By Pattarawadee Saengmanee
The Nation Weekend
ARRIVING AT the Meru National Park in northern Kenya, my immediate reaction is one of astonishment. Blessed by abundant rainfall, the savanna is a rich green, its tall grasses and lush jungle the perfect hideout for the wildlife that lives here.
Arranged by Elewana and Kenya Airways, I’m on a luxury eight-day SkySafari Kenya Connoisseur trip that provides visitors with a wide range of accommodation, customised game drives, vehicles, expert guides and fun activities to craft seamless first-class safari experiences.
The stunning views from my deck.
Earlier that day and in the manner of Hollywood stars, my travel companions and I had boarded an exclusive-class Cessna jet for a 45-minute private hop from Nairobi Wilson Airport to the Meru National Park. The rain clouds are hovering as we make our approach but the pilot lands safely on the airstrip in the middle of the timberland.
Standing between Mount Kenya and the Nyambeni mountain ranges, the 870-square-kilometre park is home to a 48 sqkm rhino sanctuary and considered a major spot to watch large elephant herds. It has also successfully overcome the problems with poachers that it suffered in the mid 1980’s.
Our driver guide Muhammad greets us with a cheery “hujambo” (hello in Swahili) and sets up a mini refreshment corner to serve us a welcome drink and snacks. Switching from private jet to a Toyota Land Cruiser, we get ready to be secluded from the outside world and learn to live with nature.
During the 45-minute drive from the airstrip to the Elsa’s Kopje resort, we stare out of the windows catching sight of some impalas (medium-size antelope) locked in a fight, giraffes nosing through the trees in search of food and a family of lions lying in the woodland.
Perched on Mughwango Hill, this award-winning boutique lodge is famous for its eco-friendly design that blends with the surroundings. A system of solar cells generates enough electricity for daily life.
The lodge has 12 guestrooms, ranging from open-plan Cottages and Private Houses to the Honeymoon Suite and Family Cottage. Opulent with a classic design, it boasts free Wi-Fi access and en-suite showers with a water heater though no air-conditioning or television.
Elsa's Kopje Lodge classic design gives guests a chance to get closer to nature.
“This property is named after a domesticated lioness whose life was told in the documentary “Born Free”. Her story goes back to the 1950s when game warden George Adamson shot a lioness then discovered she was aggressive because she wanted to protect her three newborn cubs. Young and small animals in the wild need protection from their parents to help them survive. George knew that so he and his wife Joy decided to adopt and raise the three cubs in their house,” a member of the hotel staff tells us.
“When two of the cubs were moved to a zoo in Rotterdam, the couple realised they needed to release Elsa back to the wild. Elsa died at the age of five and her body is buried in this park. Staying here, visitors are transported back to Elsa’s bygone days. The lobby has a selection of old portraits and decorations from the Adamson’s house.”
Built by Stefano Cheli and opened in 1999, the lodge was operated by Dr Richard Leakey, chairman of Kenya Wildlife Service, and Virgina McKenna, the star of the 1960’s film “Born Free” and founder of the “Born Free” foundation. In 2015, it was added to the Elewana Collection and upgraded to offer more accommodation options and cater to honeymoon couples as well as families.
Hemmed in by the tropical forest, I spend two nights in a two-bedroom Private House, complete with an open living room and fully-stocked mini bar. A large private deck overlooks the pastureland where Adamson and his wife Joy built their cottage.
A lonely zebra
Our three-hour game drive kicks off in the evening and Muhammad uses his sharp eyes to help us seek out the Big Five - lion, African elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard. But the animals appear to have been made lazy by the rain and we only see groups of adorable dik-diks and white stocks plus a few lion paw prints.
“Dik diks can be found in the shrubland of east Africa. They usually live in pairs and have a life expectancy of up to 10 years,” Muhammad says.
Halfway through our safari, a member of the resort staff team brings a mobile bar to the bush and allows us to relax on chairs, admire sunset and enjoy some snacks that go very well with wine, gin tonic and soft drinks.
In the morning, after a hearty Western breakfast in the woodland, Muhammad takes us to the sanctuary for 130 white rhinos that share their space with buffaloes, giraffes, baboons and deer.
“This area is surrounded with electric fences to protect animals. White rhinos have a 20-centimetre wide mouth. Male and female rhinos have different horns and use their backs to pick leaves. Over the past five years, the rhino population has increased from 70 to 130. Some of rhinos born in this park have an electronic chip on their horn so that Kenya Wildlife Service can trace their tracks,” Muhammad explains.
“Giraffes have different horns. The male has a sharper one to cut leaves and fight. There are 400 rangers in the Meru National Park and each of them covers 20 kilometres.”
Male impalas lock horns.
This park also boasts a diversity of east African plants like a fig tree which the local tribes would perform a ritual and believed bad things would happen if the tree were cut.
People also used the bark of yellow fever trees for treatment of malaria and sun-dried the fruits of the sausage trees before mixing them with sugar and honey then fermenting them to make Amarula, a popular local liquor.
We return to the hotel where we are pampered with an African aroma massage before piling back into the Land Cruiser for our pre-dinner game drive. We have more luck than the previous evening, watching engrossed as a herd of 36 African elephants cross the road. They’re very friendly, giving us a chance to get close up and snap their pictures.
Driving deeper into the park, Muhammad drops us on the plain then sees that our presence has not gone unnoticed. He uses his binoculars to look around then immediately urges us to get back in the car, heading to a nearby swamp and the family of five lions that spotted us.
“The lioness is responsible for hunting their food and now they’re hungry,” our guide smiles. “Wildlife won’t attack us when if we stay in the car. They think a car is a big animal.”
We’re not sure if he is joking but nevertheless keep taking pictures of the three beautiful cubs that look like tame felines.
The next morning I wake up to the spectacular views of the vast green pastureland, dotted with giraffes, zebras, impalas and buffaloes that apparently have no problem with each other’s company. As I stare mesmerised by this rare privilege, a group of more than 10 black-faced vervet monkeys scramble up to the deck and sit next to me quietly.
A black-faced vervet monkey come to greet the visitors.
Some of them find the way into the living room because I’ve stupidly forgotten to zip up the net. I spend a few minutes chasing them out but later my roommate discovers two of them in the en-suite bathroom of her bedroom. We laugh as it dawns on us that we are the guests and the monkeys are our landlords and thus allowed to roam everywhere they wish.
After breakfast in the bush, Mohammad leads us to a swamp where we watch a big group of hippos soaking in the water and a small crocodile sunning itself on the bank. Looking at buffaloes lying on the grass and cattle egrets landing on their backs, I feel I’m back in Thailand.
“During the hot weather, animals come to the mud pond to cool their body temperature and kill parasites,” our guide explains.
The park is also one a popular spot among birdwatchers, boasting more than 300 species of birds including the red-necked falcon, hamerkop, tawny eagles, yellow-necked spurfowl, grey crowned crane, black winged stilts and greater blue-eared starling.
We return to the lodge and pack our bags ready to travel to our next destination in Loisaba. A group of rock and bush hyraxes, which enjoy munching fresh leaves, come to the terrace to send us off.
UP IN THE AIR
>> Kenya Airways operates daily direct flight from Bangkok to Nairobi. Flight time is nine hours. Call (02) 630 4545 or visit www.Kenya-Airways.com.
>> The all-inclusive Elewana SkySafari Kenya Connoisseur Package ranges from US$7,304 (Bt234,200) to US$10,056 (Bt322,500) during the mid-season. Check out the best rates at ftp.skysafari.com
>> AirKenya also operates domestic flights from Nairobi to the Meru National Park.
>> Find out more about Meru National Park at www.MagicalKenya.com.