Meru National Park is criss-crossed by streams and scattered with swamps and pools.
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Meru National ParkMeru National Park, where George and Joy Adamson released their most famous lioness, Elsa, back into the wild (a story immortalised in the book and film Born Free), is increasingly re-appearing on safari itineraries. After it was founded in 1966, the park, run by one of Kenya’s most energetic wardens, Peter Jenkins, was a popular destination for safaris. But it fell into neglect in the 1980s, and for more than a decade, into the late 1990s, this entrancing wilderness was virtually off limits due to out-of-control poaching. Then, championed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, with the support of the EU, the park became a KWS cause célèbre and was comprehensively restored, with newly cut earth roads, a dedicated force of rangers led by a new warden (Peter Jenkins’ son Mark Jenkins), and a poacher-proof rhino sanctuary near the main gate which is home to both white and black rhinos.
Safaris in Meru National ParkDespite its relaunch, Meru is still one of the least visited of Kenya’s big parks, which is all to the good: this unspoiled 870km² stretch of well-watered, dense bush, acacia woodland and verdant, tall grasslands spiked with weird-looking doum palms is ripe for discovery. It has game viewing which now easily matches or exceeds the sort of safari experience you’ll have in popular parks such as Tsavo West or Tsavo East, with increasingly frequent sightings of all the ‘Big Five’, plus cheetah and numerous other savannah species. And its handful of camps and lodges includes the exceptionally beautiful Elsa’s Kopje and two boutique, riverside safari camps (both with swimming pools) – Rhino River Camp and Offbeat Meru.
Meru’s numerous streams and rivers are a characteristic feature of the landscape. Be sure to visit the Rojewero viewpoint and boardwalk – a lovely spot to stretch your legs and take in the dense riverine forest. There are good hippo, croc and fish-eagle-spotting opportunities in the area. Driving around Meru National Park through the thick bush, you’re also likely to have close encounters with some of the park’s huge herds of buffalo – the key prey for Meru’s lion prides.
As well as morning and evening game drives, if you’re in Meru National Park for several days, you might want to include a full-day drive down to the south of the park. The grave of Elsa the lioness is out in this remote area on the north bank of the Ura River, a major tributary that forms the parks’ southwest boundary.
Geography of Meru National ParkOccupying part of a vast expanse of savanna in the basin of the Tana River on the relatively rainy eastern side of Mount Kenya, Meru National Park is one of four adjoining parks and reserves. Bisanadi National Reserve forms the continuation of the park to the east, while on the other side of the Tana River, to the south, lie North Kitui National Reserve and the much bigger Kora National Park. These three wildlife areas are not yet easily visitable. Meru National Park gets the most rain in its higher, northwest districts, which lie at an altitude of around 1000m, and the park gets progressively drier as you head southeast towards the Tana River, where the altitude averages around 300m and temperatures are correspondingly higher. The dozens of streams meandering through the park flow down from the Nyambeni Hills in the northwest, and pour into the Tana, Kenya’s largest river, which forms the park’s southern boundary. Because of the lattice-like network of south-east-flowing streams, much of the park feels like a patchwork of long ‘islands’ between the streams, with park roads looping back and forth over crossing points.
People of the Meru National Park districtThe plains of the Meru National Park area were traditionally roamed by nomadic Boran herders who grazed their cattle, camels and goats in this region – the southernmost part of their home range. But even before the foundation of the national park in the 1960s, the district was also home to Meru people who were gradually moving from their homeland on the northeast slopes of Mount Kenya, out onto the hills and plains beyond. These days, a patchwork of largely Meru-owned farms extends right to the boundaries of the national park on its southern and western borders.
Flora and fauna of Meru National ParkMuch of Meru is flat or gently undulating and huge areas are thickly covered in a base of tall grass savanna, which makes game-viewing quite challenging during and shortly after the main rainy seasons in May and November. As the dry season sets in, the grass is steadily grazed and it dries up and dies back, allowing much better visibility. Along the watercourses, acacia woodland provides a jungle-like environment and oddly shaped doum palms and venerable baobabs are scattered across the horizon. Coupled with the very low numbers of visitors in the park at any one time, this memorable landscape and its increasingly abundant wildlife make for a compelling combination.
On our visits to Meru in recent years, we’ve had good luck with predator sightings, including lions and cheetahs, and we rate the overall wildlife-viewing here highly. The characteristic northern varieties of plains mammals are easily seen – magnificent reticulated giraffe, fine-striped Grevy’s zebra, dapper Beisa oryx, skittish and beautifully marked lesser kudu and the distinctively long-necked browsing gerenuk gazelle. You’ll also see Grant's gazelles (though not Thomson’s) and some of the biggest herds of buffalo you’ll encounter anywhere in Kenya, as well as good numbers of elephants. All the mammals thrive because of Meru’s abundant water, and in many of the streams and rivers you can see crocodiles, freshwater turtles and hippos.
Birdlife in Meru National Park is exceptional. As well as unmistakable ostriches and the smartly plumaged vulturine guineafowl that you’ll see as you drive around, look out for red-necked falcons, which nest in the stands of doum palms, and after dark the remarkable Pel’s fishing owl, a rare and very large owl with a wingspan of around 1.5m. You’re most likely to identify by its unusual call – a deep, horn-like note, audible for a couple of kilometres. Characteristic of the streams is the African finfoot (much sought-after by birdwatchers), though these are hard to see from the banks, and you’ll probably have more luck with kingfishers, including the ubiquitous pied and more elusive giant kingfisher. The forested areas along the watercourses are also good for specialist flower-feeding sunbirds, including the smaller black-bellied sunbird that feeds on parasitic Loranthus flowers growing in riverbank acacias. If you’re a keen birder, you’ll also want to spot some of the park’s four species of honey guides – and you won’t need reminding to look out for flocks of gloriously coloured golden-breasted starlings, for which Meru National Park is a stronghold.
Meru Rhino SanctuaryOne of Meru’s biggest draws is its successful rhino sanctuary. This secure area within the park, beside the western boundary near the main gate, now covers a substantial 80km². Protected by fencing that allows free movement to smaller animals, and by numerous rangers, the 40-odd white rhinos are doing well – although the 20-odd black rhinos tend to suffer from tsetse flies. All of them are monitored around the clock and are well habituated to visitors, so sightings can be very good, and you should have time to take pictures at close range.
Landmarks of Meru National Park
Although most of Meru is flat, the drier parts of the south and east of the park are scattered with rocky ridges and kopjes, of which Mughwango Hill, occupied by Elsa’s Kopje, is the most iconic example. The swamps in the northern part of the park are also a major feature: the most permanent – Mulika, Mururi and Bwatherongi
– make particularly good targets for game drives during the dry season, when they can be full of buffalo and big herds of elephants. Mururi swamp and part of Bwatherongi swamp are inside the rhino sanctuary. The other major landmark in the park is Adamson’s Falls, a series of fast rapids where the broad Tana River flows through a district of hard rock. Getting down here takes a good couple of hours, so the area is most commonly visited as a full-day trip.