PART 4: MERU NATIONAL PARK

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Just like the Mathews Range, Meru National Park was hitherto unknown to me.  I had seen an occasional reference to it, mostly to do with Elsa’s Kopje, but never gave it much thought as a wildlife destination.

After spending 5 days in the area, we will certainly be placing Meru in the rotation for Kenya trips.  What do you say about a place where you can see 18 different rhinos in a day, spend an hour with a pride of lions without so much as another vehicle driving by, and enjoy seeing elephants, buffalo, two species of zebra, the superb Reticulated Giraffe, and a wealth of others mammals and birds.

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I would call it underrated and that appears to be definitely true about Meru NP.  For someone who is not simply out to ‘tick’ the Big Five mammals in a day or two, and who prefers to experience Africa in a more relaxing and peaceful area with preciously few other visitors round, Meru National Park is an attractive proposition.  Its wide-open plains may not quite rival those of the Mara but they are impressive nonetheless.

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Meru has no less than 15 permanent streams and rivers which run across it from west to east; these life-giving sources of water ensure there is always something of interest to see in the area.

When I was there in late February it was more dry than usual, with not much rain having fallen since the previous November.  Even so, Meru was in much better shape than Samburu. Judging by the thriving wildlife and abundance of young animals the park clearly has some spare capacity.

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One morning we found a relaxed pride of lions along one of the rivers, no doubt planning to ambush one of the many solitary buffalo we’d seen close by, earlier.  Or perhaps they were lying in wait for a huge herd of perhaps 600 or so buffalo which we saw the following day.  Strung out in a massively long procession it would be relatively easy for the lions to cause a disturbance and isolate one of them.

At the Meru rhino enclosure, a significant and growing number of black and white rhinos are being heavily protected from poaching with admirable results.  Over the course of one morning and one afternoon rhino drive, we saw 18 different rhinos, 20 in all.  Some were far away or partially obscured in the bush, but just as many were in the open, providing some nice photo ops, particularly two females with their offspring. The black rhinos gave us the slip this time around, but they are definitely there too.

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Meru is a little bit wilder than most other game areas in Kenya and particularly for first time visitors to Africa its diversity, variety of landscapes and raw appeal make it an interesting option, an ideal first stop on an African safari.  We spent 2 nights each at two properties in Meru namely Elsa’s Kopje (Elewana) and Rhino River Lodge, just outside the park boundary.

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Elsa’s Kopje Camp

Elsa’s Kopje surprised and delighted me in several ways.  For one thing the rooms are stunning and even more so the private house and family room.  Elevated above the plains amidst a profusion of large boulders and rocky outcrops, the camp is blended so well into its environment that it appears to be smaller than it really is.  From my room #10 I could hardly see any other room and while I was barely 50 meters from the main lounge and dining room, it was completely out of sight.

The rooms are spacious, well-designed, well-lit and hard to find fault with in any way.  A comfortable bed, great views, effective mosquito net and abundant hot and cold water on demand in a shower.  I would have preferred a bath and was told that the room would indeed be getting a tub view a view, soon!

What else did I like about Else’s Kopje?  Attentive and clearly hands-on management, friendly staff, superb food with lots of choices, terrific packed breakfast (we tried them twice) a super nice pool among the rocks, and lots of habituated hyraxes.  The part of the camp which I saw – and my room in particular (#10) – have lots of steps and slopes, being built into the sides of a kopje or hillock.  So persons with mobility issues should definitely request a room with the least number of steps to negotiate.

Elsa's Honeymoon Suite

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Our second Meru property was Rhino River lodge, located just outside the reserve, right at the entrance to the rhino boma.  If you definitely want to see some white rhino – and have a shot at some black rhino as well – then this property would be a good choice.  Rhino River Lodge is a comfortable tented camp; its strengths are location (on the edge of a gorgeous forest), food (Italian specialties in the bush!) and value.  The 6 rooms at Rhino River Camp, raised on platforms above the gently flowing Kindani River, lack for nothing except perhaps mosquito nets.  Even so there are a few things which need attention including the decking planks, the practice of feeding a troop of resident Greater Galagos, and spotty Wi-Fi availability.  Don’t come here expecting a luxury, sophisticated tented camp as you may be disappointed.  But for what it is – a solid 4-star property with friendly staff and exceptionally good food, Rhino River Camp delivers a comfortable and interesting experience.

Rhino River has an exceptionally nice swimming pool, a well-stocked bar and restaurant area and numerous nature trails for you to explore the private property.  The bird-watching is excellent with as many as 180 different species of colorful birds having been recorded here.  Resident mammals in and around camp include Syke’s monkeys, baboons, dik diks, bush babies, porcupines, and the occasional bush buck.

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For the last five days of my Kenya educational trip, I was fortunate to have a private Origins Safaris guide along, in the person of Zachary Methu.  Zachary is not only a true expert in all things ornithological, he is also a superb all-round guide who is passionate about every aspect of nature and the environment.  It was easy and fun to keep the conversation going with him on pretty much any topic, whether it was the side-effects of excessive and long-term chewing of miraa, or the calls of rarely seen birds which we encountered in the riverine forest around Rhino River Camp.  With Zachary and Richard Turner – an accomplished young naturalist – around, there was no need to consult a guidebook or website.  These guys had all the knowledge and experience right at their fingertips.  As so many of our guests have found out over the years, the presence of a KPSGA Silver guide – like Zachary – makes a world of a difference and turns what would be a nice trip into an unforgettable experience.

Conclusion

Everything I saw and experienced in Amboseli, the Mathews Range and in Meru National Park proves once again that Kenya is Africa to the core.  Wild, fascinating, sometimes harsh and unforgiving, yet exciting and still ready to be explored after all these years.

Kenya is Africa because of its diversity of people, culture, habitats, animals and birds – a magical mix which never fails to delight visitors, no matter how often they return.  There is always something new to be seen, somewhere else to go, a different season to experience.

Kenya is Africa because it evokes a sense of time and place which is unmistakable.  Amboseli, the Mara, Tsavo or Samburu:  they are all Africa to the core and experiencing them changes you forever. It is no different at the base of the Mathews Range or looking out from your room at Elsa’s Kopje Camp in Meru.  You’ll know you are in a special place.


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