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:
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.