Room With a View
Luxurious lodging in Kenya’s wild.
As the sun prepares to lift its head, a gentle knock sounds at the door — my morning wake-up call, accompanied by a tray bearing fresh, nutty coffee and gingery biscuits. While I laze on my private verandah, looking out over the vast African plains below, a morning dove trills and pink hues upon the horizon begin to overtake the blue. Another beautiful day at Elsa’s Kopje.
Set inside northern Kenya’s Meru National Park, Elsa’s Kopje is a luxury safari lodge surrounded by an unspoiled Eden of landscape and wildlife. Though Meru once thrived as Kenya’s national jewel, bringing in as many as 50,000 tourists a year, a spike in poaching during the 1980s severely threatened its survival.
Intervention in the early 2000s ultimately saved the park from being sold as farmland. Yet it remains a fairly undiscovered gem on the safari circuit, ensuring that guests to Elsa’s Kopje are treated to not only the finest of accommodations but also an intimate and unhurried wildlife experience.
Carved into the cliff face of the rocky Mughwango Hill (kopje is Dutch for “hill”), the lodge sits above the one-time campsite of famed conservationist George Adamson. Also known as the Baba ya Simba (Swahili for “Father of Lions”), George rehabilitated 39 tamed lions for life in the wild. Most famous was the lodge’s namesake, Elsa — an orphaned, hand-reared lioness who made this peak her playground before being rereleased in the late 1950s.*
From afar, the lodge’s 11 thatched-roof cottages blend into the background, appearing as boulders among the brush. Inside, a combination of local stone, rescued fallen timber, and grass-woven roofs and rugs create a ruggedly refined décor; amenities such as open-air baths, private plunge pools and sitting areas — all with vistas of the game and grasslands below — ensure that guests are well-pampered throughout their time in untamed Africa.
Elsa’s prides itself on environmentally friendly practices, for which it received the first eco-rating of any lodge in Kenya. Solar-powered water heaters and supplementary generators, for example, are hidden throughout the property, and reusable water bottles are provided to all guests in lieu of plastic. But as well reputed as the lodge’s sustainability efforts may be, it’s the architecture, service and induced serenity that continually draw attention and awards.
Perhaps the grandest luxuries of all, though, are the close encounters with wildlife cherished by Elsa’s guests. Twice-daily game drives around the 870-square-kilometer park offer sightings of the Big Five,† as well as the countless other animals that call Meru home — including the rare Grévy’s zebra, lesser kudu, cheetah, reticulated giraffe, hippopotamus and more than 400 recorded species of birds.
During our first full day on safari, we watch as a parade of elephants, some 200 animals strong, treks along the dry, dusty road; we spy on a pod of hippos wading in a shallow pool; and we hold several staring contests with seemingly skeptical giraffe. In total, we spot three of the Big Five, including both black and white species of rhino inside the park’s 84-square-kilometer rhino sanctuary. (Though the cats elude us, we’re told that a few guests saw two prides of lions and a leopard the day before we arrived.)
The dry season is at its peak, and yet the varied landscape is dotted with umbrella-like acacia trees; massive baobabs, some thousands of years old; and towering doum palms, their bases diverting into symmetric branches. Ringing the park is a stretch of volcanic mountains, lending a gray and pockmarked appearance to the rocky soil at various points.
“Elsa’s is in the middle of a most extraordinary park,” says Philip Mason, who manages the lodge with his wife, Charlie. Together, they have spent their careers working in dozens of resorts, campsites and adventure spots across Africa, but nothing compares to Meru. “There are only two lodges in the middle of nearly 900 square kilometers of park; nowhere else do you get that luxury of space.”
He goes on to describe a photo he once took at the nearby Maasai Mara National Reserve, of a “most amazing lion in a lovely setting with perfect light” — ideal by all means, except for the presence of 12 Toyota Land Cruisers to the side of the animal.
Indeed, though Elsa’s Kopje has played a pivotal role in raising tourism in Meru from nil to more than 15,000 annually since its creation in 1999, the park’s numbers are but a drop in the bucket compared to the popular Maasai Mara: Almost double the size of Meru, the Mara sees nearly 300,000 visitors each year.
But here, “when you have a sighting, you’ve earned it,” says John Muchai, our personal safari guide, “and you can stay as long as you want, watching an animal. It’s truly wild.”
For that exact reason, two of the other guests, James and Sarah Pitt, returned to Elsa’s after their first trip here and to the Mara three years ago. “It’s harder to find the animals here, but it’s more rewarding when you do,” says Sarah, while enjoying a cocktail at sunset. Such “sundowners” are an Elsa’s Kopje tradition — during the evening game drive, chairs are set up and drinks poured amid the bush as the sun slips slowly away.
Back at the lodge, black-faced vervet monkeys tumble through the trees around the infinity pool, and rock hyraxes laze on wooden beams overhead. Lizards of all sizes and shades scurry about beneath our feet, and it’s been said that even buffalo and a leopard have made their residence around here from time to time.
It’s not hard to understand why, given the lodge’s design: Everything has been built to fit the surrounding environment, with cottages and service areas quite literally erected around the rocks and trees. (In fact, not a single tree was cut down during the lodge’s construction; in one guest cottage, two trunks rise right through the floor, and in another, an impressive boulder protrudes from the main wall.)
When guests are lured from their rooms-with-a-view, they’re treated to everything from open-air massages and poolside bar service to guided hikes up to the top of the kopje (on clear days, even the peak of Mount Kenya can be seen). All meals, such as a creamy eggplant Parmesan or a local lamb tagine, are prepared elegantly and paired with homemade bread and garden greens; dinner most evenings is enjoyed by candlelight on the lawn, underneath the canopy of stars.
Each night, feeling blissful from the day’s sights and bites, I’m serenaded by a melody of animal sounds, many of which — fortunately or unfortunately — I’m unable to identify. It’s at times cacophonous, the melodious chatter of various birds intermingling with the screeches and yips of nocturnal creatures, and yet strangely soothing. Before I know it, I’ve melted into my canopied bed and am slumbering away, all while anticipating the knock that will begin another day in this wild wonderland.
† The Big Five game animals are the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. The term “Big Five” was coined to refer to these five most-difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot.