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words and pictures by Jenny and Chris Sivertsen words and pictures by Jenny and Chris Sivertsen

Reader trip report: Travelling to Nyika Plateau, Malawi

Our 32-day trip began with Botswana, entering via Martin’s Drift (where they seem set on taking your fresh food for some or other reason) through Selebi-Phikwe to Francistown. Next stop Chobe, but not before a great lunch at Nata Lodge.

On to Zambia via the Kazungula ferry, a perfect example of pot luck: we waited 10 minutes for a ferry (US$ 30, must be paid on board), after passing the six-kilometre queue of trucks; drivers say they wait between five and eight days to cross. Admittedly, some of the machinery on the Zambian ferries was salvaged from Jan van Riebeeck’s Dromedaris, but at least it works, most of the time. The actual crossing takes only seven minutes, so keep your camera ready.

We stayed at Chundukwa Lodge on the Zambezi and drove the 20 kilometres into Livingstone each day. If you’re looking for curios or local arts and crafts, the Mukuni market is a good place to start. The Falls are more exciting from the Zambian side, especially when you do the boat trip to Livingstone Island for lunch and a swim above the falls. The Devil’s Armchair is not to be missed, if it’s accessible – it depends on the strength of flow.

Lusaka is a traffic nightmare – Joburg, you don’t come close! It’s to be avoided between 07h30 and 10h00, and especially between 15h00 and 17h00. Driving along the Great East Road to South Luangwa National Park, there’s only one road to use: the one from Chipata. Ignore the others on the map, from Petauke and Katete; you’ll battle at the best of times, and if there’s been any rain you’ll really struggle. Mama Rula’s, down the Mfuwe road from Chipata, is a super place to stay overnight; it’s very safe, they offer a great supper, and they’re very helpful with information about roads and fuel, etc.

When entering Malawi, you’ll need about 5 500 kwacha for third party insurance – the Carnet made life so much easier, but one must remember to get it stamped on entry and exit. If you are going to Cape Maclear or Monkey Bay on the southern end of the lake, it is really worth going down the new road from Lizulu (just southwest of Dedza), to Golomoti. This is a stunning descent into the Rift valley, and you’ll come across vendors selling some of the best wooden carvings we saw on the whole trip; there were superbly detailed working vehicles and earthmoving equipment. We were booked in at Mumbo Island (www.mumboisland.com), a wonderful island eco-resort.

While we were here, there was a fuel crisis in Malawi. As we had a few bookings with Wilderness Safaris, we talked to their head office in Lilongwe, where Chris Badger, the regional manager, assisted us. He was extremely helpful, checking on the state of roads and bridges, and providing us with petrol. We spent a few nights at the delightful Chintheche Inn, about half way up the lake’s length, where we witnessed the incredible phenomenon of the lake flies rising out of the lake in massive clouds. Over-fishing has led to a rise in the number of larvae that survive, and the clouds are a bit of a pest, as well as being dangerous for anyone caught in a mass of these very small flies.

An excellent Wilderness Safaris initiative to combat deforestation in Malawi is their seedling nurseries. They donate thousands of seedlings to villages for replanting three types of trees: hardwoods, to replace the indigenous forests which have been lost and not for harvesting; quick-growing softwoods, for firewood and charcoal; and, fruit trees, for sustenance. The idea is working splendidly, and shows how a bit of thought and some funding can make a real difference. And then it was time for one of the highlights of our trip: Nyika Plateau. To get from Lake Malawi to the Nyika Plateau requires a 4x4; not that it’s hard-core 4x4 work, but the road is gravel, was built a long time ago, doesn’t often see a grader (or any other road maintenance machinery), and we were there in the rainy season.

The trip from the lake, heading north west from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu (45 km) is largely uphill. A good road, but plenty of bends and turns, so don’t rush it; just settle back and enjoy the superb forest scenery. Mzuzu is a jumble of a town, torn between the modern and the old. Next door to Pep Stores we found an old Indian trader selling the most vibrant chitenge cloth you can imagine. The trip to Rumphi (about 60 km) is more of the same – uphill and forest; Rumphi is seriously small, so don’t count on being able to buy fuel or any essentials here. And then the tar runs out and the muddy gravel roads become a real challenge. Don’t plan on averaging much more than 30 km/h. If there’s a big rainstorm, the dips in the road become torrents. The locals appear miraculously and are more than happy to push you through for a few dollars, but just be patient and wait to see what happens. Eventually a local bakkie will come through so that you can see what line to take, and what speed works.

This is isolated country, beautiful and clean, and the people are ever so friendly. Despite the rain, village water supplies are mainly obtained from hand-operated pumps. About 50 kilometres and two to three hours of travel from Rumphi, you’ll come to a fork in the road: head right (north) into Nyika Plateau National Park. Super friendly Park officials, selling some of the best honey you’ll ever buy, are here to welcome you and book you in. From there it’s about 60 kilometres to Wilderness Safaris’ Chelinda camp. Don’t rush – the scenery is breathtaking and you’ll destroy your vehicle if you go too fast. We passed a broken-down truck surrounded by the dead branches which serve as hazard triangles; it had been there for two months waiting for spares. Chelinda is an absolute jewel. There’s a very pretty campsite on the edge of a dam, with chalets and a lodge. Set at almost 3 000 m above sea level, and with beautiful rolling hills of green heather and bracken, this area reminds one of Scotland. The bracken, which feels like plastic, (and nothing feeds on it, nor is it destroyed by fire), makes game and bird spotting quite tricky. Thank goodness for the lodge viewing-vehicles which have a raised suspension and roof look-out porthole.

The cool weather up on the plateau was a welcome relief after two weeks of December heat. In fact, it got so chilly that we had a fire burning permanently in the stone fireplace in the chalet. Even the lodge lounge and dining room kept welcoming fires going; something we didn’t expect at that time of year, but nevertheless very much appreciated. This area was the first in Malawi to be proclaimed a national park; originally named Malawi National Park in ’65, it received its current moniker in ’70. The park is home to large herds of game, and we saw zebra, eland (one herd numbered around 300), roan antelope, hartebeest, kudu, reedbuck, bushbuck (these feed amongst the chalets), duiker, and warthog. It supports the largest concentration of leopard in the country, but unfortunately we didn’t spot any on our night drives. However, we were rewarded with brilliant owl sightings and saw civet cats prowling between the bracken. The rivers and dams are stocked with rainbow trout; fishing permits are available all year round for the Nyika Plateau area and must be arranged at Chelinda.

The birdlife is stunning. With the help of lodge manager and guide extraordinaire, Sam, we spotted 25 lifers in only two days, including 12 not even found in our Southern Africa book. Luckily, the very kind Andrea at Mama Rula’s in Chipata had given us a spare copy of her Africa book when she heard we were going to Nyika. More than 300 bird species have been recorded in the Nyika Plateau. We were lucky to see the Denham’s bustard, the malachite sunbird, the endemic Hildebrandt’s Spurfowl and Red-winged Francolin in the grassland areas; and the incredible Montane Widowbird putting on an amazing display amongst the marsh flowers. We searched the forests for Turaco’s and Trogans but saw only the African Olive pigeon; and the biggest Blue Monkey our guide had ever spotted.

The Moustached Tinkerbird, the Blue Swallow, Jacksons Pipit, White Starred Robin, Mountain Yellow Warbler, and the Black-lored and the Churring Cisticolas were just a few of the incredible sightings we had. Resident Manager Sam has incredible bird knowledge and early morning walks with him are a must for any birder. His experience is a great bonus for the serious twitcher, but he also has the ability to inspire any beginner. The wild flowers are almost more amazing: the last thing we expected to see was fields of wild orchids, gladioli and proteas as far as the eye could see. One can get out of the vehicle and wander amongst the flowers to get some amazing photographs, but just watch out for the well camouflaged bogs. There are all colours and sizes of flowers, and December is the time of year to see them at their glorious best. And the mushrooms have no intention of being overlooked, being equally colourful and beautiful. But beware – the locals know which are edible and which are likely to be toxic, so check before you try any.

Although the game drives are stunning, the best way to see these plants and birds is on the walking trails. The guides’ knowledge is immense; you just need to have camera, pen and paper at the ready all the time. They also know the most awesome spots to stop for morning tea or sundowners, and you can be forgiven for just standing in silent admiration of the immense space. The trees of the area must not be forgotten. Nyika is famous for having the southernmost natural stand of Juniper trees in the world. In 1951 the Colonial Development Corporation wanted to start a wattle plantation similar to that established in what was then Tanganyika, but soon realized that wattle would never survive the frost, so changed tack, with a plan of establishing a 40 000 hectare pine plantation. Luckily for us, today those towering trees are still there. The powers-that-be had underestimated the logistical nightmare of getting the timber off the plateau, and the project was abandoned in 1957 with only 500 hectares planted. The land was handed over at the promise to keep it a national park instead. The lodge complex is constructed using this pine, and has a distinct Alpine chalet feel to it. The forest-smells, and the sound of the wind through these enormously tall pines, have you wondering where in Africa you really are. Because of the history, and the incredible fauna and flora, a stay of no less than three days is recommended.

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