‘Born free, as free as the wind blows. As free as the grass grows. Born free to follow your heart.’
It is hard to resist singing the famous lyrics as you take in the vast skies and spaces of the Meru National Park. Remote and rugged, this magnificent park was made famous as the setting of Joy Adamson’s Born Free books and the subsequent film, the story of the orphaned lion cub, Elsa. Raised by the author, artist and naturalist and her husband, conservationist George Adamson, Elsa survived to raise her own three cubs in Meru. Images of the intrepid couple dashing through the bush in their battered Land Rover still inspire many with dreams of wild African adventure.
North of the equator, this was once part of the storied Northern Frontier District. The park’s unspoiled wilds stretch across 214 982 acres, from wide-open plains threaded by 13 permanent rivers to the slopes of the Nyambene Hills, backed by towering Mount Kenya. The corners of four counties connect at the meeting point of Meru, Kora National Park and Mwingi and Bisanadi national reserves. Together these protected areas are Kenya’s second-largest wilderness, after Tsavo.
The landscape is astoundingly diverse for an arid region, with semi-desert, grasslands, open woodland, thick bush, swamps and cool mountain forests. The streams and rivers flowing from the Nyambenes to the Tana River are fringed with doum palms, with their distinctive Y-shaped trunks.
These varied habitats support a rich diversity of flora and fauna. The Big Five, with especially large herds of Cape buffalo, roam the grasslands and thickets with gerenuk, oryx and other antelope, cheetah, giraffe, rare Grevy’s zebra, caracul, bushpig and warthog. Hippo, crocodile and fish inhabit the watercourses and wetlands. Dainty dik dik pairs frequently dart across the roads.
Such abundance makes it hard to believe that at the end of the 1980s, the park’s elephant had been decimated and its rhino wiped out by poachers. The Kenya Wildlife Service, with the help of international donors, has done wonders in restoring this park to its former glory. Its highly skilled and dedicated rangers have been central to this revival. Through their protection, rhino in the park’s Rhino Sanctuary now number 60, while there were 900 elephant at last count.
Meru National Park