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Into the warm heart of Africa – part 1


As fervent campers and overlanding enthusiasts, we love travelling through Southern Africa and exploring this wild and untamed continent. The original plan for 2020 was to explore Zambia and at that stage we already had many locations pre-booked before COVID struck. Due to border restrictions and to play it safe, we decided to postpone our Zambia trip and focus on Malawi where we are currently staying under temporary residency permits. This was a last-minute decision which meant no official bookings, so the plan was not to have a plan.

Lifupa Dam Campsite – Kasungu National Park

Kasungu National Park

We left Lilongwe on 08 August 2020, with our face masks and hand sanitizers and after meeting up with our friends from Blantyre at the new Crossroads Total Filling Station. The Myburghs, together with their two children, joined us for what turned out to be an epic 3-week journey through Malawi. We knew that Malawi had more to offer than just Lake Malawi, so we quickly decided to make our way up north by staying as close as possible to the Zambian border and see how far north we could get. Since Nyika National Park is one of Malawi’s premier destinations, it was obvious that we needed to spend some time there. As we had time on our hands, we made sure that we visited as many points of interest as we could along the way.

Dawn at Lifupa Dam – Kasungu National Park

From Lilongwe we took the S117 north past the old airport towards Santhe over the Bua River, which is a much more scenic route towards Kasungu, compared to the M1 and quicker. From Santhe the S117 joins the M18 and then again the M1 towards Kasungu; however we were adamant to avoid the M1 at all costs and made a left turn just after Mzeza Hill (S13.25924° E33.44563°).

Kasungu Town

From there we followed rural roads through villages and agricultural plots towards the direction of Kasungu National Park. We eventually reached the S118 where we turned right (S13.18080° E33.36655°) and immediately left again (S13.17559° E33.37110°) on a beautiful unmarked two spoor road that eventually linked up with the S114 towards Kasungu at a village called Linyangwa (S13.11767° E33.29145°). We turned left on the S114 towards the Kasungu National Park gate and continued to the Lifupa Conservation Lodge Campsite where we spend our first night in the park.

Deflating tyres on the infamous M9 dirt road

The park is managed by the local government through the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and we were excited to see that they were busy erecting a fence around this massive park due to a lot of human and animal conflict in the area. This is obviously a huge undertaking since it is Malawi’s second largest park (second to Nyika) at approximately 2,316 sq km. The lodge was completely closed, and the park was only open for day visitors due to COVID restrictions, however since we were fully self-sufficient campers, they allowed us to make use of the campsite next to the Lifupa Dam. We were told by the watchmen that the concession held by the original private managers had expired, and that government was in the process of replacing them.

Common Malawi mode of transport – M9 towards Vwaza Wildlife Reserve

Unfortunately, the lodge and park are currently in a very neglected state. We noticed many local villagers occupying the area around the airstrip and also chopping down wood on the main road towards the lodge. Animal life is scarce as we only saw hippo, Reedbuck and Impala, however the scenery and birdlife around the dam was amazing and we felt very safe during the night. We only spent one night and hope that Kasungu National Park can pull through as this park has the potential to become a premier destination in Malawi.

Steel & Timber bridge over Rukuru River on the M9

Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve

From Lifupa Conservation Lodge we took the S114 towards the town of Kasungu on the M1 where we decided to fill our fuel tanks and back-up jerry cans, since we were planning to trace the Zambian border on the very remote western side of Malawi. Kasungu also has the very clean Chipiku Supermarket (Chipiku Local) that sells fresh bread and a variety of groceries.

The M9 towards Vwaza Wildlife Reserve

From Kasungu we took the M1 north towards the next noticeable village called Jenda. The M1 is Malawi’s main road but do not expect a highway, as it is narrow in places and booming with village life and local traffic all the way. There are also a lot of police roadblocks but fortunately none pulled us over as they seem more interested in the local traffic and taxis. At Jenda we turned left on the S112 and immediately left again (S12.34874° E33.54059°) on an unmarked gravel road towards the Mqocha/Lundazi Border Post between Malawi and Zambia. The road is rough and definitely not a road you want to use during the rainy season. This is the case for most of the roads that we took over the next 3 weeks and exactly the kind of roads that we were looking for, so we deflated tyres and made sure that we churned up as much dust as possible.

Campsite at Kazuni Safari Lodge – Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve

We decided to stop at the border post to enquire about the status of exit/entry permits and the officials confirmed that the Malawian borders were (at that stage) only open for essential services and travel, which echoed our approach to stay within Malawi and explore the unknown. The plan was still not to have a plan! This border post is perfectly located to access wild Zambia from Malawi as it takes you directly into the Lumimba GMA and is a great gateway into South and North Luangwa for the wild explorer, so we will be back.

View over Kazuni Dam – Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve

From Mqocha the road continues north on the M10, but do not be fooled by the “M” as there is nothing main about this road, but this again was perfect for our adventure. We stuck with the strategy to trace the Zambian border and quickly decided to turn left (S12.13929° E33.34922°) onto another unmarked gravel road that eventually linked up with the S112 where we kept left towards a village called Edingeni. At Edingeni the S112 turns right (north) and you then follow the South Rukuru River that was mostly dry at the time, until it joins with the M9 at Chaisi Ndhlovu village. Again, you should not expect a main road. The M9 makes a couple of left and right turns through the villages, but we managed to track it easily on Tracks4Africa and Garmin Explore on our Garmin Overlander, all the way north until we got to Lake Kazuni that borders Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. This road was long but extremely scenic with plenty of single lane wooden and steel bridges with the most impressive one being the South Rukuru River bridge at Lake Kazuni.

Martial Eagle – Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve

The entrance to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve is left at the T-junction (S11.13564° E33.65731°) just after you cross the South Rukuru River bridge and what a gem this place was. Though it was pretty rundown, that is overshadowed by the sheer beauty of the area and we decided to spend two nights there. The campsite area is close to the main gate but completely neglected, however the reserve staff was kind enough to allow us to camp at the Kazuni Safari Lodge and offered us a key to one of the chalets so we had access to ablution facilities. It has been a while since this place has seen visitors, mainly as a result of COVID and a sad reality of the pandemic, but it also meant that we had the whole reserve to ourselves for two nights. The lake was a bit dry and shallow as it was the dry season, but it was absolutely alive with hippos and crocs. The birdlife is incredible, and we even managed to see a big herd of elephant on one of our self-drive expeditions inside the park. This place is a real treasure and definitely a must when you plan to visit Nyika. It is wild Africa at its best and we really hope that DNPW and private concession holders can keep this place alive.

One of many picnic stops at local Primary Schools

Chelinda Camp, Nyika National Park

We exited Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve through the main gate, which we came in through two days earlier and headed north again towards Nyika’s Thazima Gate. There is a 4WD gravel road that you can take through the spine of Vwaza Marsh north towards the Kawiya Scout Camp, but we were advised by locals that this road is not maintained, severely overgrown and in some places inaccessible. We therefore followed the M9 again north which makes an unexpected left turn (S11.10240° E33.68716°) 5km after the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve’s gate and follows the edge of the park. If you miss this turn, you basically go towards Rumphi and join up with the M24 which is the more common road to Nyika National Park from the M1.

Locals collecting wood for cooking

The M9 along the border of Vwaza Marsh is a stunning two-spoor track through numerous villages with a lot of friendly locals around. We stopped for a picnic at a local primary school that was closed at the time due to the pandemic. The head teacher offered us a nice shaded tree and even collected school chairs form one of the classrooms for us to sit on. The M9 then comes to a T-junction with the M24 (S10.91796° E33.58432°) where you need to turn left towards Nyika NP. There is a shortcut gravel road that continues north from this junction, but the condition of this road made it clear that we would be delayed reaching Nyika NP. Even the official road that we took presented some challenges and is covered in a 3-5cm layer of very fine powdery dust, another sign that you need to think twice to drive here during the rainy season. The road up to the Thazima Gate (Nyika NP) is beautiful and scenic and all of a sudden, the topography changed after a 600m climb from Vwaza Marsh to 1650m above sea level. From the entrance gate it is another demanding 60km drive with another 650m climb before you reach Chelinda Camp situated at 2,250m above sea level.

Road to Chelinda Camp – Nyika National Park

It is a totally different world up there with very unique plant and animal life and for a moment it felt like I was driving in the Lesotho highlands. We saw Roan antelope, plenty of Reedbuck, Bushbuck, a unique Crawshay’s Zebra and also a lot of elephant tracks and dung on the way. Apparently, they prefer moving through the lower valley areas which makes them hard to spot, but they were around. The park also has a very healthy number of leopard and hyena which we unfortunately did not see, however we did spot the illusive Side-striped Jackal on our night drive.

Chelinda Camp – Nyika National Park

The weather up at Chelinda Camp in the colder months from July to August is a bit different from what we were used to in Lilongwe and the mornings cooled down to a chilled 1°C so we decided it best not to camp but instead booked ourselves into the very comfortable and charming self-catering cottages. These cottages are old farm-style cottages nestled between the forest plantations and the smell of pine trees overwhelms your senses and brings calm to your soul. The cottages are equipped with boilers for hot water, an internal fireplace and old wood burning ovens in the kitchen with electricity only up to about 8pm. This was a real treat and offers welcome relief from the cold evenings. The old-fashioned kitchen also made food preparation very exciting and it felt like we were taken back to the early 1900s.

Rolling Hills of the Nyika Escarpment

The lodge offers many activities which include mountain biking, horse riding, game drives, fishing in well stocked trout dams and more. Again, the aftermath of the pandemic was visible as there were barely any visitors over the previous 4 months and we were sad to learn that the current concession holders, Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), gave notice to government that they will not be renewing their contract at the end of September 2020. This was mainly due to the financial impact that the pandemic had on them and they have decided to focus their remaining resources on Mvuu Camp/Lodge at Liwonde National Park. We just pray that DNPW can find a suitable replacement soon and that this treasure can be preserved. We ended up staying three nights at Chelinda Camp (Nyika NP) and it was one of the highlights of our trip.

M9 towards Chitipa Town

Misuku Hills Forest via Chitipa

From the Chelinda Camp (Nyika NP) we set out to move further north towards the relatively unknown Misuku Hills Forest on the northern tip of Malawi which borders Tanzania by means of the Songwe River. There are no official lodges or campsites at Misuku Hills so we knew that this will be a wild camping experience which made us very excited.  The strategy was still to try and stay as close as possible to the western border of Malawi with Zambia, and because we had been on the road for a while, our grocery and fuel reserves were running low. In light of this, we decided to make our way towards the border town called Chitipa where we were told we will find good shops and fuel. We had not seen a decent shop and filling station since we left Kasungu a week ago, so it is advised to have enough reserves if you plan to do this route.

Chisanga Falls Pass, M9 towards Chitipa

We made our way off the Nyika NP escarpment west towards the Kaperekezi Gate, via the Chisanga Falls Pass, after turning right at the Stone Monument junction (S10.57946° E33.70749°). The scenery on this road is absolutely breathtaking and we spent a lot of time taking pictures and drone footage. The road is challenging, and I imagine that it would be even more challenging going up the escarpment in the opposite direction, although very doable, except in the rainy season. After signing out at the Kaperekezi Gate, you are immediately back in “Malawi” with villages, livestock and people as far as the eye can see. Again, we stopped at a local Primary School for a picnic and once again we were welcomed with open arms by the head teacher and local community. At this stage we realized that we might have spent too much time on the mountain pass and it seemed highly unlikely that we will reach Misuku Hills before nightfall.

Dusty roads, M9 towards Chitipa

The 134km on the now ‘infamous’ M9 from the exit gate to Chitipa was demanding to say the least as it took us almost 5 hours to complete. We reached Chitipa at around 3pm and by this time we were a healthy mix of dust and sweat. It was also clear that it would be reckless to try and reach Misuku Hills that was another 50km further along, mainly given the fact that we still had to get supplies and refuel. We quickly refilled the fuel tanks, got cash at the ATM and found a shop to restock supplies and buy some ice-cold local beers. From there we consulted the iOverlander app which guided us to the Butuzyo Motel in town that was previously used by a few overlanders on their way to and from Zambia. The manager and owner were very welcoming and we ended-up camping behind the motel with a key to one of the rooms for toilet facilities. The facilities were extremely basic and the town was a bit noisy, but all in all this was a great place to spend the night.

Butuzyo Lodge – Chitipa town

The next morning, we were up very early and made our way out of town east on the M26 towards Karonga. The left turn-off to Misuku Hills (S9.79116° E33.44539°) from the M26 onto the S100 is approximately 24km from the main round-about in Chitipa; we then continued on the S100 for another 13km before keeping left (S9.76249° E33.54057°) on the T302 towards Misuku Hills, not knowing that our path would cross the S100 again for a serious adventure the following day). There are no signposts or directional signage here and you have to rely on local knowledge to find this forest since the road on the GPS came to an abrupt end in a village that was supposedly called ‘Misuku’, with no forest in sight. We had good encounters with the previous staff from local schools so we once again decided to stop at a local primary school to ask directions. The head teacher was once again extremely friendly and very helpful. He informed us that Misuku Hills is the name of the mountain range in the area and that it is home to about three indigenous rainforests of which only one is relatively accessible. After peeking over at our rigs, he smiled and said “you might make it” and gave us directions to the forest while pointing to the top of a hill where we could finally see something that resembled a forest.

Almost wildlife, Butuzyo Lodge – Chitipa town

We navigated our way up the hill with the help of locals and finally managed to reach one of the indigenous rainforests that we later found out is home to 150 species of tree. This place is magical and untouched with trees as high as sky-scrapers and cycads and tree ferns growing wild and free. A true rainforest and it felt like we were much closer to the equator, yet we were still in Malawi. We drove through the forest for about an hour and unfortunately deforestation is a sad reality here since this is extremely fertile land which local farmers use to grow coffee beans that they supply to famous Malawian Coffee Companies. We found a relatively flat and open piece of land on an intersection between two bush roads and managed to setup a wild camp (S9.65140° E33.55907°) for one night. There were many locals commuting between hillside villages, but they soon disappeared as the sun went down, which is also when the rainforest came alive. It is a truly magical undiscovered place that currently works in harmony with local villagers. We just hope that the rainforest will survive and that the people of Malawi can realize what a special place it is.

T302 road towards Misuku Hills Forest

Find part two and three of this fascinating journey in the Reader Travel section of the SA4x4 website by clicking here.  

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