Something of a conservation miracle, Meru National Park was dragged back from a state of near decimation from poaching in the early years of the 2000s. Visitors have returned, but not as yet in force, and of the main parks in the region it is the least visited and most unspoilt and pristine. Safaris in Meru are still an exclusive experience, and you’re unlikely to see many other vehicles while out on game drives.
Abundantly traversed by streams flowing into the Tana River on its southern boundary, and luxuriantly rained upon, the rolling jungle of tall grass, riverine forest and swamp is lent a hypnotic, other-worldly quality by wonderful stands of prehistoric-looking doum palms.
True, the animals aren’t always as much in evidence here as they can be in some other Kenyan parks, though in recent years the wildlife numbers have been much improved. There are increasingly frequent sightings of all the Big Five – the huge herds of buffalo and elephant are seen regularly; the park has a healthy lion population (no doubt some descendants of Elsa); large numbers of leopards captured in the stock-raising lands of Laikipia have been released here in recent years; and the handful of rhinos (both black and white), translocated here from other protected areas in Kenya in 2002, have grown steadily in numbers since. After visiting some of the less bushy parks, where the animals can be spotted from far away, Meru’s intimate, unusual landscape is quickly entrancing.
Kora National Park, and the three national reserves south and east of Meru – Bisanadi, Mwingi and Rahole – are all in the Land-Rover-expedition category, a total of 4500 square kilometres of scrub and semi-desert, and dense forest where they fringe the Tana River. Because of the history of poor security in the area (though there have been no recent incidents), you do need to check out the situation very carefully with KWS in Meru National Park if you’re considering entering the Kora area.
Meru is the area where the passionate animal lovers and recluses George and Joy Adamson (he a hunter turned game warden, she a gifted watercolourist and writer) released their most famous lioness Elsa back into the wild in the late 1950s – a story that became the bestselling book and film, Born Free. After the couple separated, the misanthropic Joy conducted a series of long-term experiments with orphaned cheetahs and leopards in Shaba National Reserve – years of dedicated, lonely work cut short by her murder in 1980. George, meanwhile, moved to Kora National Park, adjoining Meru, where he lived in the bush and continued to work with orphaned lions. He was also murdered, in 1989, by poachers.
Meru’s many tracks are all good gravel and most junctions have signposts and numbered cairns. A popular hook for a fairly long drive is the loop down to the grave of Elsa the lioness, on the banks of the Tana. And there are plenty of other enticing areas to investigate without going too far. Driving in through Murera Gate, for example, turn immediately sharp left up to the “Kinna Triangle”, cross the Murera stream at junction #102 and pass a stupendous fig tree on your left. You then enter a beautiful area of thick vegetation, tall trees and high grass.
The Rojewero River, the largest of the park’s twelve main streams, is an interesting watercourse: densely overgrown banks flash with birds and monkeys and dark waters ripple with hippos, crocs and freshwater turtles. Large and very visible herds of elephant, buffalo and reticulated giraffe are common, as are, in the more open areas, gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and ostrich. Predators were once scarce, though numbers seem to be on the up, and lion (which prey mainly on Meru’s big herds of buffalo) and cheetah are increasingly seen, when they are not hidden in the long grass – the smaller grazers must have a nerve-wracking time of it here.
Meru’s successful rhino sanctuary has been enlarged and is now protected by a fence and numerous rangers. The couple of dozen white rhinos are doing well, though the similar number of black rhinos suffer somewhat from tsetse flies. Finding the rhino in such a large area requires sharp eyes and a certain amount of luck, but these days they are monitored around the clock by KWS armed rangers, and the gate staff should be able to point you in the right direction.