Safari in Meru National Park, Kenya
When thinking of Kenyan safari destinations, it’s all too easy to jump to the two most obvious choices; the Serengeti and Masai Mara. The location for countless natural history programmes and documentaries such as Big Cat Diary, these two National Parks are home to the annual wildebeest migration; a natural spectacle that sees millions of wildebeest and zebra embark on a journey between Tanzania and Kenya in search of water and fresh grazing. However, the vast plains also play host to increasing numbers of another species. Thousands of tourists flock to the Parks every year to catch a glimpse of the migration. So for our first Kenyan adventure, we decided to avoid the crowds and opt for a far more intimate and luxurious experience, following in the footsteps of George and Joy Adamson and their famous four-legged companion, Elsa the lioness.
Meru National Park puts the wild into wilderness
The infinity pool was a turquoise oasis surrounded by hundreds of miles of wilderness scorched by the Kenyan sun. We swam to its edge, resting our chins on folded arms as we gazed intently over the savannah. A slight flicker of movement far in the distance revealed a tower of reticulated giraffe, moving slowly from tree to tree, browsing as they went. As our eyes adjusted, more secrets were revealed; an ostrich, a family of warthogs, a small herd of buffalo. The pool gave us the perfect vantage point to watch life on the plains below; carved out of the rock face at the very top of a kopje (small hill). But this was no ordinary kopje, belonging once to Elsa the lioness and her two, loyal guardians who hand-reared her from a cub before reintroducing her into the wild. This was Elsa’s Kopje in the Meru National Park, Kenya. As we relaxed in the cool water, a lion roared somewhere in the distance, and we couldn’t help but wonder whether Elsa’s pride was coming home to reclaim it.
The varied panoramas are unlike any of the other East African parks and certainly very different from anything I’d seen before. It was spellbinding
Our safari started long before we reached Meru
We’d opted to drive to Meru from Nairobi rather than fly, a decision we later questioned. The road, when there was one, was pitted with potholes as big as canyons, twisting through remote villages, countryside, and bush. Highways quickly turned into B roads, tar into the dirt. Goats and cattle appeared out of nowhere, often on the twist in a hairpin bend, meaning the brakes were frequently used. Sat Nav seemingly had no idea where we were heading, and our map books were none the wiser. The 200+ miles from Nairobi to the Park were the most nerve-wracking of all my African trips. That said, the drive provided us with an excellent opportunity to see Kenya at its wild, unspoilt best. And had we not driven, we’d never have stumbled upon Barneys; an American influenced café overlooking a small airstrip at the side of the Nyeri-Nanyuki highway. Offering a breath-taking view of Mount Kenya, we sat and savoured the vista over ice-cold juices and delicious, freshly-made pizza, secretly longing we were aboard one of the small twin-prop planes that took off from the adjacent strip heading in the general direction of Meru.
Several hours later, we arrived at our destination, and all thoughts of our perilous journey were forgotten. Covering close to 1800 square kilometres, Meru National Park’s landscape is as diverse as the wild inhabitants that call it home. Stands of giant palms dominated the scenery, giving it an almost prehistoric feel. Thick bush suddenly opened to reveal endless plains and savannah, dotted with clusters of volcanic rock. Crystal clear streams originating in the Nyambeni Hills on the Park’s western boundary fed rivers, crisscrossing the Park’s arid landscape. The varied panoramas are unlike any of the other East African parks and certainly very different from anything I’d seen before. It was spellbinding.
We drove ourselves from the Murera Gate, following columns of stacked, whitewashed rocks at the side of the dusty roads; our signposts to our home for the next three nights. Elsa’s Kopje is in the very heart of the Park, on the small, rocky Mughwango hill that offers 360-degree views of Mount Kenya in the East and across the endless plains of the Meru National Park. The camp is named after perhaps the world’s most famous lioness and is built just above the site of George Adamson’s original camp. The Kopje was Elsa’s playground, and when we learn, during our welcome debriefing, that the camp is unfenced, it’s hard not to imagine her ancestors paying us a repeat visit in the dead of night.
The camp’s manager welcomes us with a warm smile and an ice-cold refresher towel and glass of juice. As we unwind from our journey, we listen to the history of the camp, how it operates and what’s in store for us during our stay. Two game drives a day, the option of a bush breakfast (more of that later), dinner under the stars, optional fishing trips to catch barbell in the rivers or bush walks to take advantage of the panoramic views. Elsa’s prides itself on its eco credentials, so before we set off to explore the camp, we were all handed an ‘anti-bottle;’ a refillable plastic water pouch that can be topped up from any of the camp’s water stations. This simple touch meant the camp didn’t have to import thousands of bottles of water each year or export them again to be recycled, dramatically reducing the carbon footprint.
Anti-bottles filled, we begin our tour of our new home and are told to expect visitors during our stay. The camp is completely unfenced, so, during the dry months, buffalo and other animals often amble up the hill to drink from the pool. Hyena has been known to scavenge from the kitchen bins, and a resident local leopard can often be heard calling on the surrounding cliffs. As if on cue, our first visitor appears; one of the many rock hyrax that have claimed the camp as their home to escape the clutches of the eagles that spiral on the air currents high about the kopje. A rock hyrax (or dassie as they’re fondly known) looks like a cross between a hamster and an Ewok from The Empire Strikes Back, but are in fact a relative of the elephant. They’re irresistibly cute, and as we leave reception to head to our cottage, dozens of them skitter ahead of us, stopping to greet and groom each other as they go.
Where to stay in Meru National Park
Elsa’s Kopje has earned its place in the world-renowned Elewana Collection, to be among the very best, luxury African safari destinations. It has been carefully sculpted into the hill it sits upon, blending into its surroundings so perfectly, it’s almost invisible to the eye as you approach. There are only six cottages and three honeymoon suites; each moulded around the rock face, incorporating trees, boulders, and other natural features into their design. The result is that the camp feels like a natural extension of the bush as if it’s always been there. No two cottages are the same; each occupying a unique footprint, its own piece of paradise.
The cottages are reached via a meandering path hewn from the granite rock face, that climbs from reception to the hill’s summit. Along the way, first one couple then another is escorted down a short private pathway to the door of their cottage. We continue to climb to the top of the hill, through towering trees filled with gloriously coloured starlings, across a perfectly manicured lawn that frames the infinity pool and past the open-fronted lounge/restaurant/bar, until we are the last couple left. Our guide smiles at us, stepping aside to reveal a rope bridge spanning a shallow rocky gorge. We cross the swaying bridge, leaving the main camp behind us and finally reach a wooden door; the only apparent sign of human habitation on this side of the kopje. And there we are left, to explore what lies beyond in private.
We walk through the carved doorway and into a huge open-fronted sitting room and bedroom, looking out onto the Meru plains. An external wooden deck extends out from the rock and over the gorge below; our own private viewing platform set up with a table and safari chairs ready for the obligatory sundowners. I had to fight to tear my eyes away from a view that went on and on and on.
The room had a desk, daybed, table, armchairs, dressing table and wardrobe; all crafted from local, natural materials and brightly coloured fabrics. A giant, four-poster bed completed the set-up, perfectly positioned to take full advantage of sunsets and sunrises, and screened with mosquito nets to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep. A thangi roof completed the rustic style that was both understated and elegant; the overall finish impeccable. Our en-suite bathroom with toilet, bidet, shower and his-and-his sinks, was one of the largest I’ve ever seen. Carved out of the rock face; the granite outcrops and crags had been polished to a stunning, natural finish.
As we turned our attention back to the view, we discovered an external bath carved into the hillside. A tap inside the bathroom sent a stream of water down through a granite channel and into the bath below; the Kenyan sunshine warming the rock and the water. And because none of the rooms were overlooked, you could bathe in complete privacy as well as luxury. But a thought then struck us. The open-fronted accommodation, beautiful though it was, posed a problem. What if the ‘local’ leopard paid us a visit in the night? We needn’t have worried. As we enjoyed sundowners at the bar in the evening, staff turned down our bed, dropped the mosquito nets and lowered a hidden canvas screen along the entire front of the room, cocooning us safely for the night. The screen had mosquito-proof windows to ensure we didn’t miss the sunrise.
But perhaps the Park’s greatest success story is the return of the rhino. Both black and white rhino can be found in Meru
What to see in Meru National Park
Meru National Park was established in 1967 and attracted thousands of visitors through the seventies, due in part to the success of the Adamson’s story and the film Born Free. But the economic and political crisis of the eighties left Kenya with precious few resources to manage its parks and wildlife, and a poaching epidemic swept Meru.
Elephant herds were decimated, and every single rhino was wiped out. Even plains game such as zebra and giraffe had practically disappeared leaving the Park a shadow of its former self. The resting place of Elsa had little wildlife left, let alone a lioness. International outrage ensued prompting the Kenya Wildlife Service to step in and act. As a result, the game has returned in good numbers; reticulated giraffe, Burchell’s and Grevy’s zebra can both be spotted (or should that be striped?), as can the long-necked gerenuk, Somali ostrich, oryx, eland, Thomson’s gazelle and both lesser and greater kudu.
The Big 5 are also back. Herds of buffalo abound, and lion and leopard thrive (although we saw neither during our three-day stay). The same can’t be said for elephants, of which we saw hundreds. We had a wonderfully close encounter with a very large bull who emerged from the centre of a breeding herd, strolling to within ten feet of us to give us the once over. Once he was satisfied we weren’t competition, he grazed contentedly beside our vehicle for half an hour; using the side and roof of our land cruiser to bash the soil from the roots of the grasses he pulled up. Eventually, he lost interest and wandered back to the herd until our guide turned the ignition. The sudden burst of sound startled the big guy so much, he charged without warning. Our escape was ‘exhilarating’.
But perhaps the Park’s greatest success story is the return of the rhino. Both black and white rhino can be found in Meru, but sadly not on the open plains. An 84 sq km sanctuary has been created within Meru; housing rhino and a host of other game. The sanctuary is also home to rangers, who watch every single rhino around the clock, ensuring their safety and numbers. Don’t be fooled into thinking it will, therefore, be easy to tick rhino off your watch list; the sanctuary is deceptively large, and we had to search hard to find one of the magnificent animals. But find them we did, and the hour we spent with a cow and a young calf was one of the highlights of the trip.
What makes searching for animals so different here though is the fact that you practically have the entire Park to yourself. Elsa’s Kopje is the only lodge in Meru National Park, so spotting another vehicle is harder than spotting an aardvark in daylight! Unlike many of the other African parks, you won’t see a huddle of cars around an animal sighting. Although there were other guests staying at the camp, we never saw another vehicle throughout our stay. Our game drives were carefully orchestrated to ensure we enjoyed the peace and solitude of the Park in unparalleled isolation; it felt as though we were alone in the wilderness.
And to soothe your tired feet, you can always book a massage in the spa to help you relax and unwind when you return
Things to do in Meru National Park
If you’re lucky enough to tick the Big 5 off on your first game drive, there are lots of other activities on offer in the Park. You can, accompanied by a ranger, spend your day on a shady river bank, fishing for catfish or barbell. The many kingfishers and herons that patrol the rivers will also be there to keep you company. Guided safari bush walks offer an up-close-and-personal way of meeting some of the Park’s wildest inhabitants as well as learning about the intricacies of the bush. And to soothe your tired feet, you can always book a massage in the spa to help you relax and unwind when you return.
Elsa the lioness died in 1961, her final resting place a grave at the far side of the reserve purported to be one of her favourite haunts. If you’re interested in the history of the Park as well as the wildlife, you can arrange to visit the gravesite.
But if you do nothing else, you simply must book a bush breakfast. As part of our morning game drive, we followed a narrow dirt track across the plains, eventually connecting with one of the Park’s thirteen rivers. We followed the course of the river, enjoying the shade of giant trees that lined its banks. We then veered left through tall banks of reeds and grasses until we reached a clearing, in the middle of which stood an immaculate breakfast table with the whitest linen and fine china. A short distance away stood three chefs dressed in whites, awaiting our egg orders. We dined on delicious local fruits and juices, followed by a cooked breakfast of bacon and game sausage, our personal choice of eggs, toast, coffee, and tea, while surrounded by buffalo, giraffe, and zebra who peered at us with either suspicion or envy. The bacon did smell insanely good!
We were constantly amazed by the quality and variety of food served at Elsa’s Kopje. How such a remote kitchen could produce a dazzling daily array of fresh breads, pastries, salads, and pastas was staggering. No two meals were ever the same; something that clearly delighted the resident troop of vervet monkeys who took every opportunity to steal a roll or piece of fruit the second our backs were turned.
Benefitting from superb weather, we ate almost exclusively outside. The lawn in front of the lounge was transformed into an impromptu dining room every evening. With so few guests in the camp, the tables were set far apart to afford everyone privacy as we recalled the adventures of the day. Lit exclusively by hurricane lanterns and candles, the camp took on a romantic quality, fuelled by the distant call of an owl or nightjar. Thankfully the local leopard didn’t appear and ruin the moment, but a large-spotted genet did; streaking across the lawn to seize a piece of pineapple from the bar before disappearing up a tree with its prize.
Dinner over, we retired to the Moroccan style cushions and day beds on the edge of the bar’s raised deck to watch the stars. As the light from the lamps and candles slowly dimmed, the heavens put on a show to rival anything we’d seen out on the plains.
I’ve been on safari many, many times over the years – but never anywhere like this. ‘Magical’ doesn’t do it justice. It is perfect for the safari virgin or the seasoned pro. It’s the perfect blend of tranquillity and luxury; ideal for those who want to get away from the crowds and be at one with nature, or those searching for an iconic, unique honeymoon destination. You’ll be welcome at Elsa’s Kopje. Just don’t stay too long; I want my room back!
Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith
Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith
Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith
Elsa's Kopje | Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith
Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith
View on Mount Kenya from Barneys | Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith
Elsa's Kopje | Photo: Andrew Watkinson-Smith