Meru is a classic savannah wilderness and a refreshing antidote to the overdeveloped preserves such as Masai Mara and Samburu. If getting away from it all is a priority, you'll find your poison here. Wild, rugged, and remote -- and still recovering from a protracted period during the '80s and '90s when Somali poachers decimated entire animal populations here -- Meru sees comparatively few visitors. Attacks by poachers were so brutal, in fact, that more than 3,000 elephants were killed, and white rhino, initially introduced here from South Africa, were completely wiped out, killed alongside the people employed to care for them. But the brutality of the past seems to have abated, and Meru has been recovering steadily, thanks to foreign funding that has supported the relocation of animals, including elephant and rhino, and the much-needed repair of roads. Still, Meru's reputation as a hotbed of poaching has meant that it has yet to suffer the onslaught of safari tourism and remains marvelously unspoiled.
Aside from the devastation of the '80s, Meru's best-known associations are with Joy Adamson, who penned Born Free after hand-rearing and rehabilitating a lioness named Elsa. Also within Meru is the grave of Pippa, a cheetah that Adamson reared here and wrote about in The Spotted Sphynx. Meru is really the only developed part of a complex of protected wildlife areas, including several national reserves, none of which is in any way equipped for visitors -- there simply are no accommodations. The adjacent Kora National Reserve, which, at 1,270 sq. km (495 sq. miles), is considerably larger than Meru, is where George Adamson lived and rehabilitated lions until his murder by Somali poachers in 1989.
Lying directly on the equator, just an hour's flight from Nairobi (an extremely scenic flight, with hulking Mount Kenya in your sights for much of the way), Meru's landscape is spectacularly scenic, which makes the search for the park's still shy, slightly elusive predators a real pleasure. Wildlife sightings are fairly good, although animals might seem a little more skittish than in the better established parks where they're habituated to vehicles. The park is bounded by a number of rivers -- the Tana to the south (a great place to watch hippos and crocs), the Bisanadi to the north, and the Rojewero running through the center of the park. These, together with 14 permanent streams that run off from the Nyambeni Hills, are lined with doum palms, tamarind trees, and acacias.
Part of Meru's attractiveness is its diversity of habitats. Surrounded by hills and mountains shimmering in the distance, its terrain includes jungle and riverine forest, swampland, and vast grassland plains studded with rocky outcrops -- also called inselbergs or kopjes -- which are where you might spot leopards lurking among the boulders. The varied terrain provides shelter for a great diversity of animals -- elephant, reticulated giraffe, Kirk's dik-dik, eland, greater and lesser kudu, and Grant's gazelle are found here -- and sightings of lion and cheetah are fairly good, as are glimpses of rarer specimens such as gerenuk, oryx, hartebeest, and the endangered Grevy's zebra. Around swampier areas, you'll spot defassa waterbuck and large herds of buffalo. But wherever you are in the park, you'll never lack for incredible vistas in a wilderness that's stuffed with splendor.