Rocky ambience at Kenya's best kept secret
By Millicent Muthoni
The October sun is blazing at midday. It gives a wet heat, the kind that promises rain. There are no visible animals in the park but for the ubiquitous zebra and the occasional traipsing impala. We come to a spot near the Ura River which is loud and rhythmic. A herd of elephants has left its footprint nearby. The vehicle skid marks at the spot cause us to shiver.
On approach, it is difficult to see why Elsa’s Kopje (Afrikaans for hillock) has won the prestigious International Property Awards, 2008, in the category of Best Development in Kenya. That is because there is no building in sight, just a mountain of rocks. Huge, craggy overgrown rocks.
Set on Mughwango Hill in Meru National Park, Elsa’s Kopje is named after Elsa the lioness, made famous by George and Joy Adamson’s biographical film Born Free. Elsa’s Kopje manages to hide on the hill. Its hushed existence is what earned it the award. It does not disturb nature but blends into it.
"Lunch?" A feminine voice called.
"Yes, we are here for lunch," we reply, leaving Flick Woodhouse, the manager puzzled.
"Did you call to book?" she asks.
Of course we did not. Our norm when travelling out of Nairobi is to just arrive at a lodge and expect food to be available. Big mistake. Theirs, we later learn, is a cuisine with an Italian bent, served in modest portions. Still, Flick finds a place for us at the table.
The most striking feature about the lodge is the rocks. Natural and undisturbed, they jut in and out of every room as the walls embrace them. The rocks determine where the rooms are placed. Each of the 11 cottages is different, each uniquely designed and crafted to integrate the natural rocks.
Elsa’s private house
Mimicking Meru traditional architecture, the reception building is elegant and rustic. The main structure is an adobe makuti-thatched curvaceous building. It overlooks the pool and offers a sweeping panorama of the park. Housing the dining room and the lounge, it is touched up with ethnic style decor and earthy colour highlights.
Cottages take the shape of irregular huts with an open view. They have double or twin beds and elegantly appointed bathrooms.
Elsa’s Private House is a spacious, exclusive hideaway set slightly apart from the main lodge. It has one double room and one twin, both with en-suite bathrooms. The living and dining area leads seamlessly outdoors into the private swimming pool. Three levels up, Elsa’s honeymoon suite spots a double bed and en-suite bathroom that offers breathtaking views.
Elsa’s Logde is serene and planned into a compact circuit. Sam Taylor, another manager, explains what makes the lodge eco-friendly. "Our ethos is ‘small and personal’. We like to spend time with our guests. We have limited generator hours and use solar-heated water. The energy-efficient bulbs are painted yellow to reduce visibility and distraction to wildlife.
Chilling out on Moroccan style cushions
Wild with rocks
"We use only natural fertilizers and encourage walking," Taylor continued. "Water comes from a borehole. The park is not fenced so animals may wander in and out of the lodge. At night, we advise the guests to carry flashlights."
In building the lodge, no tree was destroyed. Like the rocks, trees were incorporated into the design of individual cottages. The park itself is unadulterated. In our 25km drive from the Murera gate, we only saw one other vehicle.
The animals are not habituated to people and so the lodge offers an authentic wildlife experience. Regular sightings include the beisa oryx, gerenuk, elephant, grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, lesser kudu, grant’s gazelle, leopard, lion, cheetah, rhino and the rare, elusive greater kudu.
Meru is famous for its birdlife with over 300 riverine, forest and arid dry country species.
Elsa Kopje’s grounds are fascinating and statuesque. Much of it is left wild with rocks and vegetation, with the paths rising and falling through the landscape. A curious highlight is the numerous lizards and geckos, like the red-headed Agama, that reside in the cracks. They slither out to bask on the rocks when the sun gets out.
Sweltering in the heat, we ease ourselves into the elegant infinity pool that is carved into a large rock. Its lip touches the edge of the cliff and offers a beguiling view of the Meru plains below. We cannot resist the allure of the pool’s edge.
George and Joy Adamson
Meru Park is a vast 870 square kilometres with arid, open plains dotted with Doum palms, Baobab trees and lush vegetation. Elsa’s grave, we learn, is 45 minutes away near River Tana, the park’s southern boundary. The lodge is served by Mugwango airstrip so local flights from Nairobi or Nanyuki have access to the park.
"The lodge overlooks the campsite that was used by George and Joy Adamson when they set up in Meru in 1950," enthuses Sam. "George Adamson often walked Elsa, the lioness, up the hill."
A range of activities to entertain the guests include both day and night game drives in four-wheel-drive vehicles, guided bush walks, bush meals, day excursions to the Tana River, sundowners, massage and visits to the local Tharaka village.
Having won the prestigious CNBC award, prospects are looking good for Elsa’s Lodge. Should it win the Best International Development category, it will grace the pages of World’s Best magazine.
This is a good time to visit Kenya’s best-kept secret because its local rates are favourable. Come Christmas and New Year, it will be near impossible to secure a room since most of its cottages were booked a year ago by international tourists.