We were in Meru National Park – the place where George and Joy Adamson released to the wild Elsa the lioness and, later, tried to release other lions that had appeared in the film, ‘Born Free’.
The boys were riding lookout from the roof-hatch of the car. For two hours we had driven across the open plains to the north of the park hoping, of course, to see lions or cheetahs. But the blond grass was quite high, so you couldn’t see game at a distance, like you can in the Masai Mara or Amboseli.
The light was going, and we needed to get back to our lodge. We took a track alongside one of the well-wooded streams that run down into the Tana River, at the southern boundary of the park.
‘Stop, Daddy! Stop!’ Jan called out – in a kind of whisper that could top the purring of the engine.
And then I saw it – a kudu, in a clearing ahead of us. For a few seconds he stood stock still; his head raised – looking straight at us. But he was gone before Andreas could reach for and aim the camera.
These kudus in Meru might be called ‘lesser’ – but there is little lesser about them. They are magnificent animals, of a warm grey with white stripes down their flanks. Only the males have horns. Normally, they are very shy – and you see them only when they are already disappearing.
If we had seen nothing else, this brief encounter with the kudu would have been worth the weekend out from Nairobi. But, in fact, we saw plenty; especially the animals the grass and shrubs couldn’t hide – like elephants and giraffes, impalas and zebras.
There were lots of waterbuck, too. And we learnt why they seem to be less nervous than other antelopes. George, the guide on one of our game drives, told us that their meat tastes so bad, even when the animal is freshly killed. ‘A lion has to be really hungry to hunt down a waterbuck,’ he said. If true, it’s a neat survival trick, isn’t it?
For us, the restocked and revived Meru National Park was living up to its new reputation. Twenty years ago when I first went there it was in a sorry state, with run-down lodges, overgrown tracks, decimated wildlife – and a very bad reputation for insecurity. But now there is a good choice of places to stay: from the luxury of Elsa’s Kopje to the basics of a public campsite, where you can pitch your tent by a stream and refresh yourself in the shower block.
The many tracks through the park have been re-cut, well maintained and helpfully signposted. Security is no longer a worry. The animals are back in good numbers – and there is even an extensive rhino sanctuary.
There is a beauty in the variety of the place: from open savannah, through riverine forest to luxuriant swamps. Over all the park, the landscapes are dominated by the tall and stately doum palms. The cover is so good that you can never be sure what will be round the next corner – so, if you appreciate suspense, then you will enjoy Meru Park.
Less enjoyable is the drive there from Nairobi. The shortest route is through Embu and Meru, where you turn off and drive down through the green tea and miraa plantations to Maua. Just before the town, you take a signposted left for 30 kilometres along a newly tarmacked road to the Murera Gate.
The really frustrating thing about this route is the extraordinary number of speed bumps all over the hundred-plus kilometres from Embu to Meru. No other country that I have seen has such speed bumps on main roads – the painful and catch-all penalty, I guess, for us not observing speed-limits.
So on the way back we chose the longer but quicker route from Meru round the northern slopes of Mount Kenya and down again through Nanyuki. Fewer bumps and more spectacular views. And there is also the chance of a fresh trout lunch at the Kentrout Farm in Timau – or a longer stopover in the rustic bandas of the Timau River Lodge.