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Malawi’s Nyika National Park

Nyika Plateau, a little-known park in the north of Malawi, is one of my favorite places in the world—and I’ve seen a lot of the world.

the rolling hills of Nyika National Park in Malawi

the rolling hills of Nyika National Park in Malawi

In terms of landscape, Nyika is often compared with Scotland: gently rolling hills covered with grasses—green in the rainy season, brown in the dry season—as far as the eye can see.

In Scotland, however, you won’t see herds of zebras or eland grazing on the heather. In Nyika, if you’re lucky, you might even glimpse a leopard in the early morning or at dusk. Keep your eyes open for warthogs as well; often all you see is the erect tail sticking out of the grasses as it trots away.

Zebras in Nyika National Park in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

Zebras in Nyika National Park in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

The landscape is just lovely, and chances are you’ll have it to yourself. You can hire a guide and take a walking safari, or you can drive around the park in your own vehicle, stopping to enjoy the silence wherever you’d like. There won’t be any traffic, so just stop in the road.

Make sure to take at least a short walk outside at night. You’ll be amazed at how bright the night sky can be. If the moon is small, the Milky Way is breathtaking. If the moon is full, you’ll be able to read outside!

Antelope in Nyika National Park in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

Antelope (possibly female impalas) in Nyika National Park (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

Accommodations in Nyika

You have two options in Nyika, since it’s too big a park and too far from anything for a day trip. Chelinda Camp is the cheaper (but not cheap!) option. They offer “chalets” for four people or hotel rooms for two. Our chalet was lovely: two bedrooms with a shower room and bathroom, plus a big living room / dining room space with a roaring fire in a big fireplace. A servant comes with the chalet, and he’ll keep the fire going, give advice on where to go, and, if you’ve brought ingredients, cook dinner for you.

Chelinda Camp in Nyika National Park in Malawi

Chelinda Camp in Nyika National Park

If you don’t bring your own ingredients, you can eat at the lodge’s restaurant, though be warned: it’s not cheap!

The more luxurious (and even pricier) accommodation option is Chelinda Lodge, which offers fancy fully-equipped chalets with drop-dead views.

When we visited last, it was summer—dry season—and only one other couple was staying at the “chalets” where we stayed, while there were no guests at all at the upscale hotel not too far away.

Getting there

Nyika isn’t the easiest place to get to, since the road into the park hasn’t yet been paved. I can say without a doubt, though, that the trip is worth it.

A klipspringer antelope, spotted in Nyika National Park in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

A klipspringer antelope, spotted in Nyika National Park (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

Having said that, make sure you rent a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle, or hire a tour company to take you to the Nyika. If money is no object, you can even fly in to the Nyika’s grass air strip. If you drive, it’s best to have a spare tire and plenty of fuel, as well as lots of bottled water, mosquito repellant and sun lotion. Also make sure your rental car is supplied with all the required items like a fire extinguisher and a safety triangle.

Follow the speed limits on your way to Nyika, since traps are set up, particularly on long downhill sections, to get you to pay traffic fines. You’ll come upon roadblocks here and there; just be friendly and answer questions politely.

I’d suggest going to Vwaza Wildlife reserve first. It’s on the way and worth a stop. If you want to stay the night, you can, but you’ll have to camp, and bring lots of insect repellent.

hippos at Vwaza Wildlife Reserve in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

hippos at Vwaza Wildlife Reserve (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

While Vwaza’s landscape isn’t as beautiful as Nyika, you can see lots of hippos, birds, antelopes and, if you’re lucky, elephants.

After Vwaza, you’ll head up the unpaved road toward Nyika. Last time we were there, we were “lucky” to find our way blocked by an elephant. While it slowed our trip since we had to wait for it to wander away, we were glad of the photo opportunity. Elephants are rare in Nyika; this one had probably crossed the border nearby from Zambia.

our elephant, in Nyika National Park in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

our elephant, in Nyika National Park (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

While Nyika (with or without a stop at Vwaza) is not generally considered on a par with the big Tanzanian and Kenyan game parks like Ngorongoro or Serengeti, I would argue that it is better.

For one thing, you’ll rarely be alone at those big parks because they’ve become so popular. The goal in the big parks is to check off as many of the big game animals as you can find, and you will certainly find more animals in quantity than in the Nyika. Unfortunately, they’ll often be surrounded by vans and SUVs full of tourists, all trying to get a picture.

But the Nyika just feels different. Being there is more about enjoying what you see—animals, birds, and scenery—but also what you feel and hear and smell. Instead of hearing human voices and smelling diesel fumes from the other vehicles, you’ll be able to turn off the engine and hear and feel and breathe complete, natural tranquility.

It gets quite cold at night—sometimes below freezing—but the advantage of that, combined with its higher elevation, is that it’s less buggy than other game parks.

a Stanley's Bustard, spotted in Nyika National Park in Malawi (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

a Stanley’s Bustard, spotted in Nyika National Park (photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith)

It’s also prettier, even in the dry season when the colors are all shades of brown and grey. Bird-watchers love the Nyika all year because of the hundreds of species you can spot. The rainy season makes the drive up the plateau more difficult, but it’s worth it for orchid aficionados. Nyika has 200 species of orchids.

An orchid (orichida disa erubescens) on Nyika plateau (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

An orchid (orichida disa erubescens) on Nyika plateau (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten track destination away from the tourist hordes, try Nyika. It combines well with other sights in Malawi like Livingstonia and Lake Malawi for a great combination of relaxation, natural beauty and history.

Disclosure: I was not compensated in any way for this post. I just love the Nyika. I lived in Mzuzu, Malawi for two years back in the 1980s and Nyika was a frequent weekend destination. When I returned a few years ago, it was just as magical as I remembered.

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26 Comments

  • Donna Janke

    March 28, 2016 at 9:08 am

    Nyika Plateau sounds like a great place to experience African wildlife and nature. The fact that it is a little off-the-beaten-path and quieter than other game parks appeals to me. I love the photo with the elephant. Definitely worth being slowed down for,

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 28, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      Most of Malawi is green in the rainy season and brown in the dry season. We were there in the dry season (much easier driving on dirt roads), but the Nyika stays somewhat green because of the fog and the dew it produces.

      Reply
  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    March 28, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Wow! Your descriptions of Nyika Plateau in Malawi have me pulling up maps and details as I add this to my ever growing list of places to go. Simply amazing and what I find so appealing about this park is the thing you also love:the fact that it FEELS different. I don’t want to tick off my list of the “big 5” simply because I saw them with a horde of people. I want to take my time and linger and enjoy ALL the moments that come with being in a park where animals are protected and wait for whatever animal or bird I’m lucky enough to see!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 28, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      I think the different feel has to do with it being so off-the-beaten-path. Even with a few other people visiting, you feel like you have it to yourself. It’s so quiet, it lets you really relax.

      Reply
  • Karen Warren

    March 28, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Nyika looks wonderful. I agree with you about small wildlife parks being less crowded and better to visit. And I like the idea of being able to go for a night walk – when we were in a South African game park we couldn’t go out at all at night for fear of dangerous animals.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 28, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      You can go for a walk around the little pond there, and near Chelinda camp. Otherwise it’s probably best to go with a guide for safety. The staff can advise you as to where is safe and where isn’t.

      Reply
  • Ruth - Tanama Tales

    March 29, 2016 at 2:10 am

    Rachel, this is fantastic. You have no idea how much I would like to do a safari in Africa. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. Some rides to watch animals will do it for me. I really like all the animals you spotted.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 29, 2016 at 11:12 am

      The easiest would be Tanzania or Kenya because their tourist industry is much more developed: paved roads, organized tours, trained tour guides, accommodations to Western standards, etc. But for me, while that kind of ease is nice, it missed some of the romance of the idea of a safari, which is about going into the wilderness.

      Reply
  • Janice Chung

    March 30, 2016 at 9:10 pm

    I’m really glad you gave advice about going to Nyika rather than the Tanzanian and Kenyan game parks like Ngorongoro or Serengeti. When I looked into a tour, they went to these parks like most other tours but I never considered how crowded they’d be. You beautiful photos are “tourist free”….no one else was in sight! I will now look at African safaris differently. I’ll get there one day!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 31, 2016 at 8:10 pm

      The Tanzanian and Kenyan parks are worthwhile too; it’s just a very different experience, and I liked the Nyika experience better. It really was “tourist free,” except for us!

      Reply
  • Erika @Erika's Travels

    April 4, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Seems like a wonderful and off-the-beaten path park! I absolutely loved my short visit to Malawi and regret not having the time to explore some of the tiny country’s wildlife. Next time, I’ll have to rip myself from Lake Malawi and visit Nyika!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      April 4, 2016 at 9:08 pm

      Lake Malawi is pretty special too! I would suggest doing the more “roughing it” parts of the trip (Nyika and Livingstonia especially) first, then relaxing at the lake!

      Reply

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