Taste of paradise at Meru park

Saturday December 2 2017

Rock hyrax at Meru National Park.

Rock hyrax at Meru National Park. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG 

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It’s at least a seven-hour drive from Nairobi to Meru National Park, but the effort is worth it. The park is an out-of-the way paradise with low tourist density, making it a peaceful safari destination.

We took a game drive the first morning we were at the park. The terrain is covered with open acacia woods and grasslands.

Branched doum palms, baobab trees and huge clumps of date palms rise from the flat landscape. It was not long before we saw big game. Although the wildlife is sparser than Kenya’s southern parks, there a rich assortment of animals.

Here you have the rare Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk antelope and reticulated giraffe that are found in the northern parts of Kenya.

We came across a pair of lionesses sitting in the cool shade of the bushes. Not long afterwards, we spotted a group of lesser kudu, an attractive greyish-brown antelope with prominent white stripes.

Big herds of buffalo grazed in the plains, attracting insect eating ox-pecker birds and white egrets. Some visitors have seen the black serval. This carnivore normally has a spotted coat, like a cheetah, but a rare genetic mutation results in a pure black coat.

Much of the park is dry; however, some 13 rivers that flow from the Nyambeni Hills in the west provide water throughout the year. As we crossed one of the rivers, we spotted a hammerkop bird searching for food along the banks and a large grey monitor lizard with yellow blotches slithered into the reeds.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the elephant population of Meru Park plummeted because of massive ivory poaching, and rhinos were almost wiped out for their horns.

Concerted conservation efforts have reversed the situation. We were delighted to spot several herds of elephant that have a reddish colour from dusting themselves with the terra cotta soil.

The highlight of our drive was seeing the rhinos. More than 70 black and white rhinos live on the 20,000-acre secured sanctuary inside the park.

We found several white rhinos ambling through the grass and around the marshlands. Not long after, we came across the more elusive black rhinos. Armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers were patrolling on foot throughout the sanctuary, which is surrounded by an electric fence.

Elsa’s Kopje lodge

We stayed at Elsa’s Kopje lodge on Mughwango Hill. This small, high-end hotel is named after the orphaned lion cub Elsa, which was hand-raised in the late 1950s by former park warden George Adamson and his wife Joy. She wrote about the lions in her book Born Free, which became an international bestseller and TV series.

The uniquely crafted cottage has wooden decks built into the natural rocks. The windows open to wide views of the park below and allow cool breezes to drift in during hot afternoons.

Elsa’s Kopje lodge in Meru.

Elsa’s Kopje lodge in Meru. PHOTO | COURTESY ELSA'S KOPJE

The roomy cottages are discreetly spaced out so there is a feeling of peace and privacy, ideal for a quiet or romantic getaway. There was a family with children during our stay and I noticed that special meals were prepared for the kids.

In the middle of the day, I relaxed with a book in the airy lounge facing the garden area, or cooled off in the swimming pool that has an elevated panorama of the bush.

A family of bushbabies live in the trees along the driveway into the lodge. Dozens of hyraxes scramble among the rocks, and at night, a leopard prowls through the grounds, drinking from the swimming pool and making his presence known with a rasping growl.

On our last day, after an afternoon game drive, we stopped at an open spot and enjoyed sundowner cocktails watching the sunset. If we had an extra day, we would have packed a picnic lunch and visited Elsa’s grave.