The Nyika   Leave a comment

Africa’s “big sky country”, the Nyika Plateau in northern Malawi, and a roan antelope enjoys the view.

Most of us have blatantly stereotyped images of Africa implanted in our heads well before we ever get to see it first hand.  Mine were gained during many hours spent in my youth on rainy Saturday afternoons watching Tarzan movies.  Then there are the nature channel documentaries, which feature dry and dull bush, the low plains of East Africa, or again, thick jungle.  So between Hollywood, TV and the news, it’s easy to have a downright cartoonish view of the “dark” continent.  Many of us even think Africa is  brimming with large masses of starving people packed into sprawling slums.  Even if we aren’t willing to admit our biases, they are surely there. I could spend pages describing how Africa departs from the cliches we are fed from childhood.  But I’ll cover just one special place here.  That’s because this place is so unique within Africa that it seems to, on its own, debunk every stereotype.  The place is the enormous Nyika Plateau in northern Malawi.  I was intrigued when I first read of it.  Often just called “The Nyika”, it lies in a fairly remote region, accessible via roads that are only moderately horrible (by African standards) from the large town of Mzuzu in northern Malawi.   It would be completely treeless if the British had not planted tree plantations during colonial times, but those cover only a tiny fraction, and so it remains a pristine, high, rolling expanse of grassland, averaging over 2100 meters (7000 feet) By this point in my trip, I was starting to scrimp and budget, so I did not rent a 4×4 for the trip.  Renting a 4×4 in Africa is expensive, ranging from $150 for a very basic vehicle, up to $300 or more for a quality rig fully equipped for camping.  So I took public transport.  In remote areas of Africa this means hopping in the back of an open truck (called a matola), perched atop baggage of all description, hanging on for dear life as the truck careens and bounces for hours along truly bad roads.  During the fuel shortage that Malawi was then experiencing, I also had the privilege of being tightly jammed with 37 other suffering souls, with nary another white face in the crowd.   It took 8 or 9 hours to make it from Mzuzu to my lodge on the Nyika.

A truck taxi, or matola, plies the roads of Malawi in Africa. The truck I took to the Nyika was quite a bit bigger but no less crowded than this one.

During that time I was beaten mercilessly.  But not by my fellow passengers (they were typically shy, curious and ultimately friendly); I was beaten by the elements and the road.  First there was the hot African sun.  At one point a young village girl came to the side of the truck balancing a huge tub of sparkling, cold water on her head.  This was the one time I threw caution to the wind and drank untreated water.  Boy was it GOOD.  Back on the road, it wasn’t long before my back was screaming at me to stop the madness as my body was thrown up a few feet in the air on every big bump, slamming back down hard, usually on someone else’s knee.  And to make things even more interesting, the driver was drinking rather heavily, endless small packets of hard alcohol that you can buy in Africa.  They look exactly like an adult version of Capri Sun.  We were so overloaded that every time we had a decent-sized hill to climb, everyone had to get out and walk while the truck lumbered up the incline. Then after climbing a couple thousand feet we were  hit by a sudden cold rainstorm.  After this drenching, we topped out at nearly 7000 feet and I had to bid my fellow cattle (I mean travelers – you only feel like cattle rolling around an open truck) goodbye as we reached the turnoff for Chelinda.  I got a ride in a much smaller truck for the final miles.  Still wet, we were now traveling much faster, and the cold mountain air made me numb.   My self-pity evaporated when we rounded a curve and the low slanting sunlight fell full on the stately figures of two large male roan antelope.  They seemed to pose briefly in the golden light not more than 15 meters (yards) away, but I was so cold I couldn’t get my camera pointed quickly enough. When I finally arrived at Chelinda Lodge, I was totally defeated.  I had thought of camping (there is a very nice campsite located in a scenic location nearby), but I needed a warm place, and I needed it right away.  My luck then started to turn.  I was given a room with a fireplace, all set up with wood and ready to light.  After getting a blaze going and showering, I went to the restaurant to eat a scrumptious dinner, again before a roaring fire.  I felt like I was in Montana, not Africa.   The lodge here is the only one on the Nyika Plateau, and is now run by the large safari operator Wilderness Safaris.  I don’t like going with these big companies, and I had my issues with this stay (they tried to overcharge me), but it’s the only game in town on the Nyika, so I didn’t have much choice.  They do have excellent guides working for them, and my welcome was a fine, warm one. My few days up here were spent walking the hills looking for antelope and zebra, and I was rewarded with plenty of sightings.  I also took a couple of game drives, and got closer to the animals, including baby zebras, the majestic roan antelope, and the largest antelope, the eland.  There are leopard but I did not see any.  I also rented a mountain bike and went zipping along the dirt roads, stopping frequently to bask in the sun.  It was a pleasure to do this since so often in Africa if the sun is out, it’s much too intense and hot to enjoy basking in it, unless you’re part lizard.  Also, many other National Parks in Africa are too dangerous for this kind of liberating solo foray (because of wildlife).  It is very easy to feel as if you are in the western U.S. or in the open country of western Ireland or Scotland.  That is until you spot a herd of zebra, or a big roan antelope posing against the skyline. The air is crystal clear on the Nyika, and the starry nights can get downright chilly.  I can promise, however, that you will revel in it, especially after being in the heat of the lowlands.  African animals such as elephant are found on the west side of the plateau, along the Zambian border, and at the Vwaza Marsh, not too far back down the hill.  Vwaza, in fact, is seeing most everything except for lion coming back after years of heavy poaching.  It won’t be long before both Vwaza and the Nyika are populated with animals migrating across from the Luangwa ecosystem in Zambia, that is if poaching is kept under control (a big if). There is a very worthwhile option on the Nyika that I did not undertake, because of time restrictions (I wanted to swim in Lake Malawi one more time!).  That is hiking from Chelinda Lodge eastward across the plateau to the old mission town of Livingstonia, overlooking the lake.  It’s best to take a guide to avoid getting lost, or have a good map and gps.   When I visited Livingstonia later on, I spoke to a couple who were just finishing the 3-day trek, and they went on and on about it.  Yet another option is horse-back riding.  It was not set up yet when I visited, but Wilderness plans to soon have their guests yelling gidyap! I highly recommend both the Nyika Plateau and Vwaza Marsh.  You will see plenty of animals, perhaps not in the abundance of Kruger and South Luangwa, but with very few other visitors.  I was the only tourist at Vwaza Marsh, for example.  Most important, you will go a long way toward ridding yourself of the silly media-inspired stereotypes of Africa.  If you have your own vehicle with camping gear, use the Chelinda Campsite.  If you come without a vehicle, arrange in Mzuzu for a ride up, or go on a group trip from Lilongwe, the capital.  If you are a glutton for punishment, and you’re bound and determined to meet as many locals as you possibly can, and (it must be admitted) if you’re cheap like me, go to the market in Mzuzu and ask around for the truck that passes over the Nyika.  And be prepared for the ride of your life!

Thatched-roof houses in northern Malawi at the edge of the Nyika Plateau, with a stunning view of Lake Malawi far below.

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