In the afterglow of last October’s Channel 4 documentary, Virginia McKenna's Born Free, we discover how you can follow in her footsteps with a safari of a lifetime.
This 10-day flying safari is called ‘Elsa’s Footsteps’ after the lioness that George and Joy Adamson rescued, rehabilitated and then released into the wild, as seen in the film Born Free. This happened in the beautiful Meru National Park of Kenya and now you can visit the exact spot. This place isn’t just for fans of the film but also for those who love wildlife and care about its conservation, something that the channel 4 documentary really gave insight into.
After filming wrapped on Born Free, husband and wife actors, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna discovered that the lions used in the movie would be going into cages and zoos rather than the wild. This had such an impact on them that they even made a documentary about it in 1969 featuring a young elephant calf named Pole Pole (‘Po-lee Po-lee’) but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they took real action.
The catalyst for this was the rather large cast member of one of their previous films – the now fully-grown, Pole Pole. The elephant had sadly been snatched from her mother at only two years old and given to London Zoo as a gift by the Kenyan Government. Bill and Virginia had done everything they could to stop the move but had been unsuccessful. In 1982 they visited the caged and distressed animal. They called out to her and, even after all these years, she remembered them and came over to be touched. They were so moved by this that they knew they had to transition from complaining about the negative treatment of animals to actually doing something about it.
They formed the Born Free Foundation, a charity that assists local conservation and education programmes around the world and continues to work in exactly the same place as Joy and George Adamson did, Meru National Park. This is also where they released Elsa the lioness into the wild and where you’ll find yourself from days two to five of your tour.
Historically, Meru was an incredibly popular safari destination in the 60’s and 70’s but a poaching crisis in the 80’s and 90’s saw many of its elephants destroyed and its rhinos completely gone. Tourism fell dramatically at this time but Stefano & Liz Cheli believed they could build a successful lodge to help secure the park’s existence. Thus, in 1999, the lodge known as Elsa’s Kopje was born. It’s the closest lodge to the site of most of George Adamson’s work, includes a museum dedicated to Elsa the Lion and is now regarded as one of the best wilderness areas on the safari circuit. This is quite handy as you’ll be invited to enjoy several of their game drives when you stay there on your tour.
What’s also interesting is that, in a way, you’ll be helping to support the conservation work of the area by laying in your pool or on the bed of your expansive luxury cottage. This is because the lodge works really hard to promote and preserve local conservation efforts and works with the Tharaka people who border the park to the south, buying their crafts and helping to raise money for schools.
Of course, you’re reading this on a luxury travel website (the best in the author’s opinion) so you can be assured we’re sending you about as far away from a shack in long grass as possible. I mean, this is where the great David Attenborough has stayed and he hardly looks like a man of poor taste when it comes to wildlife. So, whether you’re staying in an en-suite honeymoon or family cottage you can expect stunning wild views, plenty of open-plan space and lots of romantic ambiance. Just have a look at the picture to see what I mean.
Then there’s the food, purchased fresh from nearby farmers so you’ll be dining your way to supporting the local economy whether you’re under the stars or in the cosy indoor area.
Elsa’s Kopje also uses energy saving bulbs, solar water heaters and regularly recycles its waste and has been awarded a Gold Level by the Kenyan Ecotourism. Okay, that’s all well and good but how did we get from the Virginia McKenna documentary on Channel 4 to recycling safari lodge waste? Well, it’s all happening in the same place and that’s what’s so exciting. All these years later conservation work started by Joy and George Adamson, and taken further by Virginia and Bill McKenna is now supported by you on this tour. You get to be a part of this continuing adventure and walk where the lions, and those who care so deeply for them, have been.