The middle of October brings a welcome break at our school. The one week holiday thus gave us a chance to explore parts of Malawi which are inaccessible on a regular weekend.
Malawi is a small place; covering less area than England, it is one of the smallest countries below the equator on the African continent. With the capital – and our location – being in the centre of the country, you would think that most places in Malawi would be within quick and easy reach.
There are many reasons for journeys taking longer than you would anticipate, ranging from Lilongwe’s sometimes choking city traffic to the danger of being on the road with local drivers.
It was going to take us a 10-hour, 2-day drive to get 480km north to our first destination: Nyika Plateau. The reasons for the long ride are twofold: the route and the road – of lack of it – in Malawi’s northernmost national park.
The amount and severity of off-roading would be too much for our beloved car: a monster is needed. We thus piled into our neighbours’ Land Cruiser and sped up to Mzuzu – Malawi’s third-largest city. Admittedly, calling it a city is a bit of a stretch.
Though only about 100 km away as the eagle flies, getting to Chelinda, the place to stay in Nyika, is a bit of an ordeal. The route involves driving along the western fringe of the national park, even momentarily popping into neighbouring Zambia, before driving into the centre over some rocky and undulating terrain.
But what terrain it is, unlike anything I’ve seen in Malawi so far. Partly this is due to the altitude, with much of the plateau rising to over 2000 metres above sea level. At times it resembled British countryside, with gently rolling hills awash with greenery.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the same as the Yorkshire moors. One reason is the wildlife; you’re not going to find herds of eland or zebra near Lake Windermere!
Many different species – exotic to us, indigenous to the national park – live in the vast and diverse plateau. Most common seemed to be reedbuck, which look a lot like Bambi.
We also often saw duiker and Roan antelope as we bounced and bobbled over the dusty tracks. October is dry – driving up here would be very challenging in the rainy season.
More exhilarating is spotting one of the rarer animals. On our night game drive we spied – admittedly from a distance – a beautiful serval cat, its ears pointed sharply to the black sky like pyramids.
The cat we really craved to see was a leopard. Nyika apparently has the largest concentration of them in central Africa. However, their secretive and solitary nature makes them very elusive to the human eye. I’m sure you can imagine our frustration returning to our camp, having spent four hours searching for one on our night drive, to discover that a leopard had casually sauntered through our campsite three minutes before our return.
We had more joy looking for the largest of Africa’s land mammals, spotting an elephant ploughing through a valley towards shade with three of her young, one of whom was flapping their ears in delight. We probably saw more elephants – and were closer to them – in Uganda but I can’t imagine I’ll ever tire of watching them.
Though probably looking for a shady spot, the elephants were heading in the direction of water. Nyika actually means ‘where water comes’ and, owing to the altitude, a lot of it passes through here. 30% of Lake Malawi’s water emanates from here.
The most spectacular water feature can be found at Chisanga, which is home to a stunning and powerful waterfall. The water itself was very refreshing!
The views across the plateau, particularly from Domwe and Jalawe, are also incredible.
On a clear day, you can see Zambia, Tanzania, Lake Malawi and Mozambique from Jalawe Rock. Thgouh we climbed it on a hazy morning, the view was still impressive. The rock itself was interesting, scorched from a combination of fire and drought and looking like a dry, bleak dystopia. Fires are common here and can ravage an area very quickly.
It was just another examples of the diversity of Nyika Plateau. Each day felt like we were visiting a different part of the world, even though we would still be within the confines of the national park. It is a lovely place and definitely worth the effort required to reach it!
Love you all,