Almost lost for words in, yes, a living tapestry

9 November 2004

Malawi`s sumptuous Nyika Plateau, famously celebrated by Laurens van der Post, has Juliet Clough reaching for the superlatives too.

Guess where this is: "a place dominated by immense scarlet aloes which raised the sun like some Burgundian wine towards a madonna blue sky"? Try "Superb, African Cotswold country" where zebras gallop "like a charge of Napoleon's cavalry at Waterloo" and antelopes rise from heraldic fields of wild Irises and delphiniums as if they were figures in "some fine ancient tapestry, suddenly come alive".

Rhetorical overdrive may have slipped a few gears since Laurens van der Post published his international bestseller, Venture to the Interior in 1952. But, lost for words, other travellers to the Nyika Plateau in northern Malawi have taken similar refuge in European imagery. Opening the visitors' book on my husband's and my first visit to the plateau's Chilinda Camp in 1982, I found it crammed with ecstatic snatches of poetry including, bizarrely, "Nobly, nobly Cape St Vincent..."

The source of all this hyperbole is the highest and biggest plateau in central Africa: up to 1,400 square miles of billowing, lioncoloured, grassland, shouldering up to 8,000 ft between Lake Malawi and Zambia's Luangwa Valley; its valleys patched with evergreen montane forest and, lower, brachystegia woodland. The Nyika Plateau has to be one of the most sumptuously beautiful places on earth.

South of the lake, Mvuu Wilderness Lodge and Camp in Liwonde National Park proves that Malawi can lay on for international visitors safari experience of a recognisably upmarket sort. But conventional the Nyika ain`t and while animals dominate the must-see lists of most tourists to Central Africa, its visitor levels have remained low.

This could all change. In September, with the signing of an agreement between Malawi and Zambia, the Nyika and adjoining Vwaza Marsh entered a new era as one of the trans-frontler conservation areas (TFCA) targeted by the Peace Parks Foundation. Existing TFCAs in southern Africa have been lavishly funded with the aim of promoting peace, conservation and tourism through national boundary-spanning game reserves.

In fact, says David Foot of the Nyika Safari Company, the plateau's Importance is underpinned by one of the highest biodlversltles anywhere in Africa. Having spent a New Year here, I can vouch for the fields of wild iris, the delphiniums and the flickering, flame-coloured points of gladioli which stretch like - yes, dash it likea fine ancient tapestry across the hills during the November-January rainy season. Thirty endemic plants flourish among 2,500 recorded species, 200 of them orchids. Even in bleak July, with ice on the morning puddles, we found aloes and helichrysums (everlastings) painting streaks of subtle colour among the rocks.

Whoops of joy from Jalawe peak heralded David`s first sighting in 10 years of a rare black eagle. Our drive had produced several Malawi bird specials; red-winged francolln scuttling along the track, mountain marsh widows trailing black streamers in the sunshine and a mountain cisticola squeaking like a wheelbarrow.

November, the best birding month, offers ornithologists the chance of twitching no fewer than 420 different species. Among the zebras, bushbuck and reedbuck, we saw antelopes uncommon in other African parks, Including roan and eland, their powerful outlines like cave drawings come to life.

While the old self-catering chalets and camp at Chilinda remain, recognition that tourism could do more to help conserve this remote, vulnerable and .uniquely special place has come in the shape of a new lodge, part of an $8m (£4.3m) project financed by the German Development Bank. The feel is Tyrolean hunting chalet, rough-hewn and pinescented. Can life in a cold climate hold any greater luxury than going to sleep by the light of an open fire and waking to hear it being discreetly conjured back Into action? It can: being airtaxied to the Nyika or Vwaza Marsh In the lodge`s own flve-seater Cessna.

Less comfortable for tourists even in remote northern Malawi, is evidence of the conflict between human and animal Interests. On the Nyika, van der Post`s heraldic beasts are under increasing pressure from the rap
idly expanding, often dispossessed human populace on its boundaries - as confiscated bows and homemade rifles displayed at Chilinda demonstrate. In Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, three hours` drive southwest, the sight of villagers setting fish traps and a young kudu wandering past with the remains of a snare around her neck pointed the same way.

Elephants are the big deal at Vwaza's Kazuni Safari Camp: elephant company for breakfast lunch and dinner; elephants Inches from one`s brick and reed hut; elephants practically sharing the shaving mirror. Vasco Munthali, the guide in charge at Kazuni, told us that recently two elderly German ladies, unnerved by the appearance of a large tusker between themselves and dinner, had dived Into the nearest chalet, to be confronted by the equally daunting spectacle of the deputy president in his bath towel.

Sitting in the camp`s lakeside dining area, we watched mesmerised as two separate herds passed only feet away, the infants hedged within a forest of aunt-ish legs. Each cavalcade paused while the young took time out, rolling in the dust and cuffing each other like puppies. At night, silent shapes loomed round the camp fire, briefly blotting out the stars.

On a dawn walk, Vasco, a bird man, pieced together the orchestral backing that summoned up the morning: the pouring-water song of a Senegal coucal, the murmur of turtle doves, the flatbattery call of an orangebreasted bush shrike. In the foreground, bigger players held the stage: impala standing watchfully in the dappled shade; baboons crossing a stream; a pod of hippos sleeping off Its night of ploddings and pshawlngs around the camp.

Heading the Nyika Vwasa Trust`s conservation drive, David Foot cannot afford the luxury of van der Pos's conclusion that "without human interference" this place had somehow "struck its ownbalance with necessity and nature" but is nevertheless keeping his fingers crossed: "I feel we are turning the corner."

Financial TimesJuliet Clough

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