Reaching a new plateau

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When Travel Africa editor Laura Griffith-Jones travelled to the isolated Nyika National Park, in northern Malawi, she discovered a picturesque landscape unlike anywhere else on the continent. Photographs by Will Birtles

In 1949, author Laurens van der Post wrote of Nyika National Park: “I found my pulse quickening at the view… There was a sort of Rider Haggard, a King Solomons Mines, Queen of Sheba touch about it.”

Nearly 70 years later, I found myself equally mesmerised. The landscape was unlike anywhere else I’d been in Africa — a matchless environment of undulating valleys, jewel-like lakes, and, incongruously, patches of emerald bracken and dark swathes of pines more akin to Scotland than Malawi.

Here are 10 photos from our trip to give you a sense of what to expect when you visit (and you should!):

The cosy chalets at Chelinda Lodge are a far cry from your usual bush camp. The stilted, wooden rooms have roaring fires, huge free-standing bathtubs and deck-chairs on balconies that overlook montane grasslands broken by montane woodlands. Behind them tower the sweet-scented Chelinda Pine Plantations, which were established by the British for logging but, due to transport difficulties, were abandoned in the early 1960s.

Nyika has three dams, created just before Malawian independence in 1964. Today, you can still go trout fishing here or enjoy a picnic near the tranquil water, watching the Angola and blue swallows soaring, and the red-knobbed coots and ducks paddling in the shallows.

Although there are leopard, spotted hyena, jackals, bush pigs, genets, honey badgers, elephant and antelope aplenty here, Nyika is really all about the scenery, isolation, birds and, in particular, abundant flora, such as these everlasting flowers.

On both the Sangwala Plateau and the Livingstonia trails, you are accompanied by a well-trained ranger and often a guide too. Rangers patrol the vast area by day and night and play a vital role in protecting the park’s wildlife from poachers.

The landscape changes dramatically depending on the time of year. During the rains (January to April), the rolling hills are carpeted with verdant grass and wildflowers, yet in the dry season (May to December), it is as parched as can be. This photograph was taken in September, from a hilltop overlooking the burnt-brown montane grasslands, sweeping valleys and patches of dense woodland beneath cobalt skies.

Wild camping is one of life’s great experiences, and nowhere more so than in Nyika. Thanks to its remoteness, the chance of encountering other people is next to nil. You feel as if you are the only ones on Earth as you feast on scrummy food beneath star-studded skies, near a blazing campfire, and sleep in very basic tents – in this case, beside the Zungwala River.

Sunsets here are breathtaking by any standards. Owing to the altitude, even in the dry season the temperature drops after dark, so you’ll be sipping hot chocolate rather than gin and tonic as the giant golden orb sinks behind purple hills. This sundowner was on the Sangule Kopje, overlooking an undulating valley broken by striking granite boulders.

The plateau bursts to life in the rains, with over 200 species of orchid and vibrant carpets of wildflowers. However, even in the dry season, flowers bloom from the sun-baked earth, such as this beautiful wild lupin.

Some areas of Nyika are dominated by a type of bracken. This invasive alien fern is a major issue, spreading rampantly and wiping out indigenous grasses and plants, so reducing food for wildlife.

The Chelinda Pine Plantations, behind the lodge, are the antithesis of the jungles and acacia-dotted savannahs you’d expect in the African wilderness. The colossal trees are tightly packed and white-necked ravens caw in the dappled light, making the gloomy forest feel quite claustrophobic.

To read Laura’s feature on hiking the Sangwala Plateau Trail in Nyika National Park, read our latest edition, Issue 82, out in April.

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