Cycling Nyika National Park: A 250km Dirt Safari

Our Malawi guidebook (published 2012) states that cycling is permitted in Nyika. It also mentions that the Malawi National Park Service is planning to reintroduce lions within the 3,000 square kilometer park in 2013…

With the knowledge that lots of things have been “planned” for Malawi that have never come to fruition, we decided to take a calculated risk. We intentionally overlooked, or willfully ignored, that last little bit about lions and inked Nyika in to our planned route through Malawi.

How could we help ourselves? From Rumphi it would be a two day ride on rugged rock and dirt that would lead us through outlying villages, over mountain escarpments rippling west from the rift valley, and up to a remote high plateau. Once on the plateau, we would have access to over 120 kilometers of primitive bikeable safari track that carves through surreal rolling grassland with plentiful game such as Roan antelope, buck, zebra, hyena, jackal, and the most dense population of leopard in Malawi. It’s sounded like an offroad cyclist’s dream.

We spent a few days prior to the trek rubbing elbows with our new friends, Joroen and Sonja, who are on a three year journey through Africa. We initially met the intrepid Dutch overlanders in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, back in January. Then, out of the blue, they overtook us on the road to Cape Mclear, Malawi. Several days later we caught up with them a couple hundred kilometers north, in Nkhata Bay. Our paths continued to cross and it turned out we have a lot in common. We are about the same age; we both have 4 wheels; we both carry our own water closet (ours is a 2-liter water bladder, so we don’t have to leave the tent for fear of things that bite or trample); and we are both tackling a big overland trip in Africa. It also seems that we are keeping roughly the same pace… even though they are in a Landcruiser.

While discussing our plans over beers one evening, we mentioned how we needed to pick up our pace in order to make it to Tanzania in a timely fashion. Joroen and Sonja generously invited us to lash our bikes to their roof the next morning and catch a ride out of Nkhata Bay to Rumphi, where we would begin the the challenging six day out and back odyssey to Nyika. After making camp in Rumphi, we pedaled out the following morning comforted by the familiar hiss of sandy dirt beneath our tires.

The word Nyika is Swahili for hinterland, and I’d say it was a fine choice of a name. It is extremely isolated. There is essentially one ‘road’ that gets you to the gate, then continues to skirt the western edge of the park bordering Zambia, and climbs through highland forests teeming with birdlife and herds of elephant. The road is only passable with a solid 4×4 or, better yet, a solid bicycle. The majority of Nyika lies on a stunning montane grassland plateau at over 2,500 meters above sea level, and the brutal climb up to the Chelinda camping area made even that number seem underestimated.

Though the landscape is magical in itself, and certainly worth the pilgrimage, the wildlife is why most people visit. The highland plains flash to life with zebra, herds of eland, bush pig, 400 species of bird, and over 200 species of orchid. During busy months, wealthy visitors typically fly to the park, landing on the tiny airstrip, which is in the heart of the park, and lodging at the only camp within its boundaries. Lucky for us, March falls in the tourist low season, so we nearly had the park to ourselves to explore by bicycle. The rest of the story is in the photos:

Bikes Overlander Africa
Our bikes packed up on their modified Landcruiser. The Travel Maniacs have been on the road for 2 1/2 years following a route from the Netherlands down through west Africa to the Cape, and now they are working their way back up east Africa.
Malawi truck
Following a packed Dolla Dolla out of Nkhata Bay.
Bike Touring Malawi
Camp for the night in Rumphi at Matunkha Village.
Bike Touring Malawi
Sharing a nice dirt road toward the mountains in the sunshine.
Malawi Tobacco Barn
Passing through endless tobacco farms.
Bike Touring Malawi - Surly ECR
A Surly and some tobacco
Malawi Tobacco Barn Overlanding Malawi
They left camp about 45 minutes after we did and caught us in about 2 hours.
Malawi Cellphone problems

Gin and Joroen trying to figure out how to get our phone numbers so we could exchange them. They would push ahead and said they’d call to warn us of any elephants near the road. No cell service as we later found out.
Malawi Tobacco
Bike Touring Malawi

Soon the road got ‘fun’ and we were on one hell of a climb.
Malawi Tobacco Malawi Kids
A child and his toy.
Malawi Kid
It never ceases to amaze me how little it takes for them to entertain themselves. I don’t think a kid in the US would know how to have fun with a piece of rope.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
We camped at the park gate for the night and the following morning we left to forge the epic climb. Along the first 40 ams, there was plenty of elephant poo to keep us on our toes. We later found out (after we rode back through and left the park) that there is one very aggressive male elephant occasionally sighted on the road known to charge cars.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
Beautiful climbing…
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi

and climbing. By the way, Gin’s Revelate Sweet Roll has stood up to the task. And I hear they just released a new one.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
We started to see signs of the plateau and what people describe as the Scottish highlands, in Africa.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
Still climbing…
Nyika Plateau
Weather moving over the plateau.
Nyika Plateau
A magical landscape that proved hard to do justice with a camera.
Nyika Plateau
The montane grasslands are home to interesting flora.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
Once we reached the plateau it was up and down until we made camp at dusk.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi Camping at Nyika, Malawi
Notes are extra special when found in the middle of nowhere… we discovered this one with our names, an arrow pointing to a camp, and doodles of a beer bottle and a bowl of steaming food. Smiles for sure.
Camping at Nyika, Malawi
We set up camp right on the edge of the grasslands where over the next two days we’d watch zebra, antelope, jackal, bushbuck, and hear the sounds of hyena in the night.
Nyika Clouds

Clouds do some pretty interesting things at high altitude.
Surly ECR - Nyika Safari Setup
The Surly ECR set up for safari. Maybe the big tires kept the predators at bay, although I did hear that on occasion hyenas like to chew on tires at night. I was slightly paranoid about that while we were camping… we heard several but never saw any. I would be pretty bummed if my Knards got eaten, although it would make for a pretty good story.
Bike Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
Amazing tracks for a bicycle safari.
Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari Leopard Footprint Nyika
Some sort of large predator tracks along the road… hyena or leopard maybe.
Nyika Orchids

There are hundreds of orchid species on the plateau.
Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari
Look who we found on one of the loops. It turned out we would run into the Travel Maniacs again in Rumphi on the way out and once more 130 kms north in a beach village called Ngara at the wonderful Floja Foundation.
Mountain Biking Nyika National Park, Malawi - Bike Safari
Bicycle Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
Bicycle Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi Bicycle Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi Bicycle Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi Nyika Plateau - Zebra Nyika Plateau - Zebra
A shy zebra.
Nyika Plateau - Roan Antelope
The Roan Antelope, a curious creature that slightly resembles the devil.
Nyika Plateau Nyika Plateau Bicycle Touring Nyika National Park Plateau - Malawi
The last night sunset. The next morning we would enjoy a long descent, although there was enough ups to be almost as challenging as the ride up.

Travel Tips

Camping: In Rumphi, stay at Mkhotakota Village. They offer camping and good, inexpensive meals. At the gate, the ranger will allow you to camp right inside the park boundary, there are some small stores around where you can buy basic food and drink. Also, the ranger makes nice roasted peanuts! Once on the plateau, you can camp in the designated campground with wood-fired water heaters and free firewood for $15 per person. Also, they offer a free laundry service.
Food: If you can, stock up at the large supermarket in Mzuzu, or in Rumphi there are 2 decent markets.
Dangers: Once in the park, the elephant situation in the first 40 km (before you reach the plateau) is a little troublesome, so ask the park ranger about recent sightings and safety.
Other info: Prepare to climb.

For more information on this route, including GPS and logistics, click here. Also, check out our growing list of bikepacking and dirt road touring routes.

Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.

Bikepacking Collective

We're independent
and member-supported.
Join the Bikepacking Collective to make our work possible:

Join Now