Meru is a stunning, little visited and remote park that was home to George and Joy Adamson in the 60's. In the 1970s it was visited by as many as 30,000 tourists each year, mainly as a result of the film Born Free. Today, you wouldn't visit Meru just to tick off large animals - although they are there - but if you value seclusion and wilderness, it's well worth while visiting one of the smaller camps in Meru for a few days.
When the Adamsons were in Meru, the warden was Peter Jenkins, a legendary figure in the Kenyan wildlife department who was responsible for establishing Meru National Park. In the 80's, Jenkins left and the park went rapidly into free fall. Poaching became rampant and the populations of all the major animals, most notably elephant and rhino, were literally decimated in a matter of months. In the 90's Peter Jenkins son Mark took over as the warden and, against serious odds, managed to restore control, which ultimately paved the way for Meru to begin its recovery.
On its own, Meru is not particularly large at just 870 square kilometres,it's framed to the north west by the Nyambeni Hills, which separate it from neighbouring Shaba and to the south, the wild Tana River forms the boundary, on its way from the Mt Kenya catchment area to the coast north of Mombasa. In reality, Meru is part of a much larger ecosystem that includes Kora to the south (which dwarfs Meru in its own right) Bisanadi, where Offbeat Meru operates, and Rahole Reserve which wraps around above Kora on the north bank of the Tana River.
The first impression of Meru National Park is that this is a large flat area, dominated by really quite dense acacia and commiphora woodland. The terrain is punctuated by stands of bifurcated doum palms, which lend a wild feel to the landscape. There are, however, few points where you can get any kind of view over Meru National Park. It has 13 permanent rivers that flow out of the Nyambeni hills and drain into the Tana River. The rivers break up the monotony of the open woodland, and are a defining vital life force during the dry season.
Driving through the park you come across these little oases with little warning; no panoramic views here, but suddenly a patch of vivid green in the otherwise brown scenery, teaming with bird and animal life. And this detail is really what Meru is about; you probably wouldn't want to come here if this was to be your first and only experience of the African Bush, but for those who have been a few times, the allure of a small and very little visited park is significant.
Game in Meru has also recovered at an encouraging rate,such that people we met here talk once more about visiting Meru for its game, something nobody was brave enough to say a few years ago. Elephant populations have recovered significantly, lion and leopard are difficult to find, but numbers are rising and Meru is somewhere you can come with a good expectation of seeing what they call the northern five - Oryx, Grevy's Zebra, Gerenuk, lesser Kudu and Reticulated giraffe.
One of the most significant expressions of confidence in Meru's reincarnation was the creation of a 40 square kilometre Rhino Sanctuary; people just don't go giving Rhino's away lightly, but so far this project, which is home to both white rhino and the indigenous black rhino is doing well. Meru National Park is also home to wonderful birds, so if you do have an interest in birdlife, this is well worth the visit. Rather like the indigenous peoples of this region, birds in this dry and harsh country are lavishly attired in glorious technicolour. Vulturine guinea foul strut self consciously along the edges of the road and the river lines are full or brightly coloured bee eaters and kingfishers. If you're really lucky this is somewhere you could find the elusive Pel's Fishing Owl.
Bisanadi, Rahole, Kora and North Kitui all act as wildlife dispersal areas for Meru National Park. These parks and reserves are all undeveloped for tourism, although there is now one small tented camp on the border between Bisanadi and Meru, so as a visitor, these are not areas which you are likely to be able to have much access to.
Many of these parks have suffered under the intense interest of poachers in the past and since they don't produce any revenue for the parks, there aren't really the resources at present to give them the security and funds they require to realise their potential. George Adamson had his camp in Kora where he raised and released his lions and met his sad end here. Hopefully in coming years there will be a concerted effort to improve the management of the parks so that they can be enjoyed by visitors.