In the footsteps of Elsa


Fifty years after the release of the film Born Free, Joanna Eede returns to Meru National Park, where it all began. Photographs by Joanna Eede.

view-from-elsas-kopje-2A vast complex of protected areas comprising Bisanadi and Mwingi National reserves and Meru and Kora National Parks, all of which lie along the mighty Tana River basin in northern Kenya, Meru National Park is described by UNESCO as “one of the remaining true wilderness areas in Kenya, and the world”. But what first put it on the map was a little, orphaned lioness cub. Elsa, a “clumsy little velvet bag”, was raised in Meru during the early 1960s by game warden George Adamson and his artist wife Joy, who successfully released her back into the wild when she reached adulthood. George became known as “Baba ya Simba” – Kiswahili for ‘Father of Lions’ – and regarded lions as ‘the most intelligent of all animals’. Joy wrote about their intense love for Elsa in the book Born Free, which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966, starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. McKenna and Travers later set up the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife charity that takes action to protect species in the wild.

McKenna and Travers’ son, Will, is the current president of the Born Free Foundation. To mark the film’s 50th anniversary this year, Will and I travelled to Meru to visit lion conservation projects in Elsa’s homeland. The park was severely affected by rampant poaching and general lawlessness during the 70s and 80s, and all but disappeared from safari itineraries. But the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) helped to restore order, and today Meru is beginning to reclaim its position as one of Kenya’s wildest and most exclusive travel destinations.

Meru is perfect for lovers of remote places: much of the park has no roads and there are certainly no minibus queues for a lion sighting. But its 800sq km of pristine wilderness are recognised as having a greater variety of animal species than any other reserve in East Africa, including such sights as the rare Grevy’s zebra and lesser kudu, and huge herds of buffalo. It also holds a rhino sanctuary and Elsa’s grave.

The park’s biodiversity became breathtakingly apparent as we crossed it by Jeep every day. After the longest rains in a decade, the riverine landscape was lush, deep green and thick with life. Meru lies at the foot of the Nyambene hills, which feed mountain water into its rivers lined with black-trunked doum palms. The air was filled with the scent of wild basil, and the sky with the song of myriad birds, of which Meru has more than 400 species. We counted pale chanting goshawks, red-billed quelea and Eurasian rollers with exquisite jade and turquoise wings. We saw swallows that dipped and spun like avian outriders alongside our jeep, flocks of superb starlings, and yellow-billed hornbills.

White butterflies fluttered on the breeze, weaver bird nests hung from the boughs of acacia trees like grass lanterns and large herds of elephant trundled and trumpeted through the tall grasses, pushing through commiphora thickets and pulling at the acacia bark, their wrinkled backs stained red from the earth they’d jetted across their bodies.

The ecological diversity of Meru makes it a stronghold for lions, which is absolutely crucial at a time when the African lion population is in worrying decline. In 1966, when Born Free was released, there were more than 200,000 lions in Africa; today, there may be no more than 20,000 in the wild. The Born Free Foundation recently initiated the Project Lion Rover campaign, in conjunction with KWS and Land Rover, to ensure that lion are free to live and thrive in Meru for generations to come.

We stayed at the beautiful Elsa’s Kopje, the only operational lodge in the park, which has been seamlessly sculpted into Mughwango Hill, the highest of Meru’s ‘kopjes’ (rocky promontories). Elsa’s Kopje, on the site of George Adamson’s original camp, where fragments of his Land Rover can still be seen, is one of the most tranquil places I have known. One morning I sat at dawn by the infinity pool and watched as the sun rose over Kora National Park and giraffe ambled across the plains. It was silent but for the sound of clucking hornbills, the oboe-call of the wood dove rising from woodland below and, as golden light spread over the savannah, the domestic sounds of breakfast being prepared in the thatched dining room.

We had sundowners one evening on top of George’s Rock, a high granite kopje close to the lodge. It is so-called because George Adamson used to swim in its rock pools during the heat of the African day. As the sun lowered, I thought of his words about Elsa, the lioness he loved: “She was sculpted by the setting sun, as though she were part of the granite on which she lay. I wondered how many lions had lain on the self-same rock during countless centuries, while the human race was still in its cradle”.

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