Malawi’s coach system is pretty dependable and covers all the major routes, but to get to some off-the-beaten-track locations in this beautiful country and to explore the wildlife parks at leisure, you’ll want to organize your own road trip.

From day outings to multi-day epic adventurers, these are the best road trips in Malawi, covering the country from the wide Shire River in the south to the zigzag route to Livingstonia in the north.

Driving down the Thyolo Escarpment

Best road trip for wildlife

Blantyre–Majete; 70km (43.5 miles)

It’s hard to describe the grandeur of the views as you descend the high Thyolo Escarpment, heading ever downwards to the sweltering Shire River valley. This southernmost tip of the country is surrounded by Mozambique and cut through by the wide and looping Shire, whose waters shelter hippos and crocodiles. In the distance, you’ll see the hills of the Majete Wildlife Reserve, your destination on this drive.

It's worth staying at least a couple of days in Majete, either camping or in one of the lodges. A car affords you the luxury of nature drives: the revived park features all the Big Five animals, as well as birds and other wildlife in abundance. Ask at your accommodations for detailed guidance on driving protocol. If you round a corner and chance upon a herd of elephants, especially if they have young, it’s best to reverse away as slowly and unobtrusively as possible.

Elephant calf on the road with car in the background in Malawi's Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.
Keep a safe distance from wildlife that you encounter on a road trip in Malawi © Maximum Exposure PR / Shutterstock

Conquering Livingstonia’s hairpin bends

Best road trip for daredevils

Chitimba–Livingstonia; 15km (9.3 miles)

The near impossible zigzag of dirt road leading from the shores of Lake Malawi up the high escarpment to Livingstonia has been described as the most exciting road in Africa. More than 20 hairpin bends lead up though the thick Brachystegia woodland, with occasional dizzying views back to the lake.

At the top, you’ll find a cluster of excellent escarpment-edge lodges, including Mushroom Farm and Lukwe Eco-Camp. If you’re not ready to stop, press on for another 6km (blessedly flat) to the historic settlement of Livingstonia, which has colonial buildings including a church and the Stone House constructed by early Scottish missionaries.

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Exploring Malawian culture, pottery and rock art

Best road trip for art lovers

Lilongwe–Lilongwe; 320km (199 miles)

This scenic four-day itinerary leads from the capital Lilongwe to the pottery town of Dedza where you can stay overnight at the renowned Dedza Pottery Lodge and have a go at pot-making yourself or buy some of the beautiful products. In the morning, head east to see the mesmerizing ancient rock art at remote Chingoni, with an overnight stay at Kazela Forestry Resthouse – or stay a second night at Dedza.

Continue your cultural travels by heading east to the KuNgoni Centre of Art and Culture, a hub of woodworking that also holds an impressive collection of Chewa masks. You can stay at Namalikhate Lodge at the center, which has a restaurant decorated with masks and wood carvings. Back at Dedza, take the M1 north to return to Lilongwe.

A motor cyclist carrying a load of vegetation on the back of a motor bike to move it to their homestead as feeding for livestock
Wide load ahead: you'll encounter overloaded cyclists and motorcycles on the road © iStock Unreleased / Getty Images

Zomba Plateau

Best road trip for foodies

Zomba–Zomba Forest Lodge; 10km (6.2 miles)

Fabled for its walks and its sweeping views, Zomba Plateau is a magnet for hikers who are looking for a wilderness feel that’s less of a challenge than Mt Mulanje. The most attractive accommodation option is Zomba Forest Lodge, a remote off-grid resthouse that lies to the west of the main cluster of plateau buildings. The dirt track leading to the lodge from Zomba town twists and turns as you drive ever higher, enjoying ever more spectacular views down the plateau and across the plains below. Drivers can find detailed instructions about how to get here safely. 

Once there, you can relax in this sociable yet secluded place with its troop of samango monkeys and devour the wonderful food. Everything here is homemade, from breakfast muffins and muesli in the morning to salads and pastries served for lunch in the idyllic forest-wreathed garden to berry-infused sundowner gin.

Dinner might start with forest mushroom soup followed by coconut-stuffed chicken with fragrant rice, chutneys, seasonal salads and an indulgent dessert. All diets are catered for, and the abundance of local fruit and vegetables makes it a good option for vegetarians and vegans.

The owners will fill you in on impressive local efforts to reforest the plateau. Be sure to book in advance.

A scenic view of field and mountains against sky in Malawi
Renting a car with a driver will give you additional insights into Malawi © Jason Grunsta / Getty Images

Ntchisi Forest Reserve

Best road trip for nature lovers

Lilongwe–Ntchisi; 116km (72 miles)

Within easy weekending distance of the capital Lilongwe, Ntchisi is a montane forest reserve, with small scattered villages and wildlife including duiker, porcupines, bushpig, hyena and leopard. It’s also a wonderful place for birders, with sunbirds, canaries and greenbuls darting through the liana-knotted trees. The drive here is a steep and challenging but deeply beautiful one, leading to a long low building, a 1914 colonial house that is now the Ntchisi Forest Lodge. It’s a great place to stay for a few days and enjoy hikes and the enveloping natural beauty.

Tips for driving in Malawi

Compared with other African countries, Malawi is a reasonable place to drive, with a decent road network and vehicles that are in fairly good condition. That said, people drive at speed here, and accidents are all too common. Driving at night should definitely be avoided because street lights are few and far between, and people, animals and bicycles often stray into the roads.

One enjoyable – though obviously more expensive – alternative to driving yourself is to rent a car with a driver. Trained drivers will guide you round the sights and give rich insights on their country. This is especially recommended if you’re driving in a wildlife park. It takes nerves of steel to back out of an elephant encounter slowly and calmly. Within the parks, and on routes such as the drive to Nyika, a 4x4 is highly recommended, especially during the rainy season.

Car rental is pricey in Malawi, so think about a car share with fellow travelers, both to reduce your impact on the environment and to share costs.

The speed limit is 80km/h (50mph) and 50km/h (30mph) in the towns. Driving is on the left. The M1 motorway is the backbone of the road system, cutting through Malawi from north to south.

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