Nyika Plateau has been on my bucket list for years, being from Malawi it has been one of those things that I have procrastinated over, with the thought “I can go there any time”. Well this week I finally got to go and found myself kicking myself for not visiting sooner.
We took off from Lilongwe with much anticipation, an ‘Alpine retreat’ in Malawi was something even I was sceptical about, despite the pictures. As Fly Ulendo and their charming pilots jetted us from the hustle and bustle of Lilongwe to Nyika in their beautiful new Dornier plane, the scenery from my window began to change drastically.
Below us, the dry, brown earth of the city borders, left bare by deforestation and little rainfall, quickly transformed into thick green forest as we soared over Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve; kilometres of white trim of the lake shore, distinct against the deep blue of Lake Malawi on our right. After a short 40-minute flight we touched down in the little city of Mzuzu. After dropping off some passengers, we were soon in the air again after, just short of, a 10-minute turnaround – and the landscape changed again.
The astounding scene of Nyika National Park came into view, lush pine forests on our left and stark rolling plains to our right, dotted with clusters of Hagenia trees and patches of blackened grass sprouting new life in vibrant green tufts.
The pilots did a little fly-by to chase any game off the runway and soon we were cruising along the remote tracks of Nyika towards Chelinda Lodge, with the manager Johan at the wheel.
10 minutes later we approached the summit of a pine fringed hill and were welcomed to an Alpine retreat of log cabins and a remarkable view. Clambering out of the vehicle we were hit by the cool fresh air of the plateau and were offered warm face towels and a welcome drink to refresh us after our journey. As the sun was on its way down, we decided to go straight out onto the main lodge deck and order a drink to enjoy our first Nyika sunset.
Inside the main lodge area, ‘cosy’ can’t even begin to describe it. Three roaring fires help to fend off the chill of the high altitude, the comfortable sofas and tasteful décor have you dreaming that you’re somewhere in Austria about to take to the slopes. A large deck protrudes from the cabin, the perfect place to watch the sun go down and appreciate the magnificence of this place.
We were treated to a 3-course meal and the company of co-manager, Laura, to entertain us with stories of running this isolated little paradise. After the good food, good wine and good company, we planned our activities for the following day. With so much to do here and so little time, I signed myself up for a full day of all the activities on offer, to make the most of it. With that in mind, I headed to my little log chalet to get an early night.
The chalets at Chelinda are perfectly charming, log-build like the main lodge, each has their own fire place, and in it was a pre-lit fire flickering away happily – the perfect welcome. The boilers had been lit and the claw-foot bath tub called out to me. My feeling of ultimate relaxation peaked when I hopped into bed and found a hot water bottle hiding under the covers and I drifted off, listening to the gentle crackle of the fire and lions roaring not far from the lodge – yep, lions.
Nyika National Park is home to an astounding population of birds and is a key birding destination in Africa. With over 400 bird species, there are some special residents that avid ‘twitchers’ (a.k.a bird nerds) will consider ‘lifers’, including the augur buzzard, the seasonal blue swallow, Denham’s bustard and the bar-tailed trogon. If flora is more your thing, botanists will be well catered for here, particularly in the rainy, summer months with beautiful wild flowers including 11 endemic orchid species, stunning dieramas, gladioli, protea and kniphofia.
Our first activity began in ‘Abasi’s’ Forest (unofficially named after one of the star birding guides from Chelinda – I think you know you’ve made it in life when you have an actual forest named after you). Kitted out with our cameras, borrowed binos, and long trousers, we jumped in the vehicle and off we went to Abasi’s Forest in search of one thing – the bar-tailed trogon.
On foot now, Watson, our guide, lead the way donning some Velcro sandals as he scampered up steep inclines, down gullies, over streams, through bushes and under low hanging branches, stopping dead every now and again to look closely at the flutter of a leaf above and listen intently for the distinct call. Eventually he stopped on our ‘trail’ and said “wait here”, leaving us to catch our breath, he trudged through the thick foliage about 20 metres off course and frantically waved us over. Sure enough, in the highest tree, through the jumble of greenery, there they were in all their glory – a couple of stunning male and female bar-tailed trogons. Bravo, dear Watson!
On our way back to the lodge we went via Dam 1 for a spot of fly-fishing. The beautiful scenery here is home to the very first camp in the park, Chelinda Camp; they lent us some rods and some much-needed guidance and we gave it a shot from the deck. Without much luck (likely due to some questionable casting on my part), Lindsay from Ulendo, and I decided to hop into the mini row boat and go for a paddle, breathing in the fresh air and admiring our surroundings, as Linds told me stories of her annual childhood holidays to Nyika and the happy memories she has of this beautiful place.
Back at the lodge we settled in for a light lunch and a quick siesta before activity 3. One thing I know for sure in life is that I will never tire of waking up to the view from my room, a different kind of beauty produced at every time of day, it takes your breath away.
Questioning my life choices for agreeing to cycle up a big hill at 2 in the afternoon, I threw on some leggings and my trainers and was soon back at Chelinda Camp being fitted for a helmet and bicycle to fit my 5’10 stature (“oh, the seats can go up…”). The equipment available at both Chelinda Lodge and Camp were of a great standard and in good nick.
5 of us set out on an 8km bike trail through the Nyika hills to another nearby dam, the undulating hills providing strenuous leg-work and welcome respite in turn. The hard work was well worth it for the opportunity to connect to the environment around – reed-buck darting in every direction as we came trundling down the tracks.
We finally reached the dam and after a quick stop for some pictures and a splash of cool water to the face, we were off again, back up the ungodly hill we came down. The cold, Malawi brewed Carlsberg back at camp on our return made it all worthwhile and was certainly well deserved.
Apart from the notable birdlife, Nyika National Park is inhabited by a substantial population of mammals, namely roan antelope, eland, Crawshay’s zebra, southern reedbuck, bushbuck, warthog, spotted hyaena and side-striped jackal. Elephant are occasionally spotted, with leopard sometimes seen in the daytime owing to the temperate climate. Another recent resident has been a male lion roaming the hills, Laura and Johan guess that there must also be some females in the area for him to be hanging around for so long. Lions hadn’t been photographed in Nyika for over 16 years due to extensive poaching, yet this handsome fella (I mean, all lions are beautiful obviously, but this guy is the Brad Pitt of lions) has returned of his own volition and seems to be enjoying the peace and quiet of his new home.
Desperate to catch a glimpse of one of these cats, we set out on our final activity of the day, an evening game drive. The impressive landscape luminous with the warm evening glow, perfect for photographing the dozens of dazzles of zebra, warthog and various buck we came across.
With no luck seeing the cats this time, we perched atop Chosi Rock, with a 360° view for miles around and enjoyed a few G&Ts as we watched the last of the African sun disappear behind the peak for the last time. Nyika, you are something else.