It’s twilight past Meru town. We are on our way to the Meru National Park, 71 kilometres away, when a group of young men step into the road waving sticks. They are surrounded by a man wearing an animal mask and skins. It takes us by surprise, but the animated group walks past our car oblivious to our presence. We just caught a circumcision ceremony in progress.
“It is ntaano,” confirms Joy Kanana of iKWETA Safari Camp.
“The man in the mask is baine, the circumciser. The ntaano happens during the August and December school holidays. For a month, the boys are guided by a mentor on how to graduate from boyhood to manhood. The circumcision happens very early in the morning and then the boys eat and rest,” she adds. It’s a milestone for the young men.
At iKWETA, the night passes under a star-studded sky. The first light of dawn spreads through the tent, the equatorial sun popping up on cue at 6.30. It’s gorgeously delicious as it travels the length of the bed in the tent facing east, waking us to the delights of Meru – famous as Elsa’s Born Free country and infamously known for its miraa. “Ikweta is Kiswahili for equator,” explains Susan Nkinyangi of iKWETA Safari Camp, who with her husband John came up with the concept of affordable luxury for the ordinary ‘Joe’.
“I was disappointed with how Kenya promotes itself,” says John who after many years of working in many countries in the world returned home. “People in Europe save for holidays. Nowadays it’s not only the rich who travel. Everybody wants to travel but they can’t afford upmarket tours.”
“So we created a middle ground,” continues Susan.
Done with a leisurely breakfast under the makuti-thatched banda done by local Borana women from Malka Women’s Group in Kinna and filled with African decor, I’m enjoying the simple elegance of the tents in the midst of sun-kissed golden grasses. Custom-designed on computers, the tents were then made by local artisans from scratch.
Later, we are off to a winery in Nyambene Hills that are spread along the horizon, the hills that give life to Meru National Park with 14 rivers flowing through it.
“It will make you feel like you’re in Switzerland,” quips John as we drive off.
With Nahason Mutembi for a guide, we drive past gnarled and droopy miraa bushes.
“Miraa bushes are usually planted in October. There are four different types of miraa – the best is bine followed by muthuira and nyausi.
“The oldest miraa bush at Igembe is almost 360 years old. Cutting it would be calling for a curse,” continues Nahason.
“The best miraa is from Maili Tatu and Murinene.” These are tiny hamlets in the area.
Turning along a dirt road that points to the Diocese of Meru, the uphill road is lined with picturesque tea farms. A few kilometres up and we’re driving past the Maria Consolata Mukululu Shrine and Winery enroute to the forest that has topped the hills since time immemorial.
The air becomes tantalisingly fresh and the higher we go past the towering trees and gigantic forest ferns, the colder and crispier it gets. A short walk in the valley of ferns leads us to a waterfall cutting a silver ribbon as it thunders down. It’s Ura River which we meet again in Meru National Park.
As it flows down the hill, some of it is tapped by the Tuuru Water Scheme (TWS), started by the Catholic Diocese of Meru and the local communities. Every few kilometres downwards, we stop by the dams. TWS supplies water to an area of 1,200 square kilometres with aqueducts running over 250 kilometres. These channel more than 36 million litres of water per day to over a quarter million people and 60,000 domestic animals.
By a dam, we enjoy a picnic followed by a stroll through the forest. A chameleon enjoys the sun; we take a photo of it. The water guide leads us to a tunnel carved out of the hill – it is 246 metres long, but I misheard it as 46 metres before delving into the depths of the impenetrable darkness. The air is cold and damp. The water-pipe runs the entire length of the tunnel. Bats fly disturbed by us as we see the light at the other end. It’s another 246-metre walk back.
Stopping at the Maria Consolata Mukululu Shrine and Winery is amazing. Just like the water works, it was built by Italians, the Consolata Missionaries, who have been in Kenya for over a century. A stroll through the church with its stained glass windows shaped like eyes, reveals a light-filled hall with the history of evangelism in Kenya beautifully depicted to interest anyone. Outside the church, we head to the winery, which has been in existence for 30 years. It is a tiny outfit, but we leave with four bottles of Barbera Meru, a corked dry red wine made in Nyambene.
Meru is 282 kilometres from Nairobi, while Meru National Park is 71 kilometres away from Meru town. For comfort’s sake, take the road via Nanyuki from Nairobi. While at Meru, you can enjoy game drives in the national park with a 24-hour Kenya Wildlife Service ticket, visit the shrine and winery at Mukululu or enjoy some cultural tourism. If you stay at iKWETA Safari Camp, two kilometres before the national park, you can hike up Gatwe (Skull) Hill on the 30-acre camp that has only 10 tents and a beautiful swimming pool.