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Where the world-famous Elsa lived

By | January 12th 2012

Although known the world over for Elsa, the adopted lioness and the Born Free movie, MARTIN MUKANGU discovered that it takes a lot of determination and patience to trace a lion at Meru National Park

Having visited Meru National Park during the dry season in August 2010, I was eager to see the difference in this wet season.

As we left Nairobi on the morning of December 2, last year, I looked out of the window of the cruising van into the lush green of the countryside and imagined the beauty awaiting us at the park.

A herd of elands.[Photo: Martin Mukangu/Standard]

The same beauty that captivated the world through Elsa, the famous lioness under the wings of Joy and George Adamson, and which led to the film, Born Free in the 1960s.

After about three and half hours, we had covered 350km and were in Meru town. We made a brief stopover before leisurely driving the rest of 50km to Murera gate, one of the access points to the park.

At the shopping centres along the way, we could see traders selling miraa (khat), which is the main cash crop here, while others were loading them into pickup trucks for delivery and sale to various parts of the country.

On our way to Bandas, accommodation facilities run by Kenya Wildlife Service, I could not help noticing how the rains had transformed the plants. The sight of flowers and butterflies, coupled with humming birds was a guarantee of ultimate relaxation.

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The self-contained room with two beautifully made beds was more than we had bargained for. Time to relax.

Wanting to enjoy the ambience of the room and the outdoors at the same time, we sat on the balcony and watched as the wind swayed the lively trees and the blooming flora. A colony of young baboons was feeding on seeds and leaves as they played.

Affordable accommodation

My family was eager to venture into the park on foot and we had to cut short the afternoon rest. We were, however, told it wasn’t safe to walk in the wild.

"You have to be very observant, otherwise you will not spot animals hidden in the bushes," said Michael, our guide and driver.

We took a detour to an unused road as he added that there was usually a herd of elephants around the area. True to his word, after driving for about 500 metres on the muddy road, we saw a herd of about 15 elephants grazing. We moved closer to a big one feeding on a eucalyptus. On sensing our presence, it stopped and slowly turned to our direction, lifting its trunk and flipping its huge ears. All was quiet and the children appeared terrified, but the guide assured them that it was harmless. We learnt that it was the head of the herd and it is its duty to protect the rest.

The 870km-sq. semi-arid park is also home to waterbucks, giraffes, hippopotamus, buffalos, zebras, cheetahs, leopards, lions and more than 300 bird species. There is also a rhino sanctuary with black and white rhinos.

With some luck, one may spot the ever elusive and solitary leopard and the king of the jungle.

We drove on for 20 minutes and we spotted some antelopes, zebras and countless birds, but were not lucky to spot any of the cats. As the sun sunk into the Nyambene Hills, its orange rays illuminating the green park, it was time to go back to Bandas for the night.

Apart from Bandas, there are other in-park accommodations including Elsa’s Kopje and the Leopard Rock Lodge. Also within the park are many campsites including Kampi Baridi, Kitanga, Makutano, Rojoweru, Mugunga, Ken Mare and Kanjoo. Most of these campsites have no facilities and require prior booking.

Public campsites with showers are available at Bwatherongi Bandas. There are also some self-catering accommodations at Murera, Kina Bandas and the Meru Luxury House.

At the kitchen near Bandas, the resident cook had already made supper from the supplies we had earlier given him and as we enjoyed the warm ndengu and chapati meal, we were startled by a lion’s roar. Michael said the lion was most likely around the route we had used and may have even spotted us.

Rhino sanctuary

After meals, it was time to go to rest, but not before my two girls tried to outdo each other as they excitedly narrated their experience at the park. They were hesitant to sleep alone in their room at first, but after we assured them that animals also feared human beings, they happily retired.

The melodious sounds from the numerous chirpings at dawn woke me with a jolt and it took some moments for my mind to focus. Time for the morning game drive and as I woke up the children, Michael was already starting the car.

High with expectations to at least see the lion we had heard the previous night, we hit the road. We took a different route this time round. In my earlier visit, we were able to spot a herd of buffalos, some hyenas and a leopard within 30 minutes of our morning drive and I was hoping to see more this time round .

After driving for about five kilometres, the heavens opened and that seemed to be the end of our drive.

"Animals don’t move in the rain," said Michael, adding that they wait for the rains to subside before they can venture out to feed.

We went back to the Bandas for breakfast. Afterwards, we enjoyed scrabble as we waited for the rains to subside, which was not until mid-morning. Maybe the dry season is better after all, I thought.

After an early lunch, we packed some snacks and decided to transverse the park. We started off with the rhino sanctuary and at the gate, the sentry on duty warned us against venturing in too far lest our vehicle got stuck in the muddy roads.

Elsa’s Kopje

"However, that kind of vehicle is not likely to get stuck," he said.

From the condition of the roads and the overgrowth, it was obvious that low-bed vehicles were not for this terrain.

The drive turned out to be a bird-watching exercise and a test for our four-wheel drive, which veered in all directions, spluttering mud in the process.

Giraffes, the ever present and always on the move zebras, countless waterbucks and elephants are some of the animals we saw in the sanctuary.

The rhinos were too shy to come close to the electric fence. We gave up and exited, but not before we got stuck as we tried to cross a seasonal river where Michael had to coerce our vehicle out of the sticky mud.

We took a different route on our way back where we drove along the banks of Nthambiro River, one of the many rivers in the park that flow into River Tana. We hoped to see hippos at their favourite spot downstream, but were not lucky.

"Fast-flowing water is not for hippos," Michael told us.

For the nature lovers, the park is the ideal destination. You will be very lucky if you see the king of the jungle. And for those who want to jet into the park, there is comfortable landing at Elsa’s Kopje Airstrip.

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