The moist, jungly atmosphere around Meru, with wood smoke curling up against a background of dark forest, is very reminiscent of parts of West Africa (and the local Meru inhabitants are much darker-skinned than their neighbours) – a total change of mood after the dryish grasslands on the northwest side of the mountain. Meru oak is the commercial prize of this forested eastern side of the mountain, though judging by the number of active sawmills at the upper end of the town, supplies won't last much longer. The forest still comes almost to the town's edge, however, and paths lead off to cleared shambas where, for a year or two, just about anything will grow.
MERU town, the base for visits to Meru National Park, is strung out over 2–3km. It's an unusual place in an interesting location – there are great views from the upper (Makutano) half of town over the densely settled slopes – and well worth a stay. The municipal market is a large one, selling a wide range of goods – baskets, clothes, domestic utensils – as well as the excellent agricultural produce of the district. They grow the best custard apples in Kenya here, and you won't find cheaper, bigger or better bunches of miraa anywhere.
The tiny but fascinating Meru Museum (PO Box 597; Tel:064/20482; Enmkmeru@africaonline.co.ke; Mon– Fri 9.30am–5.30pm, Sat 9.30am–2pm; Ksh200) is also a treat. It occupies the oldest stone building in town, a former District Commissioner's office, where you're likely to be the only visitor. Emphasis is on the traditional culture of the Meru people: small ethnographic exhibits, pick-up-and-feel blocks of fossilized wood, stone tools from the Lewa Downs prehistoric site and some woefully stuffed animals. The museum's Meru homestead is well presented and feels authentic. There's a particularly good herbal pharmacopoeia – a collection of traditional medicinal plants growing in the garden, where you can see what a miraa bush looks like, among others. Nearby, a pool contains a mean-looking Nile crocodile, turtles and tortoises.
If you're really interested in the Meru people, ask at the museum about the Njuri-Ncheke traditional courthouse, approximately 9km north of Meru on the road to Maua. The Njuri-Ncheke are a semi-secret society of elders sworn to preserve and uphold traditional cultural structures and religion, mainly through creating and enforcing traditional law and presiding over ceremonies and the administration of oaths.