Set in the remote north of the country, this isolated park may not harbour big game but is home to magnificent landscapes and incredible biodiversity. Laura Griffith-Jones falls under its spell when she explores it on foot
Nyika National Park, I understood what author Laurens van der Post meant when, in 1949, he wrote: “I found my pulse quickening at the view… There was a sort of Rider Haggard, a King Solomon’s Mines, Queen of Sheba touch about it.” Nearly 70 years later, in 2017, I found myself equally spellbound. The landscape looked unlike anywhere else I’d been in Africa — more similar to Scotland than Malawi.taring out of the Cessna’s window as we circled like an eagle above
Despite being the country’s longest-established and largest reserve, Nyika is one of the least-visited tourist destinations — in part due to its remote northern location. Seventy per cent of the park’s 3334sq km lie in Malawi, with the remaining 30 per cent over the border in Zambia. This glorious plateau and its surroundings make up a unique environment of undulating hills, valleys studded with jewel-like lakes, and, incongruously, patches of verdant bracken and dark swathes of pine trees.
The Chelinda Pine Plantations were originally established by the British for logging but, due to difficulties transporting the timber, were abandoned in the early sixties. The park was gazetted in 1965 and expanded in 1977 to protect the whole region. Today, this untrammelled wilderness is not about big game; it’s about the scenery, isolation, birds and flowers. Although 4WD safaris are possible, the best way to explore it is on foot, so the next morning we would depart on the three-day, 50km Sangwala Plateau Trail.
Our cosy log cabin at Chelinda Lodge was a far cry from a usual bush camp: the smell of wood smoke wafted on the breeze; the nearby pines whispered and creaked. Here we were joined by our guide, Watson Mbale, to enlighten us on the upcoming expedition. “There are large predators here — leopard and spotted hyena — and smaller ones too, such as side-striped jackal, servals and genets. Other species include bush pigs, honey badgers, porcupines, buffalo and now elephant — 34 were recently translocated 700km from Liwonde National Park. You are likely to see many bushbuck, southern reedbuck, roan, eland, zebra and duiker. The purpose of the trail is to experience the wilderness and learn about the small things.”
Our first day would take us from Chelinda Lodge to Sangule Kopje — 14km in about six hours. The dawn air was cool as we wound down a path away from the lodge: Watson leading, then Will and I, our ranger Peter, and our waiter Titus and chef Clever bringing up the rear. Suddenly, Watson stopped dead. “Leopard,” he said. “Very fresh.” An exhilarating start.
We inhaled the honey-like aroma of wild lupins as we joined a mud track once used for transporting logs. Reaching one of the park’s three dams, we admired the idyllic scene: the tranquil water; Angola and blue swallows soaring; the black-headed heron posing on the bank; and red-knobbed coots and ducks paddling in the shallows. Watson led us into a marshy area. Intrigued, we squelched through the bog and gathered round, peering at a tiny crimson plant. “This,” said Watson, “is Drosera madagascariensis. It is carnivorous! It eats flies.” We stared at the spoon-shaped leaves as they engulfed some poor, unsuspecting insect.
Later, we stopped for juice and caramel shortbread amid glorious surroundings — rippling montane grasslands, sweeping valleys, quartz boulders glittering in the sunlight, pockets of Brachystegia and Hagenia woodland, beneath bright-blue skies. Meanwhile, Watson identified some of the park’s main topographical features: “Over there is Jalawe Viewpoint, meaning ‘big rock’, from where you can see Lake Malawi. Domwe Viewpoint is over there, from where you can see Zambia. The highest point is Nganda; it’s 2607m high.”
It was time to move on. “Now, we will be ‘off-roading’,” laughed Watson, and off we went, following the first of many animal trails. The scenery was picturesque but our eyes remained glued to the ground, as the track was narrow and the hard ground, uneven. Stepping carefully, we dodged termite mounds and attempted to be as nimble as an antelope.
In some areas, a type of bracken dominated. This invasive fern, Chelinda’s manager Paul Kilham had told us, is a major issue, spreading rampantly and wiping out indigenous grasses and plants. And this isn’t the only challenge Nyika faces. “The other main problems are roads and access, and, of course, poaching,” he said. “We have to prevent poachers from exterminating the wildlife, but it is difficult. They are hunting for food. We need to educate the local people to protect the animals. We need more resources, funding, manpower, Land Cruisers and drones to properly conserve this park long-term.
“The Peace Parks Foundation is working in the area, and other international organisations help fund this initiative. Perhaps African Parks in time… World Bank was here last summer doing research,” Paul continued. “We have been talking. Now we need something to actually happen.”
At times, we saw signs of poachers — a knocked-over signpost, a half-buried snare and vast areas blackened by fire. Although some of the burning was controlled — to encourage new growth — a great deal was caused by these intruders. The parched earth striped with soot and charred grasses seemed to epitomise Nyika’s troubles — and, indeed, those of elsewhere in Africa.
The warm wind pummelled us as we trekked onwards. Along the way, we observed vibrant flowers protruding from the sun-baked ground (including dwarf red hibiscus, yellow star and Kniphofia splendida, known as ‘red hot pokers’) that inhabit these high-altitude grasslands. Being October, they were sporadic. “The seasons are extreme — now, in October, it is hot but we have frosts in June. When it rains in December, the plateau will become alive with colour,” explained Watson. “But there are flowers all year round — some species go when the rains come and others bloom.”
Watson brought to life specimens that would have been overlooked on a game drive. “This is Artemesia afra,” he said, pointing at a feathery bush. “It is used if you have a cold, like Vix!” And later, “This is Hypericum revolutum. It smells like curry!” We also inspected a Moraea schimperi, a pretty, purple iris found in dry highland grasslands, and foxgloves with glorious bell-shaped trumpet flowers.
So far, the mammals had remained few and far between, but Peter gestured into the distance. We peered through our binoculars to a beautiful sight: eland, zebra, roan antelope, reedbuck and bushbuck. They glanced nervously at us, sensing our presence. There were signs of others: porcupine quills, warthog dens and hyena droppings. A highpoint was scrutinising a spider and its magnificent web up close.
All day, we saw neither cars nor people. In the words of BR Fuller, who was appointed Assistant Conservator of Forests, Nyasaland, in 1948, we had “stepped into another world — a combination of isolation, scenery and surroundings”. The only sound was birdsong. One of Malawi’s best birding spots, Nyika harbours 400 avian species, of which 70 are endemic. The best time to see them is in the emerald season; but still, we spotted African pipits, common in open grasslands, and were lucky enough to see a black kite, a Palearctic migrant only found here in summer. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of the shy Denham’s bustard but it remained elusive.
At last, a sprinkling of tents came into view beside a clump of forest, at the foot of a slope below Sangule Kopje. The camp was wonderfully remote, and we rested to the chirruping of a rare southern mountain greenbul and a Fulleborn’s black boubou. Hot chocolate on the kopje was breathtaking, as the golden African sun sank into a valley broken by granite rocks and backed by purple hills.
The second day would take us north from Sangule Kopje to Zungwala Bridge; we would cover 19km in six to seven hours. The heat was intense and following those narrow animal trails was tough, but we saw some familiar flower species and ticked a few more off our list, including some winged forget-me-nots (pretty and purple) and Berkheya zeyheri (resembling English dandelions).
Our first break was at Chosi Viewpoint. The vistas were majestic and it was liberating to be buffeted by the wind. Below us, herds of eland and zebra grazed. On a game drive, antelope are often disregarded but here they are given the limelight. “The eland and zebra have a symbiotic relationship,” Watson elucidated. “The former has good eyesight and the latter a good sense of smell, so they can protect one another.”
Further along the trail, we heard something odd. “A squeaky wheelbarrow, otherwise known as a black-lored cisticola!” Watson exclaimed. He was quite right; it sounded precisely like a wheelbarrow. As we went on, more wildflowers appeared, and at last the orchids, for which Nyika is famous. “There are over 200 species of orchid here, 11 localised,” we were told. We studied a pale-cream variety called a Eulophia macrantha, a yellow one called Eulophia speciosa and a blue one called Herschelianthe baurii. Watson’s depth of knowledge was astounding. Everlasting flowers were also prolific — and we were amazed to hear there are 24 varieties of this dandelion-like plant. We also learnt that a dried fireball lily was a favourite toy of the local children.
We took a detour to Lake Kaulime, a dwindling puddle at this time of year. It is the only natural lagoon on the plateau, formed many years ago when a landslide blocked one of the headwaters of the North Rukuru River. It is a spiritual place for the villagers who come here to be cured, offering chickens and maize to the spirits of the lake.
It had been a long, challenging day, so we were relieved to put up our feet in the afternoon. Set on a bank of the Zungwala River, our camp was quiet except for the whistling of a Schalow’s turaco. This was magical, truly wild camping — with the ‘wildlife’ in our tent to prove it. “There are many spiders at Nyika — some OK, some dangerous,” Watson told us cheerfully, before helping us to remove them from our tent walls. We dined under the stars and slept to the lullaby of the wilderness.
The third and final day was a 19km uphill slog from Zungwala to Chelinda. The panorama was similar as we hiked across amber earth, blackened by fire in places, towards the airstrip and our end goal: the lodge. By now, it has to be said, our limbs were aching and our feet blistered but on we went, with Watson filling us in on the flora and fauna around us. “These are cotton grasses,” he said, showing us a plant sprouting cotton-like tufts. “There are so many species of grass here: mountain wire, sage, kikuyu, dog-tail…” — yet another example of Nyika’s astonishing biodiversity. Pipits and ‘squeaky wheelbarrows’ serenaded us as we climbed, and a pair of marsh widows, endemic to northern Malawi, made a star appearance.
At last, the airstrip was upon us and we were on the final stretch. After lunch, swallows swooped above us on our approach to the towering pine forest. White-necked ravens cawed eerily in the darkness, and then the pungent perfume of pine was replaced by the comforting aroma of wafting wood smoke. We had made it! It was easy to understand how Laurens van der Post and BR Fuller had fallen under the spell of Nyika all those years ago. As Fuller said, it is indeed “a place of enchantment”, remaining one of Africa’s most remarkable areas of pristine wilderness. There is no other place like it.
The allure of Nyika
Chris Badger of Central African Wilderness Safaris explains its appeal
The 3134sq-km Nyika National Park is a wild and remote upland area, with the distinction of being the only big game Afro-montane area in south-central Africa. The vistas are immense, with high-altitude grasslands the most obvious feature. Regarded as one of Africa’s most iconic areas of wilderness, the reserve is home to a thriving abundance of flora and fauna. With the first few rainfalls of the much-loved green season, this unique biome transforms into a botanist’s delight and comes to life with lush shades of green and an endless array of colourful and vibrant hues. Guests have the opportunity to go in search of the park’s many resident herds of roan, eland, zebra, reedbuck, bushbuck, and its elusive leopards and serval cats, as well as hundreds of rare and endemic species of orchid and wildflower, while taking in the glorious scenery and skylines atop the plateau.
Nyika by month
When you travel will strongly affect your experience of the park. Malawi has two very distinct seasons: the green season (December to April) is when the rains arrive, turning the landscapes a lush emerald and shifting the dynamics of many wildlife populations. It is cool and an excellent time for birding and orchids. The dry season is from June to October. During this time, vegetation dries up and it becomes easier to spot wildlife. The Sangwala Plateau Trail is only available from April to October since many paths are impassable during the rains.
The green season: landscapes are lush and verdant, and there is a flurry of activity in the park.
Rains tend to increase; cooler weather is ideal for comfortable game viewing.
The rains continue throughout the month and the air is crisp and clear.
The rains start to subside.
The weather starts to cool considerably and air clarity reduces. The country begins to dry out. Temperatures on the plateau start to drop rapidly.
The weather is warmer during the day and chillier in the early mornings and evenings.
It’s warm, making these months pleasant for game drives.
The peak of the dry season. Landscapes are drier and foliage is no longer dense. This creates the optimal conditions for safari as many animals are considerably easier to track and spot.
The weather starts to cool again and the occasional shower may occur in the run-up to the main green season.
This information was kindly provided by Central African Wilderness Safaris.
• Getting there Kenya Airways flies to Lilongwe via Nairobi. Or if you’re travelling from Zambia, Proflight flies from Lusaka to Lilongwe. From there, it’s a nine- to ten-hour drive, so if you’re travelling by road, you should overnight at Luwawa Forest Lodge or Chintheche Inn to break the journey. By far the easiest way, however, is to book a 90-minute flight with Ulendo Airlink to Nyika National Park. Specialist Malawi operator Central African Wilderness Safaris can make all your travel arrangements on your behalf.
• Where to stay In Nyika, the writer stayed at Chelinda Lodge, a charming hideaway with six cosy log cabins and a family unit. The property also has cheaper options and a campsite at nearby Chelinda Camp. En route to Nyika, you will probably stop off in Lilongwe. Here, two of the best places to stay are the super-chic, high-end Latitude 13 and the comfortable, family-run Kumbali Country Lodge. Both have swimming pools.
• Photography Nyika’s unique scenery and wildlife make it a photographer’s heaven, so make sure you carry a good camera with you. If you don’t have your own, you can rent all the equipment you need from UK-based Lenses For Hire.
• Further reading Nyika: A Guide to Nyika National Park, Malawi by Sigrid Anna Johnson (2017).
• TA tip The perfect antidote to your adventurous experience in Nyika is a couple of days on the sandy shores of Lake Malawi. Likoma Island is just an hour’s flight away from Nyika with Ulendo Airlink, and here, the place to stay is the wonderfully romantic and relaxing Kaya Mawa.