On a stunning plateau in Rumphi West sits Nyika National Park, the country’s largest game haven.
In the 3 200 square-kilometre tourist attraction with a fair mix of grasslands and woodland, zebra, roan antelopes, elands, bush pigs and birds come into view.
It is breathtaking, what with its rolling hills decked with picturesque wild flowers; rocky outcrops; leafy forests; and dramatic cloud formations on the horizon.
But to get to this beauty, travellers face bumpy rides on a neglected, deeply gullied earth road.
The 60-kilometre road from Rumphi Boma to Thazima, the gateway to Nyika National Park, has been subject of many broken promises.
It splits woodlands teeming with birdlife and elephants, taking adventurers to Chilinda Camp almost 60km within the park.
“The road is only passable with a four-wheel-drive vehicle,” says Nyika National Park manager Peter Wadi.
During rainy seasons, most vehicles stick in mud.
This scares away tourists who are increasingly aware of the hustles they have to endure when it rains.
“This affects our our tourism business. The number of tourists visiting the park dwindles during rainy seasons,” says Wadi, who also serves as parks and wildlife division manager in the North.
Nyika National Park receives up to 3 000 tourists annually, he says.
The majority of them are foreign nationals.
“The figures would triple if the road was upgraded into a tarmac,” he states.
The rugged stretch is part of the 272km Rumphi-Nyika-Chitipa Road, a lifeline to Lake Kazuni and Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve as well.
Upgrading the road would also open up Hewe and Mwazisi food baskets in Rumphi West and Nthalire Rural Growth Centre in Chitipa.
The locals say it would ease transportation of farm produce, including tobacco, maize and potatoes to Rumphi Boma, Mzuzu and other lucrative markets.
Nthalire resident Crosbel Chilongo says the poor road network affects livelihoods and slows development of the cut-off community, almost 115km from Chitipa Boma.
“We find it difficult to transport our commodities because vehicles travel once a week here due to poor roads,” he says.
Recently, President Peter Mutharika acknowledged the centrality of the road close to the border between Malawi and Zambia.
“As most of us know, Nyika National Park is rated in the top ten of the most beautiful places in Africa. The road from Rumphi to Nthalire and Chitipa via the national park should make this park more accessible to the world,” he said in his State of the Nation Address.
But it remains a rumble in the jungle.
According to the Roads Authority (RA) spokesperson Portia Kajanga, government has contracted Mota Engil to upgrade the Rumphi-Hewe section to bitumen standards.
Construction works will begin and run this month in phases, she tells The Nation.
“In the first phase, the road will be done from Chikwawa to Bolero to Chitanga—a distance of about 20 Km. The contract sum for this initial distance is K5.1 billion, all from Malawi government. Works will be done for a period of 18 months,” she explains.
Besides, RA is upgrading the nine-kilometre Rumphi-Chikwawa section under what Kajanga termed “a low-volume sealed road technique”.
“The new construction contract will start from Chikwawa,” she says, adding RA has awarded another contract for grading of the road from Chitanga through Thazima Gate to Chelinda Camp within Nyika National Park.
However, travellers have raised concern over shoddy works on the newly upgraded nine-kilometre stretch.
But Kajanga says the contractors are liable to rectify defects that appear on the road within a year after the completion of the works.
RA withholds five percent of the contract sum which will only be released when the liability period expires.
Despite the long-awaited road upgrade, Nyika remains one of the go-to places in the country.
Recently, CNN Travel ranked Malawi one of the “five great places to visit” this month when the weather in United States of America and the rest of the northern hemisphere becomes warmer.
Other recommended destinations on the list include Lake Malawi, Mulanje Mountain, Majete Wildlife Reserve and Cape Maclear.
Quoting such lists, Mutharika pledges: “We will continue providing infrastructure such as access roads to more facilities to attract more tourists.”
Both locals and tourists on the way to Nyika National Park have heard this promise for years. They can only hope it is not another campaign promise as next year’s elections edge closer.
To them, the President’s call for the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism to “create more global networks that sell Malawi to the world” is nothing without poor access roads to the top tourist attractions. n