Despite being one of the smallest countries in Africa — and overshadowed by safari-giant neighbors, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique – Malawi is a place of heart-stopping scenery and vast vistas. From the crystal-clear waters of Lake Malawi to the rolling plains of the highlands, this country, sculpted by the Great Rift Valley, earns its reputation for being the “warm heart of Africa.”

The rolling hills of the Nyika Plateau stretch out like a sea of golden grass. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

The rolling hills of the Nyika Plateau stretch out like a sea of golden grass. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

Hiking in the Hills

High up in the hilltops carpeted with alpine flowers lies Nyika Plateau, part of the largest protected wilderness area in Malawi. Founded in 1965, Nyika National Parkcovers more than 1,200 square miles of montane grassland and evergreen forest. With its rolling hills and grassy valleys dotted with large herds of elandroan antelope, and zebra, this high plateau is unlike anywhere else in Africa.

Nestled below a hillside woodland lies Chelinda Lodge, where we stayed in a rustic chalet with an open fireplace and a claw-footed bathtub. From our private viewing deck, the game-filled grasslands seemed to roll endlessly into the surrounding escarpment, criss-crossed with walking and bike trails.

The cozy Swiss-style chalets at Chelinda Lodge are built from stone and pine. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

The cozy Swiss-style chalets at Chelinda Lodge (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

Rising 8,000 feet above the Rift Valley floor, the Nyika grasslands are home to a diverse range of antelopes and small predators. We spent our days hiking and biking across miles of undulating plains and our nights curled up by the roaring log fire. The highlight of our trip came on a night drive when we spotted an elusive leopard in a pocket of forest.

Drifting Down the River

Named after a local Yao chief, 211-square-mile Liwonde National Park harbors the largest remaining elephant population in Malawi. Drifting in a safari boat down the Shire, the palm-fringed river that flows along the park’s western edge, we could almost reach out and touch the enormous animals as they paused to drink at the water’s edge.

Elephants come to the edge of the Shire River to feed and hydrate.  (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

Elephants come to the edge of the Shire River to feed and hydrate. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

The river, Lake Malawi’s only outlet, is the beating heart of the park, drawing high concentrations of wildlife to its fertile floodplains. The riparian vegetation attracts kudu,waterbuck, and sable, while the woodlands play host to buffalo, yellow baboon, andLichtenstein’s hartebeest. Rare black rhinos find refuge in the Liwonde Rhino Sanctuary, where we spent a morning tracking the horned behemoths on foot and learning about conservation efforts being undertaken in the park.

Set around a lagoon just off the Shire River, the safari tents at Mvuu Lodge overlook the water and the vast array of birds that wade in the reedy shallows. Mvuu means “hippo” in Tonga and pods of these wide-jawed mammals submerge themselves in the river, keeping cool under the hot Malawian sun as massive Nile crocodiles bask on the sandy banks.

Lounging at the Lake

Scattered across the surface of Lake Malawi are a number of deserted islands that make for a dreamy getaway. Mumbo Island lies within Lake Malawi National Park, the world’s first freshwater national park and a World Heritage site that protects hundreds of species of tropical fish. At approximately 365 miles long and 52 miles wide (dimensions that inspired its nickname, Calendar Lake), Lake Malawi covers almost 20 percent of the country’s surface area.

Kayaking across the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

Kayaking across the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

From the lakeside town of Cape Maclear we kayaked across toMumbo Island Camp, a tiny dot in an immense body of water that holds within its depths a greater variety of freshwater fish than any other on Earth. In the bay at Mumbo, we went snorkeling amidst multitudes of brightly colored mbuna and watched the sun set over the sparkling water with the haunting cries of an African fish eagle as soundtrack.

In the mud-and-thatch mudzis(villages) of Malawi, farmers and fishermen greeted us with friendly smiles as they went about their day. Slowing down to match the laid-back pace of the locals, we stopped to take in our surroundings: the soaring mountains, lush valleys, and enormous lakes carved out by the Great Rift Valley. The time we spent in Africa’s warm heart stole a piece of our own away.

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ZIMENE MUMAKONDA

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