Travelling up the northern shores of Lake Malawi keeps one on relatively main roads, well travelled by those traversing the country. Yet as soon as you leave these well-developed routes one finds themselves in the midst of all that rural Africa has to offer. Children start running along the side of your vehicle, waving and singing, finding petrol stations and working ATM machines becomes a challenge and the road conditions change dramatically. Tar is a thing of the past and the time it takes to travel distances are vastly different from those suggested by Google Earth.
The small town of Rumphi is the last ‘established’ stopping point on the way to Nyika National Park. It is in this small town that one must fill up fuel tanks, stock up on any food or drinks and empty the local ATM machines. After that the gravel road starts to climb the 2400m to the eerie world of the Nyika Plateau.
It takes around 3 hours to reach the gate of the park, where a bewildered gatekeeper looks up in surprise to see a vehicle approaching. Your arrival becomes the event of the month (or several) and they intend to enjoy it for as long as they can. Each slip is painstakingly written out, and copied no less than 3 times, whilst you are bombarded with questions and general chitchat. Whilst you remain patient and keep smiling, the village pours out of their huts and surround the vehicle, wanting to see and touch everything.
It is with great excitement and pride that they “welcome” you to Nyika and wish you a wonderful stay, looking forward to your return upon exiting the park – when you will once again fill out a plethora of paperwork. But for now – you are in!
A two-hour game drive through the park takes you through several totally different environments. Starting with dense forest in which you cannot imagine seeing any animals at all, but would be wrong. Next comes the mountainous and rocky moonscape where large granite mounds litter the landscape. And then you arrive in what one could compare to ….Scotland! Moors of heather and bracken, and fields of pine trees greet you. Crystal clear rivers and trout ponds dot the terrain and the African climate gives way to temperatures of between 4-20 degrees. In season over 200 species of orchids join the heather and bracken – a tropical and European mishmash that defies all logic.
Yet in this vast highland world roam herds of game. Zebra, Roan and Eland, the larger of these species. As if this was not surprising enough, Nyika is home to the densest population of leopard in East Africa. With infrequent sightings of larger cats over the years, the leopards have become top of the food chain in Nyika. Their confidence has grown, they walk around quite brazenly and are seen regularly, often within the area of the campsite and lodge. The experience of seeing large African animals within classic Scottish like landscapes is an experience that is as bewildering, as it is wonderful, and certainly makes a drive up into the vastness of Nyika well worth the effort.