Kenya’s Meru National Park is a dry, rugged wilderness of incredible beauty. Bordered by the Tana River in the south and the Nyambeni Mountains to the west, it is a land of astounding diversity with spring-fed rivers, open grasslands, acacia woodlands and the motherly presence of a few ancient baobob trees.
The park was made famous by the orphaned lion, Elsa, who was raised by Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame. Thanks to the books and movie, the park became a mecca for tourists hoping to relive the romantic life in the bush of the famous couple.
But Meru’s magic was not to last. In the 80s, poaching and banditry set in and the elephants and rhinos were wiped out. According to local lore, the last rhino was shot from a presidential helicopter. By the 1990s the animals were gone, the park was dead and tourism had dried up.
Today the park is making a remarkable comeback. A rhino sanctuary has been established within the preserve and 147 of the best, bad-ass rangers in the country are protecting a good number of black and white rhinos. Their reputation is unparalleled – not one rhino has been poached in the past four years. The conservative estimate on the elephant population is over 900. The big cats – lions, cheetahs and leopards – are thriving. Birdlife is boisterous and plentiful. Thanks to investments in improved security and a local community education program, the park has become an undiscovered, fantastic jewel in the crown of Kenya’s national parks.
After three straight weeks of safari work, Nairobi fundraising and BOMA Project staff meetings, I came here with my friend and safari guide, Big William, to inspect the park and some of the camps and lodges in the region. We arrived at Elsa’s Kopje on Friday afternoon after a long hot drive from Nanyuki. Elsa’s is a spectacular camp built into a rocky outcrop that rises out of the plains. This was the place where George Adamson came to rehabilitate orphaned lions and eventually release them back into the wild.
After settling in, I sat quietly in my banda and enjoyed a spectacular sunset – a silent sigh of reds and oranges. William and I had a quite fancy dinner by candlelight. During the night I was awakened by the staccato grunt of lions, a reaffirming sound that Elsa’s spirit lives on.
On Saturday we traversed the eastern edge of the park and visited two camps. In our travels, we encountered only two other safari vehicles. We returned to camp in the late afternoon, just as a cooling breeze was starting to blow. After a few splashes of cold water and a liter of water, I was refreshed. I sat in my safari chair, looking out over a dramatic, shimmering landscape of wild Africa. In the distance I saw a family of elephants, some kudu and waterbuck. I wanted it to never end, this feeling that I was in a place that was reclaiming its heritage, a place that could give hope to those of us that have seen so much devastating change over the past twenty years.
Meru can restore your faith in what is possible. Despite the coming tremor of the Kenyan election, fraught with potential conflict and the frustrated dreams of angry young men, I felt hopeful. Sadness and sorrow were set aside and somehow it seemed possible that on this night, Kenya, a place that I hold so close to my heart, might survive.
Nelson Mandela said, “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.” That is my dream for tonight.