Kate’s Malawi safari travels – part 1

Malawi safari at Nyika PlateauLand of Smiles is the well-known marketing slogan for Malawi. Land of Contrasts would work equally well.

In the first 24 hours I couldn’t have experienced two more contrasting areas … the windswept high mountainous plateau of the Nyika National Park and the sub-tropical paradise of northern Lake Malawi.

Our first stop on our Malawi safari trip was going to be the Nyika Plateau in the northern reaches of the country. This is accessed either via a 2 hour scheduled charter flight from Lilongwe (our route) or a more arduous road transfer taking many, many hours. (I’d probably only recommend the latter if you were stopping en route at Chintheche Inn on Lake Malawi to break the journey. ) We did it the easy way!

The Nyika Plateau probably doesn’t fit anyone’s visual image of Malawi. It’s an area of high Afro-montane forest  – pretty rare in Africa with a landscape totally unlike any other  – high rolling granite hills well over 2,200 metres where the great rift valley separates into two separate branches with Lake Malawi forming to the east and the Luangwa valley forming to the west. In between lies the Nyika Plateau.

This is a truly remote area and that is very much part of its charm. As you fly north, you steadily climb 3,500ft in altitude. Gradually you leave all of Malawi’s cultivated land and villages behind and all you see are endless green rolling hills with hardly a village in sight. When you land it feels more like the moors of Northumbria or Yorkshire than Malawi. This sensation is aided by the incongruous pine plantations planted in the early 20th century. These are now being largely removed keeping only a small section to shelter Chelinda Lodge. However the overall sensation is of endless rolling hills, wild flowers, rivers and dams teeming with fish and of course the wildlife.

But the Nyika Plateau is not for everyone. Many would find it too cold for their Malawi safari and this is not a ‘ticking off the species’ sort of place. But it will suit many people: seasoned safari travellers who are looking for something new, horse-riders, people who enjoy being out in wilderness either walking or mountain biking, keen birders and keen botanists. Why is that?

Malawi safari - walking on the Nyika PlateauThe Nyika Plateau acts as a sanctuary for wildlife and the Nyika National Park has a surprising range of wildlife – zebra, large herds of eland and roan, bushbuck, reedbuck, bushpig as well as predators in the form of hyena and leopard which are quite regularly sighted. (One recent visitor had spent several times in the South Luangwa failing to see any leopard, only to find a leopard sitting on her veranda when she opened the curtains on her first morning at Chelinda Lodge!)

Interestingly its peak season is somewhat different from most wildlife sanctuaries in Southern Africa which usually have a peak wildlife season from June/July to October.  In the Nyika plateau, the altitude leads to a much colder winter climate so that the animals actually leave the high plateau and head south. In fact its best season would be spring & early summer. Spring has many flowering species and summer has plenty of rare orchid species. So if you are travelling outside of the peak season of June to August, we recommend including Nyika as part of your Malawi safari especially from mid September onwards.

What I found fascinating was the contrast in temperature here and the rest of Malawi. As we landed it was noticeably fresher. By the end of the afternoon game drive, (late May), it was decidedly cold as it was a wonderfully clear night, with star gazing offered back at the lodge using an impressively powerful telescope. The morning was cool and misty – Scotland!

Having said that, the lodge is certainly geared towards this decidedly gaelic climate! The game-viewing vehicle is closed with an open roof. This was the perfect vehicle for this altitude and worked well. The lodge was very warm with roaring log fires everywhere in the main lodge and when I got back to my room after the game drive, there was a lovely log fire in my chalet as well. The log is solidly built mostly in wood with some curious, somewhat phallic architectural additions, most noticeably the bar roof and hot water geysers. I didn’t feel cold when inside at all.

They will be bringing back horse-riding which will be a great addition to their set of activities. Keen birders will love the Nyika plateau with many birds which are endemic to this area. Finally Nyika is a botanists delight. Approx 2 months after the early winter burning of the grasslands,  you have wonderful wild flowers from approx September to October. Later in the summer come the orchids growing in the marshy areas.

Chelinda Lodge on Nyika PlateauI liked Chelinda Lodge. It feels like an old Scottish hunting lodge which is somewhat surreal but strangely in keeping with its setting. There are eight log chalets all en suite with bath and shower. This includes a family cottage with two en suite bedrooms sharing a small sitting area. As the bedrooms are identical, this is also ideal for friends travelling together. The food was pleasant but not memorable – basically good country cooking – as the area is very remote.

I would recommend a 3 night stay in Nyika because of the effort to get here and also because you will see more wildlife if you allow yourself the time to do so. Look out for my next Malawi safari blog post which focuses on my visit to Kaya Mawa in Lake Malawi.

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...


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