THE INTERVIEW: Dennis Pinto
Imagine a safari on the Serengeti Plains, surrounded by incredible wildlife, your accommodations a spacious tent replete with oriental rugs and butler service. There are multiple game runs each day, memorable food and drink, guides who excel at their profession and daily experiences that only Africa can provide. This kind of experience is the hallmark of Micato Safaris, which has been dubbed the World’s Best Tour Operator and Safari Leader by Travel + Leisure readers for the past five years. Started in Kenya in 1966 by Felix and Jane Pinto, their son Dennis Pinto (with family in photo) has been leading this family-owned and run business in the US since 1984. And for the last 20 years, they’ve run AmericaShare, a non profit organization to help victims of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Kenya. I met up with Dennis not in the wilds of Kenya but in the equally unpredictable wilderness of Las Vegas, where he took some time to speak about this remarkable company and the current situation in Kenya.
MICATO HAS BEEN AROUND FOR 40 YEARS. HOW HAS THE CONCEPT OF "SAFARI" CHANGED IN THAT TIME?
In the old days, safaris were best suited for the intrepid traveler. It was for people who didn’t mind driving over harsh bumpy terrain for hours at a time, sleeping in tents, and eating hardy but uninspired meals in the quest to see the most magnificent wildlife on the planet.
Then along came Lars-Erik Lindblad, who built small dirt strips, trucked in aviation fuel, and flew travelers between locations in comfort. Lars built the first of the luxury camps replete with four-poster beds and oriental rugs, and trained chefs to prepare delightful meals in the bush. Lars was the inventor of the luxury safari and also the wing safari. You probably know Lars’s son, Sven Lindblad of Lindblad Expeditions, who is carrying on the family tradition of providing travelers with amazing trips around the globe.
Today our trips combine the best of Africa. Spectacular wildlife viewing led by the best African guides, incredible camps and lodges featuring every creature comfort from plunge pools to butlers, a series of wonderful experiences each day. Best of all, our safaris give travelers a chance to really get behind the scenes and spend one-on-one time with the people of Africa.
Worth noting is that more than half of our trips are Bespoke safaris, where we customize arrangements to the travelers’ exact specifications. And more than 40% of our guests are on family programs. A Micato safari is a powerful and effective way to reconnect families. American children are especially changed when they visit one of our projects in conjunction with AmericaShare and spend time with African children left orphaned and vulnerable from the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
WHAT WOULD YOU ADVISE TRAVELERS WHO ARE CONCERNED ABOUT TRAVEL TO KENYA, GIVEN THE UNREST FOLLOWING THE NATIONAL ELECTIONS IN DECEMBER
The past few weeks were uncharacteristically turbulent ones in Kenya, due to disputed vote results in the nation’s presidential election. However, the situation was not as widespread as suggested in the media, with the violence taking place virtually exclusively in the heavily populated slums of a few major cities or in remote areas that tourists never visit.
Nearly two hundred Micato travelers were on safari during this period, none of whom saw or heard any of the clashes that we witnessed on the evening’s news. Guests transited the airport, drove through the city and checked in to the Norfolk Hotel in the city center and it was business as usual. Additionally, Micato safari directors and lodge managers in every game park reported complete peace and calm with the tribes peoples in their areas, thus we were assured that our guests in the bush were also untouched by the problems.
It’s worth noting that Micato, unlike most U.S. safari operators, has its own affiliate staff in Kenya, with operations overseen by my parents, Felix and Jane Pinto, who make their home in Nairobi. This gives us a significant advantage in obtaining first-hand information, the ability to closely monitor the situation and the power to pro-actively change guests’ itineraries at a moment’s notice.
WHAT IS YOUR MISSION STATEMENT?
Micato’s goal is to provide every traveler with an unforgettable, life-altering safari experience. This is easier said than done. We agonize over every little detail when we plan safaris, which is why we hire only perfectionists and workaholics! And I know we’re meeting our goals when someone like Bernard Wharton, a recent traveler, writes to me and says, "I got on a plane one week, expecting to have an interesting trip, and I left Micato’s Africa a changed man."
And when the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine named Micato the "World’s Best Tour Operator" for an unprecedented fifth year in a row I knew our staff were consistently delivering on the promise.
But the truth is that we have an unfair advantage over most. My parents live in Africa and are hands-on managers of our trips. They entertain every traveler at their home. This give us instant feedback and an amazing opportunity to take immediate corrective action if needed.
ON SOME TRIPS, YOU INCLUDE PURSUITS THAT DON’T EXACTLY MESH WITH THE POPULAR CONCEPT OF THE "SAFARI." LIKE ARCHERY, TENNIS, HOT AIR BALLOONING AND BILLIARDS. WHY IS THAT?
It’s true billiards and safari are not usually in the same sentence. But Micato is known for offering a wide variety of activities that are not traditionally found on safaris. We want to provide our guests with singularly unique experiences. And since luxury means different things to different people, we’re taken creative license to provide guests with a plethora of activities.
The hot air balloon is one of my favorites. Imagine viewing hundreds of thousands of animals from a birds-eye perspective. And then landing for a champagne brunch, set up by a special catering team, wherever you happen to land!
Ever played tennis with monkeys trying to steal the balls? Or golf with zebra on the fairway?
One night in camp this summer my wife ran excitedly from her bath, with just a towel wrapped around her, to our children’s room to get them to come and see the bush baby who decided to sit on the sink and watch her. My 7- and 9-year old weren’t too excited by a bush baby sighting since they were sitting in the plunge pool ten feet away from a large female elephant who decided to devour the tasty planting around their tent.
TELL ME ABOUT "WINGED SAFARIS."
Lars Lindblad pioneered the wing safari in the 1960s but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that the concept really took off. Now with modern aircraft expertly commanded by skilled bush pilots one can fly very comfortably between locations. For example, we get from Kenya’s Maasai Mara to Serengeti in a few hours by air. In the old days this would have been a 4- or 5-day journey by road.
My favorite aircraft is the Grand Caravan which is affectionately known as the Land Rover of the air. When we outfit the plane with lounge chair executive seating it becomes more like a Range Rover!
HOW ENDANGERED ARE THE BIG ANIMALS?
Countries like Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa have a disproportionate share of the big game partly because, over the course of decades, they have implemented stringent laws protecting the wildlife. These regions also have a large middle class — people who want to leave the planet a better place than they found it. Conservation is part of the curriculum in many schools in Africa. And people like Jane Goodall, with the Roots & Shoots program, are educating children about conservation on a massive scale.
But there are other countries that have not acted, and in some regions poachers still exist. Plus, when someone is starving, clearly they might kill animals to feed their families.
So, like most things, there are no easy answers. But, the trends are positive and the local populations have realized that wildlife and the income from tourism are significant income generators.
In general, you’ll need about two weeks.
OKAY, BUT GIVEN TIME-PRESSED AMERICAN SCHEDULES, DO YOU OFFER SLIGHTLY SHORTER SAFARIS?
While our shortest published trip is 12 days, our Bespoke team can tailor a safari of any length. But we often turn away travelers whose schedules only permit a week, they’re doing themselves a disservice. Every time Micato travelers leave Africa it is a very tearful goodbye at the airport. Everyone wants to stay longer. It’s a very special place and once travelers get there they understand why we preferred for them to plan to stay a couple of weeks.
WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT PERSONAL FAVORITE AMONG MICATO TRIPS?
That’s tough, because each of our itineraries offers unique and wonderful experiences. Our safari experts in New York, all of whom have traveled extensively in Africa , will be able to steer guests to the right trip for their needs. But, for me, I can’t get enough of the Micato Grand Safari. It visits my favorite areas, like Maasai Mara and Serengeti, and you stay in places like the old-world Norfolk Hotel and the renowned Mount Kenya Safari Club. This safari also includes a host of experiences that I can’t tell you about because it will ruin the surprise!
My wife, Joy, who is a true Africa aficionado, also loves the "Travel+Leisure World’s Best Safari" in South Africa.
ANY SLEEPERS, PLACES THAT OFFER A GREAT EXPERIENCE IN YOUR CATALOG OF TRIPS BUT FOR SOME REASON HAVE BEEN OVERLOOKED BY CLIENTS?
Most people don’t realize that the majority of wildlife lives on private land, not in the game reserves. And some of the best viewing, combined with spectacular accommodations, are on these private ranches. And I’m not talking about a few hundred acres. These are ranches of 50,000-100,000 acres in size and, in one case, spans a million acres. The Micato Bespoke Collection, in our catalogue, highlights a few of our favorite places. Each location is carefully selected, and to be included in the collection one must pass rigorous screening.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU TRAVEL, AND IS IT USUALLY FOR BUSINESS OR FOR PLEASURE?
I love to travel, so I do it often. I often travel for business in the U.S. but since I grew up in Africa it is always thrilling for me to travel to places that Americans would consider mundane. Personally, I love the Midwest. Cornfields in Kansas. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up on a farm in Kenya.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT TRAVEL? WHAT DO YOU DETEST?
I love the people. It’s people who make a place what it is. I collect ship models which often takes me to strange and wonderful dark alleys looking for an elusive piece. I once stumbled upon a trove of antique grandfather clocks, stacked in a corner and covered in inches of dust, in a spice shop in Zanzibar. I had to drink endless cups of tea and purchase 12 pounds of cloves before the shop owner agreed to sell me those clocks.
I honestly cannot think of a thing I would detest about traveling! Even petty annoyances like delays can be an opportunity to meet interesting people and hear their stories.
WHAT CAN’T YOU LEAVE HOME WITHOUT WHEN YOU TRAVEL?
My I-pod and a camera. They are both great ice breakers, especially in Africa. People always laugh when they see pictures of themselves on the digital camera. And music is a great connector also. I’m learning a couple of magic tricks from my 7-year old son. Magic is another door opener in outlying villages.
WHERE ARE YOU OFF TO NEXT?
India. I’ve been traveling to India for the last 30 years. I can’t get enough of it.
Contact Micato Safaris.