Meru's Magical Menagerie & Beyond


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Africa » Kenya » Rift Valley Province » Naivasha
January 12th 2014
Published: January 12th 2014
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Our next stop after Lamu was, shall we say, just a bit of a splurge. We had come across the gorgeously stunning Elsa’s Kopje online months ago and after weeks of the most-sensible procrastination, we somehow managed to quell any lingering doubts and furthermore managed to justify the costs.

Most people fly up to Elsa’s, but the chances of getting Jane on a little twelve seater Cessna, were every slight gust of wind feels like a catastrophic torrent of turbulence, were hovering somewhere between extremely unlikely and bugger all. Thus we chose to skip the hour long flight and hire a driver to make the seven hour drive instead. Of course, our flight from Lamu was delayed by a couple of hours which put a bit of a spanner in the works, but we eventually arrived back in Nairobi where we met up with the most wonderfully capable (no mean feat considering Kenya’s roads and drivers) and friendly driver, Albert.

The chance to take the journey by road rather than plane also had the advantage of allowing us to see more of the landscape and the daily life in the rural areas and we spent a day skirting around Mount Kenya and through the landscapes of rolling hills and small dusty towns. Fields of corn and bananas lined the sides of roads, as did the much less expected rice paddies and tea plantations, which clung to the hillsides.

And it being a Sunday, we were rewarded with some wonderful bustling scenes as both the weekly markets and church gatherings were in full swing. The locals were all dressed in their best suits and dresses and off to various services, which seemed to start at dawn and continue throughout the day. Kenyans on the whole are quite religious and Christianity is a mainstay in most peoples’ lives. And there seems to be no shortage of different churches to choose from. All of your standard denominations of course, from your Anglicans to Catholics to Seventh Day Adventists to Lutherans. Plus the scores that you’re unlikely ever to have heard of. Maybe you’d prefer the spiritually uplifting vision of The Full Gospel Church of the Equator. Or perhaps you fancy some psychic channelling with The Prophetic Prayers Powerful Ministry. Or strap on your inquisitional crucifix and enlist with the Militant Church of Purpose. And God only know what The Mature Fruit Evangelical Mission entails…

“God Loves’ slogans also seem to be a favourite of the locals. For instance, you might pass a shopping strip bearing the banner God Loves Supermarket, or a barbers that proudly proclaims, God Loves Hairdresser. Another quirk is that the butchers here have added a ‘y’ and are instead called butcherys. Thus my personal favourite of the day was God Loves Butchery. Quite a succinct summary of the last couple thousand years of organised religion...

Alas, the late start to our road trip meant that we didn’t arrive at Meru National Park until after the gates had shut for the evening and so we were thus forced to find a small hotel in the dusty, rubbish-strewn and generally unappealing town of Maua, crammed with khat chewers and malnourished goats, nestled at the edge of a vast plain dotted with dozens of extinct volcanic craters that stretched off into the distance. Feeling rather knackered, we skipped dinner, showered and crashed out.

Luckily we rose feeling much better the next day and arrived at the gates to Meru soon after the sun had risen where we were met and driven to our most wonderful home for the next few days. Elsa’s Kopje is a stunning boutique resort, perched high on a kopje, or cluster of large rocks, deep in Meru National Park which sits smack bang on the equator. Named after Elsa, the lioness made famous by George and Joy Adamson and immortalised through both the book and the movie, Born Free, it was the site where the Adamsons camped for much of their time in the region while rehabilitating captured lions back into the wild. These days, it is a collection of nine of the most stunning cottages, seamlessly built amongst the large boulders that form the walls and floors of the rooms. There are no windows, just open spaces revealing the jaw-dropping views from every position, be it the bed, the lounge chairs, the shower. Even perched on the toilet granted you stunning and unfettered vistas off into the distance. Rock hyraxes, a sort of larger, cuter and more inquisitive version of a guinea pig, scampered and scuttled all around, competing with the bright blue and orange lizards for the most exposed rocks on which to sun themselves. Each room is totally isolated from the rest, ours included having to cross an amazing suspension bridge which was occasionally staked out by the odd hyena, and nestled at the far end of the kopje. All of this coupled with a gorgeous bar and restaurant and a stunning infinity pool, from where you could watch the wildlife wander past as you floated in blissful serenity. To top it off even further, we were treated to an upgrade on our final night to the private house – a stunningly designed villa of two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a massive central living area. And of course our personal pool where we spent a lovely evening floating around in the refreshing water, under the new moon and countless glittering stars, listening to the various birds’ and other creatures’ calls.

The next three days were, to put it simply, awesome. We’d awake before the sun rose, slowly sip on cups of the most wonderful Kenyan coffee that was brought to our private verandah by our personal butler, and slowly come to as the wildlife did the same all around us. We’d then saunter down to meet up with Simon, our guide extraordinaire, and begin our morning game drive. Three hours later we’d pull over at some isolated spot and be treated to a scrumptious breakfast of coffee, fuits and cereals, as well as a fully cooked breakfast. The harsh sun would be beating down by now, so a relaxed drive back to the lodge for a few hours of relaxing, swimming, reading and perhaps getting a soothing massage while gazing vaguely out on to the plains. Another delicious meal for lunch and some more lazing around before piling back in the jeep for the afternoon game drive. Traditional sundowners (a wonderful and welcome habit) of gin and tonics or cold Tusker beers as the bright red African sun slowly slid behind the distant mountains. Then shower, dinner, a few drinks with the other guests, before retiring to our palatial bed for a sleep interrupted by nothing more than the occasional hyena call…

Meru has suffered a chequered history to say the least. Made famous by the Adamsons before being decimated by poachers throughout the 80s, it has made a remarkable recovery in recent years. It is a much less visited park than the better-known ones such as the Masai Mara or Amboseli and it was for that reason that we chose to come here. Indeed, over our three days we only saw two other jeeps while on safari and they soon disappeared into the red dust with a grin and a passing wave. And while the wildlife is generally harder to spot due to the longer grasses and much denser scrub, it is actually one of the most diverse parks in the country. The landscapes seem to change around every corner, from harsh, dry, red-soiled stretches, dotted with the thorny acacia trees, into rich, verdant rainforest tracts that clump along the rivers and then into the long-grassed plateaus with tall doum palm trees jutting skywards.

And then of course there are the animals. For a couple of amateur birders like ourselves, there are over 500 different species to try and spy. To put that into perspective, Australia’s premier birding site, Kakadu, is home to around half that many. Jane feverishly ticked off the stunning birds all around, from the tiny brightly coloured bee-eaters right through to the gangly and quite confused ostriches. And all the ones in between – curious hornbills and long-legged storks and herons. The soaring birds of prey such as the fish eagles, goshawks, harriers and kites and the hideously ugly, flesh-eating secretary birds. The flashy starlings, weavers, rollers and kingfishers…and on and on and on.

And then there’s the bigger stuff. Over the three days, we found ourselves sitting amongst towers of over thirty reticulated giraffe, all gracefully wandering past and munching on the taller trees. We paused in awe as vast herds of elephant blocked off the road while they drank from streams, the odd bull even charging forth, ears flapping aggressively as we skewed away. Flashes of black and white revealed packs of startled zebras, including the rare and ever so beautifully patterned Grevy’s zebra. Massive groups of large menacing buffalo, the biggest killers of men in Africa, shielded their young and kept wary eyes on the jeep. Hippos rose and sank in the murky waters, occasionally yawning to reveal huge jaws and teeth. Even the rare and endangered white rhinos, their massive hulks partially hidden in the swamp scrub as they graze as the sun slowly set. Constant scatterings of different families of antelope – oryx, eland, hartebeest, dik dik, lesser kudu and Grant’s gazelle would glance up startled and then bound off with graceful jumps into the scrub. We even spotted the long-necked and incredibly small headed gerenuk, who rear up on to their hind legs to nibble at the higher leaves, a la the giraffes.

And of course the simbas. I have long dreamed of one day seeing a lion in the wild and over the five game drives we experienced, we were fortunate enough to come across two different prides twice. These beautiful massive cats, lying sedately in the shade, tails swatting at flies and occasionally yawning to reveal their vicious set of teeth. Every so often one of the younger ones would rise, swagger over to a brother or sister and then playfully leap on to them or instead nestle down quietly at their side and slowly and deliberately lick them clean. They were completely uninterested in the jeep (apparently they can’t recognise the individuals inside, rather they see us all as one big, but rather non-threatening creature) and it was truly incredible to sit there and just watch them from the open sides of the jeep, literally no less than a half-hearted pounce away…

Besides the animals, we also took up the managers’ offer to visit a local school that they’ve been supporting for the past year – building classrooms, meeting halls, cooking quarters and the like. The poverty in the area is extreme and it was humbling to stand there on the bare red dusty floor in one of the old basic mud and stick hut as clutches of the most beautiful, smiling kids waved and grinned enthusiastically. They have only recently received textbooks and exercise books, through the work of the lodge, and I noticed that while the children do now have pencils, they all seemed to be only half of one, obviously snapped in half to make do. A lesson for those procrastinating kids at home who idle away minutes needlessly sharpening their pencils for the umpteenth time that morning. It was a great experience and certainly an eye opening one which reinforces how truly blessed and lucky we, as well as the kids that I teach, truly are.

All in all, our time in Meru was truly and utterly unforgettable and we really do feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to visit such an amazing place. It was with heavy hearts that we drove back out of the gates to continue our circumnavigation of Mount Kenya and the next leg of our trip. We slowly meandered westwards, skirting large cattle and grain farms until we slowly began to climb and make our way in to the Rift Valley. We’d first seen this huge and awe-inspiring natural feature where it begins, way to the north when we were crossing the various massive wadis in Jordan years ago. Stretching right down the spine of eastern Africa, it is at times a gaping chasm and at others a softly rolling valley, dotted with small villages and farms. We slowly made our way down to Lake Naivasha, a beautiful body of water which is actually at its highest level for three decades, thus providing yet more incredible birdlife, literally right on your doorstep. We checked in to our lovely little banda nestled amongst the stunningly colourful yellow fever trees, as dozens of brightly-coloured birds darted here and there and scores of colobus and vervet monkeys scarpered about. We spent the next couple of days doing very little besides birdwatching around our banda and exploring the shoreline by boat. We did venture out to nearby Hell’s Gate National Park, which due to a lack of large predators, has the unique ability to allow you to leave the confines of your car and wander amongst the herds of gazelle, warthog, zebra and giraffe on foot. We also spent a wonderful few hours exploring Hell’s Gorge, a beautiful series of narrow water-carved chasms, at times clambering down steep embankments and at others wading through the warm spring fed streams, checking out the different areas, the creatively named Devil’s Bedroom, Devil’s Kitchen and Devil’s Bathroom.

And alas, that’s pretty well it for Kenya. Tomorrow we head back to Nairobi before jumping on a bus south and over the border into Tanzania, where we begin our week long safari into the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. People have said that Africa somehow manages to capture you in ways that few places can and indeed, Kenya has provided us with a truly wonderful introduction to the continent and an inate desire to see so much more. Asante sana to all of the wonderful people we’ve met, the places we’ve seen and the experiences we’ve had. Until next time...

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