One of our favorite camps during our Kenya safari holidays was Elsa’s Kopje in Meru National Park. Located about 220 miles northeast of Nairobi, guests can either drive or take a small commuter plane to get to Meru.
We chose to fly and were greeted by Aikiba, who was to be our personal guide during our stay in Meru. We rode with Akiba on the dusty path in a 4×4 jeep to the center of Meru National Park where we would spend three wonderfully memorable days.
Yes, named for that Elsa – the lioness made famous by conservationists Joy and George Adamson and the book and movie “Born Free” about their amazing story of life in the Kenyan savanna where they hand-reared the orphaned lion from a four-day-old cub until maturity when she was released back into the wild of Meru National Park.
Elsa’s Kopje (kopje is a South African word for a small hill in a generally flat area) is responsibly built into Mughwango Hill, camouflaged so well that you almost can’t see the individual huts unless you’re specifically looking for them. The unfenced camp seems invisible to wildlife. In fact, one of the highlights was hearing the lions just below the hill of the camp, roaring and chuffing with each other at night. I can’t overemphasize how thrilling that was!
For decades, Elsa was the most famous lion in the world. That abruptly ended in 2015 when Cecil, a well-known and beloved male lion, was senselessly killed by trophy hunter Walter Palmer in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Cecil had been a major attraction of the park and was being tracked as part of a long-term study. It is difficult for me to understand why Palmer had been issued a permit and was not charged with any crime. Since the incident, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added lions in India and Africa to the endangered species list, making it more difficult for United States citizens to legally kill lions. Good for them!
5-star safari lodge Elsa’s Kopje was founded by Stefano Cheli and opened by Dr. Richard Leakey (Director of Kenya Wildlife Service) and Virginia McKenna, the star of the 1960’s film “Born Free” and founder of the Born Free Foundation in 1999. Being passionate about the environment, Stefano designed a lodge that was not only elegant, but deliberately hard to see and uses minimal power, and was rewarded for his efforts when Elsa’s received the first eco-rating in Kenya in 2003.
Elsa’s Kopje is part of the Elewana Collection of exquisite luxury boutique eco-lodges and safari camps in Kenya and Tanzania. Cheli designed the camp himself, choosing the area because it was where Elsa would bring her cubs to play and is just above the site of George Adamson’s original camp. There are only six cottages and three honeymoon suites, each built into the rock face, incorporating natural elements like trees and boulders both inside and outside the cottages.
After a hearty welcome by Elsa’s manager, Zarek Cockar, I was led uphill on a meandering stone path. I opened the door to my hut and drew my breath sharply in. My eyes nearly popped out and I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open. Spread out before me was a treehouse-style thatched hut. It opened out to a veranda that hung out over the savanna with panoramic views of 215,000 acres of authentic African landscape. In the middle of the expansive room was a four-poster bed with mosquito netting arranged artistically around the spindles. To the side was a comfy sitting room. It was hands-down, the most romantic accommodation imaginable! To say it was “magical” sounds so cliché, but truly, it was. My only regret was that my love wasn’t here to experience it with me.
Rustic in design and décor, the huts coordinate perfectly with the environment. Because Meru is hot and dry, the only thing needed at night is to zip the screens, enabling guests to feel the breezes, hear the wildlife, and experience both sunsets and sunrises, but without the threat of critters coming in.
Descending the stairs from the main room to the lower floor, I had an ensuite bathroom with a large stone walk-in shower and separate vanity and toilet areas. On my first “visit” to the toilet area, I noticed a creature stretched out on the tree limb just outside of the large screen in front of me. To say it was off-putting would be an understatement…I was sort of scared. I soon found out it was a hyrax. These furry rodent-looking animals have been roaming all over the kopje since the Adamson’s were here (and assuredly much longer) and are harmless. They hide among the rocks and in the trees to escape the prying eyes of predator eagles. They’re actually pretty cute once you get used to them being all around you, looking a bit like an oversized hamster.
The safari camp is eco-friendly from the reusable metal (plastic is illegal in Kenya) water bottles to a stand-alone solar-powered unit for each hut, seamlessly blended into the landscape.
One of my favorite public spots at Elsa’s was the infinity pool. Overlooking the savanna, the pool is turquoise oasis carved into the contrasting earth-colored stone which surrounds it like a natural hug, surrounded by a green manicured lawn and trees. It’s possible to see wildlife such as giraffes and buffalo roaming below on the open plains as you relax in the pool or one of the comfy shaded lounge chairs.
I would be remiss if I did not give much-deserved praise to the staff of Elsa’s. They took care of our every need: our daily waiters Benjamin and Alex, bartender George, and private porter Christopher who even laundered my clothes.
Special acknowledgment needs to be made to the chef, Jackie. You see, I’m a bit of a challenge to feed. I’m allergic to eggs and dairy (except for cheddar cheese), and I follow a Ketogenic diet so no sugar, flour, wheat, potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, or fruit. Jackie put on her thinking cap and presented me with my first dinner of fresh grilled fish and veggies. It was succulent and tasty to the extreme! In fact, it was so delicious that I requested it again for the next dinner and Alison asked for it too!
Most meals were taken in the rustic, open-air dining room, but on our last night, the staff set a table for us under the stars. Of course, we giggled, since the romantic setting was totally lost on two girl-buddy adventures who were wishing their men were here to share this experience. Even the waiters laughed at Alison’s jokes!
One of my more bizarre experiences while at Elsa’s Kopje happened in the common area one evening. I’d taken my laptop to check email and post to my social media because it was the only area that had a good WiFi connection. I noticed a couple of flying insects landing on my laptop. I didn’t think much of it and just brushed them off. I was out in the wilderness of Africa, after all.
The number steadily increased, not just on and around my laptop, but around my head. I turned around to see where they were coming from and there was literally a swarm of thousands of the white-winged things buzzing around the giant light hanging from the ceiling. I have to admit, I panicked a bit as they started to close in around me, especially when I realized I had to pass under the light to get back to my hut. I closed my laptop and proceed to wave it around to clear a path while I ran through the dense group to the path to my room.
I related the event, albeit a bit sheepishly, to Zarek who told me that the insects were actually termites and that this frenzied nuptial flight was a once-a-year occurrence. Termites play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down dead plant material, pollinating crops, improving soil health and providing food for other animals. I immediately regretted racing off in such a panic and not photographing the episode!
Meru National Park
In contrast to more popular safari destinations like the Masai Mara, Meru National Park is uncrowded. In fact, there was never another safari vehicle in our sightline the whole time we were on game drives, which combined with the diverse landscape and abundant wildlife viewing made Meru a memorable first safari experience.
Meru encompasses an unspoiled stretch of savanna, grassy open plains, rivers and swamps, dense bush, acacia and baobab trees, and the odd-looking doum palm. Because it straddles the equator and is crisscrossed by thirteen rivers, the diversity of landscapes and wildlife in Meru is abundant.
Opened in 1966, the park fell into neglect in the 1980s. Unfortunately, for more than a decade, the remarkable wilderness was off-limits due to out-of-control poaching. Meru National Park was revived thanks mainly to the extraordinary efforts of Richard Leakey, who was named chairman of the newly created Kenya Wildlife Service in 1990. Between 2000 and 2005, the Kenya Wildlife Service, along with the International Fund for Animal Welfare helped Leakey to mitigate the poaching issue and restore Meru National Park from near ruin to its former glory and is now one of premier safari destinations in Kenya.
Rangers patrol the 340-acre park making sure there are no poachers or guests breaking the rules. These two were quite serious fellows, but they softened up a bit when we asked them if they’d like to take a picture with us.
You can expect to see the Big Five and lots of other game in Meru National Park: prides of lions and other big cats, herds of elephants and buffalo, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, several types of antelopes and over 300 species of birds including ostriches.
Our game drives, one in the early morning right after sunrise and the other in late afternoon until just after sunset, were incredible. Akiba was our personal guide for every drive. His knowledge of the flora and fauna of Meru was immense, and we learned that he holds a safari guide license issued by the government of Kenya. The licensing process has several levels, each requiring a different area of local, historic, flora and fauna, international, and political study with each requiring passing a written exam before obtaining the license in one level before moving on to the next.
Quite appropriately, one of the first animals we encountered were a couple of lionesses just lazing around on the ground. I could not believe how close they were to the jeep! They seemed unaware that we were there, but I soon realized that wasn’t the case. I half-stood up and reached over to get my other camera, which I wasn’t supposed to do – no quick movements, but I was caught up in the moment. One of the lions did not like that movement and rose up onto her two front legs and starred at the jeep. Akiba appropriately and kindly reminded me to stay seated. The lions stayed for a few minutes then walked off.
“What do you want to see?” Akiba asked me. “Giraffes!” I said. I think he was surprised that I didn’t say lions or rhinos, but I adore giraffes. I was thrilled to see so many of my beloved animals in Meru. They are such social and friendly creatures, with a few of them coming so close to the jeep that I couldn’t resist talking baby-talk to them. 🙂
We saw a good number of zebras – mostly the common zebra, but a few Grévy’s zebra. We learned that the stripes help them with weather conditions, with the black stripes absorbing heat. Grevy’s zebra has a white belly, while the common zebra’s stripes go almost all the way around the belly.
“There’s a folk tale about zebras,” Akiba said. “The Grévy’s zebra is white with black stripes painted on while the common zebra is black with white stripes.”
But embryological evidence indicates that for both, the background color is black and the white stripes and white bellies are additions.
I loved Akiba’s insider information and stories! He also told us how the white rhino got its name.
“The white rhino is not supposed to be ‘white,’ he said, “it’s supposed to be ‘wide.’ Afrikaan language couldn’t pronounce the word “wide” which is the wide mouth for grazing grass vs. the hooked mouth of the black rhino which eats from bushes. It was easier for them to say ‘white.’ It has nothing to do with the color of the animal.”
The rhino has been on the endangered list for some time, due to poaching which is now illegal. There 80 white and 40 black rhinos in Meru National Park that reside in the sanctuary near the main gate.
Akiba also told us this story of his very personal encounter with an elephant.
“I was on a game drive with some tourists when an elephant suddenly emerged from some tall bushes near the road. He broke the side-view mirror off the right side of the jeep. I told everyone to lay down and stay still. The elephant’s trunk came into the car and took the cap off my head. Then I felt the underneath of the trunk wrap around my neck. I thought he was going to pull me out of the car, but I didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. But he removed his trunk and walked away. I guess he did not think we were a threat. I asked the guests if any of them had taken a video with their cell phone, but unfortunately it happened too fast and nobody thought of it.”
Click here for more information on the incredible personalities of elephants as well as a complete list, descriptions, and amazing photos of 21 animals to see on a safari in Kenya.
Akiba also took us to a spot that contained some rusty machine parts and other miscellaneous memorabilia left behind by the Joy and George Adamson. To be honest, I thought it was a bit touristy to keep the items here.
INSIDER TIP: Never travel to Africa (or any other country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014. Use the form below to get a FREE, no-obligation quote.
Breakfast on the Savanna
On our second morning game drive, Aliba suddenly veered off-road and we headed downhill into a small ravine. A splash of color caught our eye, and subsequently, we saw some of the lodge staff and a table set with a colorful African table cloth.
Akiba could not hide his grin as we jumped out of the vehicle and headed toward Benjamin, who was trying hard not to smile but it showed in his eyes. He handed me a glass of Champaign and Alison a mimosa, which made me wonder if he’s psychic because I love Champaign.
We sat down at the vivid table as they brought out platters of fruits, breads and croissants, muffins, cheeses, cereals, yogurts, and a pot of strong Kenyan coffee while they cooked a made-to-order breakfast of pancakes and eggs. I could not resist the temptation and had some delicious creamy scrambled eggs with my crispy bacon, allergy be damned!
Talked about being spoiled rotten! Take my word, Elewana wrote the book on how to make friends and influence people!
Bushwalks are not strenuous hikes, they are casual strolls in the savanna or bush, which can be undertaken as an afternoon event or during a game drive. It’s a chance to see Kenya from a different perspective than seated in the jeep as well as an opportunity to commune with nature.
You needn’t feel like you’re in danger; even though your senses will inevitably be on high alert, the guides will take you to places where you won’t get hurt and keep you away from aggressive animals. Rather, you’ll have the opportunity to gain a better insight and appreciation for the diversity of the flora, learn the medicinal value of plants, inspect animal dung, try to determine animal tracks, touch the bark of an ancient baobab tree, or admire the engineering of termite mounds. You’ll smell the plant life and hear birds and animals.
As an added benefit, bushwalks are eco-friendly and help you burn off calories!
One of my favorite times out on the savanna was the “sundowner,” the Kenyan happy hour where we would toast the sun slipping over the horizon with a cocktail in hand.
This peaceful and reflective safari tradition dates back to colonial times where the heat of the day turned into the chilly night. It was the perfect time to enjoy our threesome camaraderie and reminisce about all the fantastic things we took in over the span of the day.
After a couple of hours of the late afternoon game drive, Akiba would pull off-road at the perfect spot on the savanna to watch the sunset over the hills on the distant horizon. It was fun to watch how quickly he transformed himself from guide to bartender. Table, chairs (which we never actually sat in) cooler, glasses, liquor, and snacks appearing like magic from the back of the jeep.
As usual, my Keto diet was restrictive. But Akiba was one step ahead of me and had stocked everything I needed for my favorite cocktail! Can we all just agree that a guide doesn’t get any better than that!
For a different kind of sundowner, late one afternoon we got cocktails and headed up a path between the restaurant and bar to a small landing that overlooked a different part of the savanna. Much to our surprise, we were joined by a family of monkeys, who proceeded to swing from branches mere inches from my head! I can’t say I was fond of them being so close – I was anxious the whole time, fearful that would land on me!
Patti’s African Sundowner (aka as a “Skinny Bitch”)
- 1 shot (1.5 oz.) vodka
- 8 oz. seltzer or sparkling water
- ½ lime, cut into quarters, squeezed, and added to the liquid
- 1 packets of Splenda (or another non-sugar sweetener)
On our last morning in Meru, we rose before dawn so that we could climb the small mountain nearby to see the sun come up over the savanna.
Our wake-up call at 5:15 am by Christopher was accompanied by the usual pot of delicious Kenyan coffee and cookies.
“It’s the middle of the night!” I said to Alison who rose to open the door. She took the tray and we took a few minutes to sit on the veranda and sip gulp as much caffeine as I could to try and wake up.
We met Akiba near the pool, and to be honest, between the crisp morning air and the coffee, I was ready for the climb. It wasn’t a long haul, but it was quite steep, and in some places, we had to scramble up large boulders, hand-over-fist, occasionally with a pull up from Akiba.
We barely made it to the top of the rocky outcropping as the sun peeked over the horizon. What a spectacular view! Well worth the early morning and exercise exerted.
The way down was much easier, and we took some time on the suspension to be silly. Because we like to do that. Another delicious hot breakfast (my usual of extra crispy bacon, cheese, and more Kenyan coffee) was waiting for us in the dining/lounge that faced the pool and savanna.
Upon finishing breakfast, we were off to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in another part of Kenya. I could not imagine a more memorable sendoff than that sunrise adventure.
Click on the image below to PIN so you can find Meru National Park again:
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of the Elewana Collection during her stay in Kenya, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick and Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.