We were excited about our trip to the KWS Murera guest house in Meru. Put it this way, my husband packed bird seed and salt to put down for the animals in the hopes of drawing them to our little house. It sounds like he’s 100 years old; he is in fact 41.
I organised the food. Packed far, far too much. Enough for a week at least. Managed not to forget the Easter eggs. We then picked up our fabulous take-away stew, chapatis and curry from Barney’s in Nanyuki en route, which alone would have fed us for the four days, and continued on our way.
KWS Murera guest house
When we arrived at the banda, I stepped out of the car to find a sweaty sheen immediately forming on my top lip. It was much hotter than I’d expected. I think I had the chills of Mount Kenya in mind (we drove round it), so had backed sweaters, wellies, jeans. In fact I should have been thinking coast (mosquito nets, shorts, flipflops).
‘I thought you said it was going to be cold!’ My daughters’ said accusingly while peeling off layers.
The KWS guest house located near the main entrance gate was unprepossessing. Sort of brown, functional, not all that welcoming but I was not deterred. The (office?!) furniture was arranged in rows along the walls underneath a huge white notice board and the bedrooms were small with very uncomfortable beds. The biggest disappointment for my husband was that the house looked out over a rubbish pit, a manhole cover and some preliminary trenches dug out of the ground, presumably foundations for some future structure. My husband gamely put out his bird seed and salt nonetheless and we put the furniture in a more cosy arrangement (dropping a rather heavy sofa on my eldest's foot in the process).
I made tea. We sweated some more. Slightly unsure that we'd survive the full 3 nights, I Googled a few other places to stay and made some calls about availability in other lodges for our last night but gave up when I found everything within a reasonable radius was full and anyway, I was being too negative – my husband said that we should just get on with it. The children seemed happy in any case. We took a lovely evening game drive and returned to bare, white low energy lightbulbs and the sound of a very crackly radio blaring from a bar in the village behind broadcasting more ranting dialogue than songs. It was loud enough to keep the children awake and my husband, assuming it was somebody’s personal radio nearby, took Stanley, our KWS house caretaker to task about it. Then, when he drew a blank via Stanley (whose small house adjoins the banda), my husband tore off to the main gate to complain. Thankfully the radio was switched off at about 11.30pm, though I’m sure this was nothing to do with my husband’s efforts. The bar was probably closing anyway. The night was sultry as if rain was threatening. Eventually it came in the early hours of the morning and with it a welcome fresh breeze but I must admit, I didn't sleep well.
We looked at the visitors’ book that was full of flattering comments on how fabulous the house was, how Stanley was such a great help and also a great cook and how everyone loved it all. Over our 4 day stay and after a fraught first evening, Stanley was then conspicuous for his absence almost throughout (we gave his baby some easter eggs). We wondered if we had missed a trick and feared we might have tainted the whole experience by getting off on the wrong foot. To make matters worse, the birds and animals were still being shy and not at all interested in the salt and bird seed.
‘Give me this house for one month and I would transform it.’ My husband said as we sat on our office chairs overlooking Stanley’s line of washing. ‘The first thing I’d do would be clear all this and give it a view.’
On Sunday we went to meet friends at Elsa’s Kopie for lunch. It was so luxurious and heavenly that my husband had his belated KWS breaking point.
‘What the hell are we doing in that banda when we could be here?!’
However, by this time, I was resigned.
‘What were we really expecting?’ I asked. 'And in any case, everything was booked.'
We did go and check out the other KWS Kinna bandas (to make sure we hadn’t made the wrong choice) – but, even though they were fully booked, they too looked a little down at heel, perhaps not helped by the long dry spell Meru had been experiencing. There were pond skaters on the swimming pool that we'd had high hopes for and after picking our way across a thorny wasteland to have a look at it, past the single forlorn looking broken sunbed; all our 3 girls unanimously announced that they would not be going in. Other friends who have visited raved about the Kinna bandas, so perhaps we caught them at a bad moment. (A highlight for them was in fact ‘showering’ in the overflow from an outdoor elevated rusty water tank one morning outside our guesthouse – oh and the Elsa’s Kopie swimming pool too of course).
So, in summary. Although the Murera guest house was clean and private (with a good size fridge/freezer and stove - two gas rings working), it was soulless, noisy because of the nearby bars/village and totally lacking in a view. We have visited the KWS bandas in Mount Kenya (satisfactory) but we hear that one of the ones in Tsavo has an excellent view over a waterhole/salt lick visited by tons of game. Other friends went to the KWS fishing bandas in the Aberdare’s and said they are good too. Both of the former, well inside the park so no risk of blaring radios from nearby bars.
Having been a little intimidated at first, Meru National Park definitely grew on us and the drive there was easy. I’m not sure if we’ll be back soon though, as I fear that we’ll have to splash out on Elsa’s Kopie next time. It might take us a little time to save up.
The Murera guest house was still 8,000/- per night, which is still a fairly significant amount. However, as a budget option
Some more General info on Meru National Park
Meru National Park used to be the ‘go to’ park for visitors back in the day, most probably as a result of Joy Adamson’s bestseller book published in 19602 and subsequent film ‘Born Free’ which told the story about her (and George’s) tame lion named Elsa, who was reared by them inside the park and died there too. At one time, Meru was even more popular than the Masai Mara (which seems inconceivable today). Meru Park then experienced a nasty period of poaching and Somali Shifta invasion/banditry that sadly went on for enough years to put most people off going altogether. The road around Mount Kenya and the one that accesses the park then fell apart, to the point where the journey was agonising and so only the most intrepid, or those that could afford to fly in, visited the park.
Over the past ten years, international organisations have invested heavily in the park, KWS has the security issue well in hand and visitor numbers are steadily rising but not so that you would particularly notice (still much less visited that Masai Mara or Amboseli). Another bonus is that the road is now smooth tarmac all the way to the Meru Park gate, so it’s possible to get from Nanyuki to Meru is a little over two hours (from Nairobi, allow 6 hours).
Over Easter weekend we saw a few other cars but while on game drives it felt like we almost had the vast park to ourselves, in fact scarily so...I was afraid of getting lost or having car failure and being stranded indefinitely. Although the park is well signposted with map reference numbers etc, we soon decided to hire a KWS guide to accompany us in our car until we got our bearings. The park borders the Tana River, but one of its best features are the many streams that run cross it (16?), which means that while it can be hot and dry, there is always water for the animals. However, it’s bushy, so animals can be hard to spot. A highlight for us was finding ourselves in amongst a herd of 14 mature elephants crossing from one side of the road to the other, grazing as they went.