We first visited Meru National Park invited by our friends Ken and Betty and, as we still did not have our own car, travelled -with our friend Ranjini- in the back of their Land Rover. Despite this, our excitement at being able to get out of Muguga House as well as exploring Kenya, made the trip quite bearable.
Meru National Park was located east of Meru town, 350 km from Nairobi with an area of 870 km2. It was a well-known park with plentiful rainfall resulting in abundant grasslands and swamps where rich wildlife roamed, particularly elephants, buffalo, reticulated giraffes, gerenuk and the rare gravy zebras, apart from the usual large carnivores.
Our start was not auspicious! Our friends had booked the Leopard Rock bungalows by the Murera river but forgot to bring the voucher that proved it! After a long discussion we assured the camp manager that we would vacate the place if other visitors arrived with the same bookings we had. This argument worked and we were finally allowed in and spent the weekend there as no one came, of course.
It was a short trip and its highlight was a long drive to the Tana river where we had a couple punctures on the way but, luckily, we carried two spare wheels and all needed tools. I also recall that, for some foolish reason, we walked across a shallow area of the river and I saw a small greenish fish swimming past my legs. When I realised that it was a small crocodile, I hastily retreated to dry land while warning the rest of the waders that followed my example!
Once a stronghold for elephants, by the time we visited they were getting scarce although we still saw them in large numbers but, according to our friends, their numbers had declined. At that time, if any black rhinos remained there must have been well hidden in the hills although I even doubt that!
What we did see were some of the reintroduced white rhinos that were being herded by armed rangers during the day and penned at night to protect them against poachers. They were rather tame and behaved like cattle so we took the opportunity to collect some interesting ticks from them!
A while after this first visit we learnt about George and Joy Adamson and Elsa and that they had raised the lioness in Meru National Park and this added another interest to re-visiting the park: to find the former “home” of George and Joy Adamson.
Despite gaining worldwide fame because of Elsa the lioness that Joy immortalized in her books “Born Free”, “Living Free” and “Forever Free” that narrate Elsa’s life. Joy was an amazing painter that travelled all over Kenya painting the various ethnic groups and her beautiful portraits are on displayed at the Kenya Museum.
She married George Adamson, known as “Bwana Game’ with who she shared part of her life until they parted company. Joy went to Shaba where she was working with leopards until she was eventually and sadly killed in 1980 by a former worker. George settled in Kora National Park for many years until he was also sadly killed by poachers in 1989.
We enjoyed the place and decided to go there again. This time we camped near the Leopard Rock where we had stayed before. Our camp was simple as we only had managed to acquire the basic items but it was enough for our needs at the time.
The aim of the trip, apart from exploring the park further, was to find Joy Adamson’s camp and Elsa’s grave. As we only had general directions, we set off early, as we were not sure of how long it would take us to drive almost to the farthest area of the park.
At first the going was good as we were on the main road to the southeast but soon we entered a narrow track that did not seem to be very much used. This did not surprise us because the Adamsons had been there several years before and not many people was clearly visiting the park and even fewer of them travelled in this direction.
After driving through a typical MMBA (More and More of B… Africa!) road that seemed endless for about four ours we stopped for a lunch break. We pondered our situation and and decided to continue for another hour and, if we still did not find anything, to admit defeat and start our return to base. Three quarters of an hour passed when we came to a steep descent leading to a dry riverbed that we could not climb and we found ourselves buried in deep sand.
The kombi was very good in many respects but rather hopeless in sand so all we could do was to dig! Before we started to work we had a very good look to the riverine bush to make sure that there were no dangerous surprises there. Once we checked, we got to remove sand under the wheels by hand. We then lifted the car and placed the spare wheel underneath to get some grip. So it was dig and lift, move the car a few centimetres forward, dig some more, lift and move some more until we were close to success when, with a loud “crack”, the jack screw snapped, clearly abused by so much use!
There was no question of lifting the car by human power so all we could do was an all out effort to move forward. Aware of the importance of this really “final” attempt, we removed all obstacles from our wheels and placed lots of branches in front of them to gain some more traction and, with Mabel pushing hard, I accelerated remembering to keep the wheels straight.
The car hesitated at first but then it somehow gripped firm ground and we managed to climb to the other side of the steep crossing. Elation was still pending as we were now free from the sandy patch but on the wrong side of the river! Aware that we have wasted about two hours getting the kombi across the river and unsure of where we really were we, unanimously, agreed that it was wise to start of return to base if we were to arrive in daylight.
So we drove on until we found a spot where we could turn the car around safely and started our return and attempt to cross the river again! We approached it, stopped and went down to level up the road and tried to make it firmer and cleared it from stones and anything that could interfere with our crossing as well as filling in the deep ruts we had left.
Then we moved the car back a good distance from the crossing to gather good speed and went for it with seat belts on and Mabel hanging on for dear life. As planned we went down fast and hit the bottom of the river with a bump but still had enough momentum to cross the sandy patch and the the car had enough power to grip firm ground and climb the opposite bank before stopping somehow sideways among thorn bushes on the other side. We had made it through!
Despite the rough crossing the car showed no visible damage and we drove it back to the track to start our return journey. We now celebrated and toasted with water while rested to allow the adrenaline levels to return to normal before moving again!
After that it all went well but only for a couple of kilometres. Then I started noting that the car did not respond well to my steering movements and then I noted a puncture in the front wheel on my side! Clearly stopping among thorn bushes had a price. “On top of everything, we now need to change a wheel” I said but Mabel reminded me that our jack had broken!
We tried to lift the car to fit stones underneath but failed so we were now in real trouble and our only hope was that anothe car would come our way and help us to change the wheel. I was thinking that this was a hope rather than a real possibility when I had an idea…
We had suffered earlier when the kombi, being long, would bend when crossing a ditch diagonally, often ending up with a wheel in the air and inmobile. Although this was unimportant when a front wheel was concerned it would stop the car when a back wheel turned in the air and needed someone to jump on the fender to get the wheel to grip!
I decided to use this “frame-bending” ability that had annoyed me in the past to our advantage. I went for a 3WD!
I sat on Mabel’s seat and she went to back seat behind me so that the right side of the car had no passengers, hoping that this would keep the punctured front right wheel in the air! We prepared ourselves and tried it. The car responded well with only a few occasions that the wheel rim touched the ground due to some large pothole.
Encouraged by our first few metres, we continued slowly as I only had control over one front wheel. The going was slow but we were moving in the right direction while we hoped that we would not have another puncture! We crawled back to our camp well after sunset where we could not avoid an ear full from the rangers that became milder once we explained what had taken place and showed them how the wheel was!
The following morning, still on 3WD, we drove to the park’s workshop and the mechanics were quite amused to see us coming with the driver on the passenger seat!
The wheel was repaired as we carried a spare tube (the original tube was now black powder!). The few protruding wires of the tire’s steel belt sticking out in several places, including inside the tire, were nicely clipped and a patch placed to cover their endings and it became our temporary spare. In any case, with no jack, a spare would not have been of much use! Luckily we did not needed it and got home without further mishaps.
Years later we learnt that the available maps of Meru National Park like the one we carried were inaccurate as they had been prepared while the roads were being constructed. We felt somehow vindicated for not having found the Adamson’s camp.
We visited the park again with a large group of friends and camped by a beautiful river with clear waters where we swam in the shallows and fished. It was idyllic we thought during the first day and then at night we heard several gun shots and we got quite concerned as we realized that it was probably poachers going for the elephants.
That was our last visit and we learnt that gradually things deteriorated as many animals were lost to poachers. Sadly, in 1989 about thirty poachers came and gunned down in their pen five of the white rhinos we usually saw despite the rangers rather heroic defense that got two of them severely wounded.
Those were the bad days of Meru that extended well into the 90s. Then, things started to improve and in 2002, eight white rhinos were moved to Meru from private ranches in Kenya but, sadly, the poachers menace is still a real one.