Expert Reviews – Meru NP

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Meru National Park, where zebras are bigger and giraffes are darker
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Meru National Park is home to some of the less widely distributed species associated with the arid North of Kenya. Specials include the striking reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx, gerenuk, lesser kudu and the over-sized Grevy’s zebra.

The big five are present in this beautiful park, but definitely harder to spot than in some of the more popular reserves in Kenya. Seeing any of the big cats here should be considered as a bonus. For a first-time visitor to the African bush, this might be a disappointment, but to me, the big number of unusual species makes this very scenic park more than worthwhile.

The Phoenix park
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One of the most popular Kenyan parks in the 1970s, when it was strongly associated with Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame, Meru fell of the tourist map in the late 1980s when it was practically commandeered by commercial poachers. Fortunately it has undergone a near-total recovery since I first visited it in the early 1990s, and game viewing and amenities have improved over every subsequent trip. Elephant, buffalo and lion are all present in fair numbers, rhino are almost always seen in a fenced off rhino sanctuary, and there are also several northern species at the southern extent of their range e.g. reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx, gerenuk and a host of dry-country birds including the striking vulturine guinea fowl. But it is the wilderness atmosphere that most impresses, enhanced by the limited tourist traffic – you can still go entire game drives here without seeing another vehicle.

Where Elsa the lion roamed free
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If you’re longing for a Kenyan park which the crowds have yet to find, Meru is well worth considering. You have to work a little harder to see the animals here than in, say, Amboseli or on the open plains of the Masai Mara, but the feeling of discovery more than compensates. I really enjoy its mixture of grassland, marshland and wooded landscapes – it feels more like a southern African than an East African park.

Several watercourses cross the park, ensuring a good supply of vegetation all year round – enough to support a good population of elephants, along with buffalo, giraffes and zebras. I’ve spent some highly enjoyable hours birdwatching in Meru, too.

Kenya's Forgotten Park
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At one time, way back in the 1970’s Meru was one of the most famous and popular parks in Kenya. But, throughout the ‘80’s though it gained a reputation for insecurity and poaching which culminated in the murder in 1989 of George Adamson (of Elsa the lion and Born Free fame). Security has since returned to the park and it’s today a perfectly safe place to visit, but for reasons that still remain something of a mystery to me Meru hasn’t really caught on again.

It’s certainly not because there’s no animals. The manager of one of the parks few lodges recalled to me how when he’d first arrived in Meru he was amazed by the variety of wildlife. It was true, he’d said, that animals aren’t too be found in the huge densities of the Mara where he’d previously been based, but in just his first couple of hours in Meru park he reckoned he’d seen more species than he would in a week or more in the Masai Mara.

For a visitor there’s plenty of plains game, beautiful giraffes, a fair few elephants and lions and leopards among many others. It’s also one of the best places to see rhinos. They live in a secured, fenced ‘park within a park’, built for their own protection and monitored at all times. But maybe more than the wildlife it’s the sense of peace which so captivates. On my last, three day, visit I didn’t see a single other safari jeep!

This is also a very beautiful park and one with a real wilderness feel. One of my abiding memories of Meru Park is of sitting atop one of the kopjes (granite outcrops) with rock hyraxes playing just beyond my reach, the sun setting and a herd of several hundred buffalo marching across the plain below me.

To summarise then, Meru is a park for people who want variety, a sense of wilderness and a total escape from other safari-goers.

Meru: Kenya’s Forgotten Park
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Meru is rarely mentioned in dispatches when it comes to Kenya’s top parks, but this can only be because it lies a day’s journey to the west of the country’s well-travelled safari circuit. Black and white rhinos inhabit a dedicated sanctuary within the park and sightings are almost guaranteed. Lions, too, are easily sighted, and the combination of savannah grasslands to the horizon and very few visitors make for a special, slightly old-world safari experience. There are echoes here of George Adamson and his lioness Elsa (of Born Free fame) as this was their country, and at least one luxury lodge in a remote corner of the park adds great comfort to the sense of remoteness. And there’s a heartwarming tale in play here – this was an epicentre of poaching in the 1980s, and the protected population of nearly 100 rhinos mean that Meru plays a critical role in a return to the pre-poaching past.

Born Free born again
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Meru National Park was the real-life setting for Born Free, the story of conservationists Joy and George Adamson and their hand-reared lioness Elsa. The site of the original Adamson camp still remains, and the upmarket Elsa’s Kopje lodge is today built upon Mughwango Hill where the couple used to take Elsa for walks. From the latter, the 360-degree panorama allows a spectacular overview of the rich mosaic of savanna, forest and swamp that makes this one of Kenya’s richest conservation areas, reputedly home to more mammal species than any other. That this park is less well known than the likes of Masai Mara and Samburu reflects its sad decline towards the end of the last century, when poaching took a heavy toll. Since 2005, however, a concerted conservation programme has seen an impressive recovery and the park again offers an excellent safari experience.

My three-day visit included good lion encounters – the population has been boosted by reintroductions – and evidence (tracks, kills and calls) of both leopard and cheetah. We also found several breeding herds of elephant, plus large buffalo herds and an impressive variety of antelope, including eland, oryx, Grant’s gazelle and the elusive lesser kudu. The park straddles a transition zone between the wildlife communities of northern and southern Kenya, and this is reflected in the fact that both zebra species – plains and Grevy’s – occur. There are also hippos and crocodiles in the Tana River and a special fenced protection zone that is home to both species of rhino. A wealth of birds includes such riverine specials as African finfoot and, during my visit, huge numbers of wintering Afro-palearctic migrants – from wheatears and bee-eaters to Montagu’s harriers quartering the marshes. Activities here include night drives and bush walks, and with visitor numbers low you will seldom meet another vehicle.

A beautiful off-the-beaten-track wildlife haven without the crowds
Overall rating

Rampant poaching had just about decimated Meru when I first visited in the 1990s. But the Kenya Wildlife Service and other interested donors turned it around into a conservation success story thanks to a dedicated force of rangers and restocking of wildlife, and today it’s a Big Five park. The terrain is quite beautiful with khaki-coloured grasslands, acacia woodlands, sludgy marshes and riverine forest with doum and raffia palms. It receives very few visitors compared to the southern parks – on a self-drive visit, I didn’t see one other vehicle, so this unspoilt and pristine environment was simply enchanting. Its disadvantage however is that the game is definitely harder to spot – the lushness in the wet seasons mean that animals are often obscured, and the arid dry seasons forces them to disperse to out-of-reach regions even outside the park. Nonetheless, I’ve seen large herds of buffalo and elephant, both black and white rhino in the fenced off sanctuary, and at the Rojewero River viewpoint and boardwalk, half-submerged hippos and crocs, reticulated giraffes loping down to drink, and kingfishers, rollers, bee-eaters and weavers flitting about. Meru has little accommodation, but the Kenya Wildlife Service cottages and campsites are good, and the spectacular 5-star Elsa’s Kopje on Mughwango Hill is the best place I’ve stayed in this region of northeast Kenya.

Home of Elsa the Born Free Lioness
Overall rating

There’s a real away-from-it-all frontier feel about Meru that sums up the magic of northern Kenya. Overlooked by the blue Nyambeni Hills, its grassy glades and thorny seas of combretum thickets convey an overwhelming sense of wildness seldom encountered elsewhere. Swamps and rivers lined with doum palms provide year-round water for the game, and red granite kopjes loom out of the bush, including Mugwongo Hill, where George and Joy Adamson camped with Elsa, their famous Born Free lioness. Today Elsa’s descendants still roam the park, and the hill itself is now the site of Elsa’s Kopje, one of my favourite Kenyan lodges, from which you can set out in search of Meru’s Big Five as well as species seen only in the north: reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx and Grevy’s zebra. Birding is good, too, especially along the banks of the Tana and its tributary, the Rojoweru, which are home to giant kingfisher and African finfoot.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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