlife and I consider myself fortunate as I can FINALLY join the chorus of people, who say,
“You have to go to truly understand.”
Amanda at the America Share Orphanage in Kenya