Low traffic on the ragged dusty roads that links Malawiâ€™s attractions to the main highways could be a hint of how deserted tourism establishments can be.
Sometimes, poor transport facilities conspire with unreliable power supply to stunt the industry earmarked to replace tobacco as the major source of forex.
Amid such dilemma, it is easy to miss the scenic attractions that lie in its bosom. But the sweltering Shire Valley district, situated an hourâ€™s drive from Blantyre, the commercial city, is a serene home to two sprawling safari sites that do not only embody an inviting diversity of wildlife, but also this yearâ€™s World Tourism Day theme: Tourism and Sustainable Energy: Powering Sustainable Development.
First, there is Majete Game Reserve, a newly restocked haven of the big fiveâ€”lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffaloesâ€”plus 30 other species. Second, Lengwe National Park boasts being the conservation area of nyala, a browsing species which are exclusively found in southern Africa.
â€œA nice bush break, a different experience but enjoyable,â€ reads one of farewell notes which aptly sums up the impression of many if the visitorsâ€™ books at Majete are anything to go by.
Of course, it is not unusual for sightseers to be so fascinated. A short excursion to Thawale Lodge in the gem in the jungle gives adventure-seekers rare encounters with some of the estimated 4 000 animals that roam the game reserve.
The lodge, run by African Parks, has special designs to conserve energy while giving tourists uncurbed views of the scenic surroundings and prowling animals: warthogs, antelopes, duikers, birds, hippos and crocodiles, among others.
At Thawale, meals are served in a beautiful grass-thatched bamboo restaurant-cum-bar with a birding veranda overlooking a waterhole that attracts various animals, including elephants. Nearby are eight chalets, all en-suite and with their front made of fine mesh the size of a mosquito net.
â€œThe grass thatch insulates the room from the harsh heat typical of the area, thereby eliminating the need for air conditioners,â€ explains African Parks tourism manager Anissi Hamdani, saying the cost of cooling would be higher than they presently incur.
Likewise, the mesh on the chalets ensures natural lighting and ventilationâ€”restricting electric bulbs to night times alone, she says. By cutting back on lighting and air conditioning, the lodge has lessened the pressure tourism establishments exert on Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawiâ€™s (Escom) hydropower.
Unreliable power supply, manifested by frequent blackouts, hinders business growth in the country and contributes to rising prices, operational costs as well as apathy in the tourism sector.
Whereas Thawaleâ€™s architecture constitutes a model of conserving energy efficiency, Robin Pope Safariâ€™s Nkulumadzi Ecolodge, situated about 13km from the entrance, is a beacon of renewable energy and efficiency.
Tucked between Nkulumadzi and Shire rivers, the lodge had two optionsâ€”motorised generators which would pollute serene environments as Majete with carbon emissions or hydropower which distorts the face of tourism sitesâ€”but the sight of solar panels outside its buildings mirrors their insistence on environmental-friendly innovations.
To lodge manager Chris Kilner, whining about lack of access to Escom power in a country endowed with relentless sun is like thirsting while standing in water.
â€œThe cost of bringing Escom power is enormous. Bringing mains into the game reserve would be detrimental to the animals. We have to dig trenches and bury the cables all the way, for tourists donâ€™t come to see electricity poles, but animals,â€ says Kilner.
Interestingly, his lodge has open sides directly facing the blissfully hissing Shire. Through this mega-window a person sitting on a bed can watch zebras, bush bucks, buffaloes and baboons on the riverbanksâ€”apart from enjoying fresh air and light.
The rooms also contain solar-powered energy-saver bulbs and air conditioners for visitorsâ€™ convenience at night. The air conditioners save 60 percent of the energy ordinary ventilators need and they are installed in the headboard to pour the cool air on the bed alone. The vegetation on the rooftop provides a home to animals displaced by the building as well as cooling the rooms.
â€œThe rooms are self-contained and we rely on solar energy for geyser, refrigeration, heating, lighting, cooling, ironingâ€”nearly everything. The sun is always with us. Ours is only a way of using energy which is not being used in the country,â€ says Kilner.
He reckons there is need to improve roads and to market the countryâ€™s safari destination as much as to adopt sustainable energy options and efficient use of power.
In this regard, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture is erecting a solar-powered fence to reduce conflicts between human beings and fauna at Lengwe National Park.
Locals say wild animals used to terrorise their homes, crops and livestock, but the 20 km of electric fencing has helped to restore boundaries at a time rapid population growth is fuelling encroachment and poaching in protected areas.
Division manager for Lower Shire protected areas William Mgoola estimated the cost of fencing at K3 million per kilometre. He lamented that some community members were vandalising the bonnox wire although it also protects their livestock from buffaloes which carry foot and mouth disease that made meat scarce in Blantyre last year.
Nonetheless, regional tourism officer Noah Nansongole feels both Lengwe and Majete highlight the role of tourism destinations in bolstering access to efficient and affordable energy options for development.