Saturday, 17 December 2016

Elsa's Magnificient Meru, A Lithe Leopard In Samburu!

December is here already, my son's school closed yesterday and this is usually the time of the year when we plan a quick three day getaway in early January to coincide with my birthday, which conveniently coincides with the fractional fall in peak season, super high resort rates, as people start going back to work then... So before we go anywhere again this time, I need to inscribe the last trip taken, before fresh African images get super imposed over the previous ones already in my mind!
My parents had visited us at the end of 2012 and at that time we had covered most of the must see must do places of Kenya. So when my mother started planning her trip for 2016, I knew I had to look for fresher, greener pastures and as she is a huge George, Joy and Elsa Adamson fan, (of Born Free, Living Free, Forever Free fame), I hit upon the perfect vacation spot.
We planned to travel during the children's Spring Break (though it isn't spring in kenya then!), my husband took a couple of days off from work, my Skype students got a week's vacation and so we could visit both Meru and Samburu, of White Masai (both the book and the movie) fame. One thing I don't believe in doing in Kenya and avoided doing in Tanzania too, is flying across the country. I know chances are negligible that I will ever visit those areas again, since these are not my countries. That is why we always choose to travel by road, thereby fully savouring the beauty of the vast countryside, the ever varying landscape, and the versatile shades of green, brown and blue.
                                       Mount Kenya, tall and proud, chose to give us a view!

                                                 At the entrance of Meru National Park

Meru National Park : Rugged, unspoilt, untouched is how the Kenya Wildlife Service describes it. It is also the least visited National Park in Kenya and I hardly know anyone who has been there. Even our very experienced safari guide cum driver confessed to having been there just once, many years ago... On the map it is 350 kms from Nairobi. In reality it felt like 350 multiplied by ten! We set out very early on a sparkling March morning, for we had a long way to go, to another hemisphere actually, the Northern one! We crossed the Equator in good time and were even fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Mount Kenya since it was a clear day. We sped on ahead, so far so good as the roads were smooth and not too crowded either. But six hours into our drive and we seemed nowhere near our goal! And then the road changed to a bone jarring, jaw rattling, more pothole, less tar entity. I feel car sick at the best of times, unless I am driving myself, and this was just too much for me. I began wishing myself safely back in Nairobi and, as usual, began asking myself why I plan these practically off the map trips! I've done this in Tanzania and Russia too! Mercifully the National Park gate loomed up just as I was at the end of my tether. But my woes were not over yet.
We were booked into Elsa's Kopje, an award winning, eco friendly lodge, nestled amidst and blended into the 'Kopje' or rocky outcrop, which lies just above George Adamson's original research campsite. When the owner was scounting around for a place in Meru National Park to build the lodge, he began walking up this rocky hill. Barely halfway up, he was charged by a lioness. As he raced downhill, he knew he had found the perfect site for Elsa's Kopje. And so work began for an exclusive resort and famed paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey inaugurated it in 1999. At precisely that time, I was studying archaeologist Dr.Louis Leakey's work in the University, in my home town Pune, as part of my M.Phil degree. Did I even imagine I would one day stay in a resort his son had visited? Absolutely not! But such is life...
We began barelling down the rough interior roads of Meru. The lodge, if I recall correctly, is a good twenty kilometres away from the gate through which we had entered. But try twenty kilometres on rough, barely in existance roads. It was another hour before we spotted the rocky outcrop of Elsa's Kopje, after we had driven through a shallow but very fast flowing and broad stream of water, with steep banks. When we came back with a ranger for our evening safari and recrossed the stream, he helpfully told us that just a few months earlier, during the short rains, a vehicle had been overturned by the increased force of the water when a few tourists had been attempting to cross it, to get to the resort. Fortunately they had been rescued before they were attacked by lions or swept away by the water. Very reassuring!
Tall, cool, lemony lime drinks to chase away the dust (and in my case the car sickness related bile) clogging our throats, awaited us at the Kopje. A warm welcome by the staff  and by the numerous tree hyraxes snoozing around (little wonder they play a prominent role in Joy's books and paintings!) and we were then shown to our cottages. The entire resort has just twelve cottages and while my mother and the kids were put in a more centrally located one, the one my husband and I shared was really remote.The walls were half of stone and half of netting, affording us a panoramic view of Meru National Park. The hill fell steeply away from the edge of the cottage, which meant it was impossible for humans to loiter around outside the room but sure footed wild life was a different matter.

                                                                  Hello Hyrax!
A continental, vegetarian lunch later, (hardly any Indians or people of Indian origin make it to this park so there's no Indian food like you get just about everywhere else in Kenya), and we  were ready for our first safari. A ranger with a two way radio accompanied us because, unlike the Masai Mara, for example, there really are no tourists around every corner here, and if we were stranded anywhere, it would be hours before anyone would even realize that we were lost...There is barely any mobile phone range. The journey out was uneventful. We saw elephant herds in the distance, giraffes nibbling thorny acacias, different kinds of deer and a variety of birds but no lions. When we realized that we were now making a road with our vehicle tyres where none existed before, we told the driver to turn back. Halfway to Elsa's Kopje, we saw that the huge elephant herd, which we had earlier seen at a distance, was now blocking our path back. We stopped, literally, in our tracks. Suddenly that particular phrase seemed crystal clear! The elephants began moving towards us. Eleven years on the African continent and you can't not encounter an elephant in the wild, but these looked menacing, unlike the ones we had seen in numerous other parks earlier. They clearly were not used to people and cars invading their land. One began moving towards us, very determinedly. It ran a bit to pick up speed to charge then stopped. We began screaming. Now even our veteran driver panicked and was about to reverse the vehicle to flee. Then, the ranger quietly told him to switch off the vehicle, as elephants attack moving targets  and he warned us not to utter a sound, as elephants have extremely sharp ears and react to it, if perceived as threatening. Then there was pin drop silence in the vehicle. I could hear my heart thudding loudly, practically jumping out of my rib cage and the only other sound was that of blood rushing to my ears. We invoked just about every God we could to make the elephant go away because if it charged us, the safari van would be overturned in no time and since the whole herd was milling around the side of the road, we would be trampled without doubt. After an eternity, it was around ten minutes in reality, the elephant lost interest in us and began moving away followed by most of the herd. We shot out of there the minute the road was clear.

                                                  His road or ours? His, of course!

He eyes us from the corner of his eye as he crosses the road to join the herd on the other side. Then decides we are a threat so turns around to charge at us. Heart stopping moments....

Back in the lodge, after freshening up, we entered the common dining area where my Mom found a book she has been searching for for years, but which is sadly currently not available anywhere in India, not even on Of course Joy Adamson's autobiography 'The Searching Spirit' would be there in Elsa's Kopje! Where else could it be! My mother asked for permission to carry the book to her room and as a consequence spent half the night reading, thereby missing the safari early next morning where my husband and daughter spotted lions and where wild buffaloes blocked their way! I prefered to catch up on my sleep!

                                                          A Blood Bond With Elsa?

                                                                    Buffalo Crossing!
Dinner was by the pool side, which is very unique because it has been carved out completely from the existing rock and is perched right at the edge of the rocky outcrop. There were only a handful of other guests so it was a very personal and quiet experience to dine under the same moon that shone on Elsa when she was released back into the wild by the Adamsons right there in Meru. The same moon under which she prematurely breathed her last, in Meru.

                     The location of George Adamson's original campsite as seen from the pool

Elsa's Kopje is not surrounded by an electric fence like all other African resorts located in the wild, barring Man Eaters in Tsavo. A leopard comes to drink from the swimming pool on most mornings. My daughter actually woke up at the crack of dawn to spot it but had no luck that particular morning. The guard who escorted us back to our far away cottage told us that a few weeks earlier a huge Tusker had been standing right outside that cottage when he reached it with some guests but mercifully did not charge at any of them. I gulped visibly...
Exhausted by our long and unusually scary day, I quickly fell into a deep sleep. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I heard the loud roar of lion, followed by a crashing sound through the undergrowth of some prey it was probably chasing. Somewhere a monkey gave a blood curdling screech. My eyes flew open as I heard the roar coming even closer now. There was no power as generators are turned off between midnight and six in the morning. The room was pitch dark and the only thought in my mind was that there was just a flimsy net between us and an angry, hungry lion as the stony rock would help, not hinder it to rush up... The rate at which the sounds were coming made it seem as if at any moment first the prey and then the lion in hot pursuit would crash into our room. And we had nowhere to hide, as in keeping with the ultimate privacy and luxury concept the lodge offers, the bathroom did not even have a door...There was nothing I could do except pray that the lion and prey turned away... which they did after many agonizing minutes.
The main attraction of Meru is that Elsa's grave lies here. After being hand reared as a cub by the Adamson's after her mother was shot and died, Elsa was released and had cubs too. But when she turned six, she tragically died of tick fever and she is buried here. The grave is deeper into the park and after our elephantine encouter the previous evening, neither our driver nor we were keen to venture further into Meru. So we paid respects mentally to the most famous lioness in the world and, accompanied by the head ranger who wanted a lift until the exit, bid good bye to Elsa's Kopje. A few minutes into our journey and we were waylaid by an elephant herd AGAIN with a repeat of the charging and retreating performance. By now we were trained enough not to move even a muscle, but never have I been as glad as I was to leave a National Park, as I was to depart from Meru. It is only for the really brave hearted. Little wonder then that my daughter has vowed to go back one day in the far future, with friends. They will have my best wishes!
Another long drive, another hot, dusty journey through brilliant African vistas, through Joy Adamson's town Isiolo where she stayed and completed a lot of her work and then we were in Samburu, the home of the famous Samburu tribe, cousins of the even more famous Masai. Immediately upon entering Buffaloe Springs Reserve which adjoins Samburu National Park, we felt as comfortable as we always do in all of Kenya's parks. Our driver was very familiar with this one as it is prominent on the local tourist route and so we were in a happy frame of mind, with the fear we had experienced in the last twenty four hours receding quickly. We spotted other safari vehicles and reached our resort, Ashnil Samburu, well in time for a lunch of chappatis and red beans and rice. This time our cottages were perched on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river and besides being within a stone's throw of each other, were also secured by electric fencing. A 'tame' wild elephant was on the other side of the fence, right beside the river, scrounging around for salt, which is probably a part of its daily lunch routine!

                                                              At a safe, electric fence distance!

My daughter was determined to see a leopard on this safari and what she wants she usually gets. So while my son chose a nature walk and lesson on the resort grounds and I chose to sleep, she, my mother and my husband set off very early the next morning for a safari and the driver drove them towards an area more than forty kilometeres away, where leopards are usually spotted in Samburu. And they spied a magnificent one whose pictures speak volumes about its non chalant attitude! It seems to have adopted Tennyson's words and is disdainfully saying 'For (Wo)Men may come and (Wo)Men may go, but the lithe leopards of Samburu go on forever...

This was, by far, our most adventurous safari yet, because we truly ventured off the cliched, beaten track. If you want a truly adrenaline pumping, pulse boosting Kenyan Safari, be sure to visit Elsa's Meru. Don't worry, she will watch over you....After all, the Lion, not the elephant, is the King of the jungle!


  1. I could relive the amazing experience! Graphic description!

  2. What a tremendous experience! !

    1. Right Siddha! You visiting soon??

  3. A thrilling description of a unique experience Anupama...I really loved the way you have described the entire episode


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