From high altitude Nyika Plateau to languid Lake Malawi, road tripping through the “warm heart of Africa” is an enchanting way to find beautiful and wild places, smiles all the way, and excellent gin everywhere you go.
By: Keri Harvey
Coffins and tombstones, wigs and cigarettes, vegetables and household furniture, they’re all for sale along the main road of villages, as we head north to the Nyika Plateau at a lofty 2 600m. Africa invented drive-by shopping and Malawi has refined it to offer anything you can think of at arm’s length. Not in need of cigarettes or wigs, we do stop for rosy red tomatoes and bananas.
“I need these ingredients for my supper,” smiles our driver Omeger Banda, as we shop and shake red dust from our shoes. It will be our constant companion throughout the journey. It’s day two of a week-long road trip around central and northern Malawi, driving mostly red dust and devilishly rough roads. That also means travel is measured in time, not kilometres, because what sounds like a short drive could take the whole day on the rugged road network.
A 4am start out of Cape Town can get you all the way to Muzuzu in a long day of travel. It’s two hours flying to Johannesburg and about two and a half more to Lilongwe. Then another five hours by tar road to Muzuzu, 375 km away, to overnight before continuing on day two and the rattling road to Nyika. This drive will also take five hours, though it’s just 180km.
About 70km up the road, we stop for lunch at a local restaurant in Rumphi. Hungry patrons are streaming in for chicken on sticky rice. Topped with a tomato and onion gravy and washed down with a sugary drink, this is standard lunch fare across Malawi.
Closer to Lake Malawi, fish replaces chicken in this simple and delicious dish. Our lunch is served at take-away speed and we are swiftly back in the Toyota Land Cruiser headed to Nyika. “Hold on tight. It can get rough,” says Omeger, “but I will make it as comfortable as possible.” Land Cruisers are by nature not comfortable, but are definitely necessary over this terrain – and Omeger is a driver extraordinaire.
In the far north of Malawi, Nyika National Park is the oldest and largest national park in the country. Declared in 1965, Nyika is 3 200 km² and mostly lies above 2 000 m. It’s cool and cloudy up there, and the hottest month of October only sees 26° C on the plateau. While it’s called a plateau, this 400 km² area is not flat. Rather it’s rolling grasslands – Nyika means “short grass” – along with hills, forested valleys and steep escarpments. Nganda Peak at over 2 600 m is the highest point in Nyika, and from the top you can see twinkling Lake Malawi, mountains in Tanzania and grass plains in Zambia.
Importantly, Nyika forms part of a much bigger African dream being realised. The Malawi-Zambia Transfrontier Conservation Area, brokered by Peace Parks Foundation, was established in 2015. It connects national parks, reserves and game management areas in the two countries to form a massive conservation area of over 32 000 km². The feat is not just impressive but a godsend for conservation and ecosystem restoration at ground level.
Rough tar has turned to potholed dirt as we edge closer to Nyika, past ragtag villages with pull-thatch roofs. Tiny shops with eccentric names dot villages and friendly locals line the roads on foot and bicycles. Women are brightly clad in colourful cloth shetenge wraps while men wear muted attire. Fields of red sand lay waiting for rain. “It will arrive next month,” Omeger assures, “and I am happy the farmers are well prepared.” These fields are for maize, a staple and everyday breakfast served as nsima or porridge.
Aromatic from juniper berries, a Malawi gin goes down smoothly on arrival at Chilinda Lodge in Nyika National Park. When you’re there, it’s obvious why Nyika is called Africa’s Scotland, with rolling grassy hills and craggy sections in between. But Scotland doesn’t have Nyika’s unique charm and stillness, its wildlife or rare plants.
Eland, Roan antelope, reedbuck, bushbuck, klipspringer, zebra, warthog, spotted hyena, side-striped jackal and olive baboons all live in the park, and the following day we check them all off, plus elephant in the large sanctuary section. Nyika is breathtaking, vast, bucolic and downright beautiful. It’s a place for thinkers and lovers of unusual landscapes, where your thoughts flow freely and the photos you take can’t ever capture the vastness or vibe of Nyika. It’s God’s own garden with over 200 different orchid species showing their fancy faces in summer, along with daisies and purple irises and wildflowers aplenty. Just imagine.
Yes, poachers are active here too, targeting not just meat for the pot but also orchids. They make African salami from edible orchids and are heavily impacting plant numbers; some species are now endangered. Malawi, however, recently changed its laws and poachers of all kinds are now far less inclined to forage in the park. Jail sentences are staunch.
Nyika is in our rear-view mirror as we take on the rough road back to Rumphi and a short detour to Vwasa Marsh Game Reserve, home to elephant and sable. We visit communities living around the park who are crop farming sustainably; others keep goats and chickens and sell surplus to pay school fees. Life is tough in rural Malawi, yet everyone is healthy and happy. Complaining is just not part of the ethos here; humour and optimism is.
From Rumphi we head back to Mzuzu to overnight and enjoy the town’s famous coffee. Mzuzu Coffee House stands proudly in the main street and is always busy. The grounds are robust and strong and oh so good. Freshly fuelled with caffeine, we are heading east to placid Lake Malawi. Omeger says the road is tarred all the way so we are hopeful for a smooth ride today. Before long, we are holding on tight instead. For long stretches one lane is used as two, and sometimes riding off-road is smoother than tar. Trucks and vehicles overloaded with mangos share the journey with us.
Near Nkata Bay we stop to regain land legs and shop for curios from carved wood. A right turn takes us closer to Livingstonia Beach and Lake Malawi. We see glimpses of the lake as we travel, and seven hours later we have traversed the necessary 370km to reach its shores. It’s all worth it after a cold sundowner and warm watercolour sunset.
Here life is lived to wind and waves and fishing is punctuated by net repairs. Islands sprinkle the vast lake too, which is so vast it looks like the ocean. Livingstone called it the Lake of Stars for the twinkling lanterns of fishermen heading out in their wooden canoes in the evenings. It’s also called the Calendar Lake, for being 365 miles long, 52 miles wide and has 12 rivers flowing into it. Add to this 1 000 species of cichlid fish of which 99% are endemic and you know this is a special place. Lake Malawi is the country’s heartbeat, for its supply of fish, clean water, hydro-electric power and income from tourism.
Third largest of the Rift Valley lakes, it beckons you to the laid back life of lapping water and balmy days. Here there’s no rush or fuss, just the pleasure of life in the moment. Fishermen pack their nets, readying themselves for fishing sorties in the evening. Village folks go about their daily lives, and tourists fit effortlessly in between. It’s harmonious and a fine example of live and let live. A life lesson too in being happy with what you have. Something Malawians do well.
SAA flies direct to Lilongwe daily. flysaa.com
WHEN TO VISIT
The cool dry winter season from May to October is best to access the whole country. November to April is hot, humid and rainy and access to Nyika may be difficult.
Malawi is extremely safe, friendly and hospitable.
Good accommodation may be pricy and varies according to location. Food is very affordable, excellent and portions are substantial. The traditional meal of rice, chicken and tomato/onion gravy is around R45 in a local restaurant. The currency is the Malawian Kwacha; roughly 50 Kwacha to R1.
Hiring a 4×4 and driver is advised, as roads are generally poor and often not signposted.
Be prepared for rough roads, check your spare tyre is in good order, carry bottled water and snacks as travel times can be lengthy. www.malawitourism.com
WORDS Keri Harvey