Getting around Malawi is easy compared with many other African countries. Malawi has a good coach network that connects all the main settlements, roads are in reasonable condition and cars are generally roadworthy.
The motola minibus system is affordable, but traveling this way can be a cause of frustration because the minibuses won’t leave until they are (unsafely) packed to the max with passengers. Visitors to Lake Malawi should consider traveling by ferry – the antique MV Ilala – rather than driving. Though the timetable is loose at best, it’s a romantic and scenic way to explore the lake.
In the capital of Lilongwe, you will probably depend on taxis because the city’s sprawling layout isn’t conducive to walking. Blantyre is more walkable but choked with traffic, while the leafy avenues of Zomba are a pleasure to explore on foot.
Anyone considering a visit to a national park will either have to rent a 4x4 vehicle or hire a driver. The roads can be rough in remote places such as Nyika, and the rains make dirt tracks difficult to navigate.
Take the ferry on Lake Malawi for a memorable experience
The MV Ilala has been plowing up and down Lake Malawi for 60 years and offers a unique perspective on this gorgeous body of water. The leisurely schedule takes it up and down the lake once a week in each direction, from Monkey Bay in the south to Chilumba in the north. It’s not a luxurious experience, but it is a deeply characterful one, especially if you can splash out on a cabin. Drinks, snacks and meals are available onboard.
Malawi has a good coach network between regions
Malawi is crisscrossed by a dependable and competitive coach network. It can be a sociable way to travel: you can chat to fellow passengers and get a panoramic view of the beautiful passing countryside. The main contenders are Axa and SoSoSo: both play music videos at high volume, so take earplugs if you’d like to get some shut-eye.
Drawbacks to taking a motola (minibus) in Malawi
Crammed motola buses certainly bring you into close proximity with Malawian people, but it can be a rather dour – and dangerous – experience. Yes it is a super-cheap mode of transport, but you often wait for hours for the bus to fill, and conductors shoehorn in way more passengers than is safe. Plus it’s often hard to see anything out of the windows because of overcrowding.
Top tips for driving in Malawi
Unless you’re a confident driver, you’re likely to find renting a car in Malawi a stressful way to travel. Fellow drivers travel at speed and with cavalier overtaking maneuvers, and sadly road traffic accidents are common here.
There is little in the way of road lighting, making night driving particularly hazardous. The speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), 50km/h (30mph) in the towns, and driving is on the left.
If you visit any of Malawi’s national parks for wildlife viewing, you will be doing a lot of driving on dirt roads. During the dry season, these can become rutted and skiddy, so a 4x4 is recommended. When it rains, the soil can become sticky, and smaller cars are likely to become stuck.
Car rental is relatively expensive in Malawi, so consider a car share with fellow travelers to reduce your impact on the environment and to share costs.
If you’d like to visit out-of-the-way areas and national parks, you can take a lot of the stress out of your trip by hiring an experienced driver, who may also have guiding skills to point out wildlife and give interesting background on the country.
Catching a taxi
Taxis are ubiquitous in the cities, and fares are generally reasonable. You may want to establish a fare before you take a ride, but inflated fares aren’t a big issue in Malawi.
Airlines that travel in Malawi
Malawi Airlines travels between Lilongwe and Blantyre, while Ulendo Airlink offers private charters from Lilongwe. Needless to say, flying is the least climate-friendly way of exploring Malawi.
Riding a bicycle in Malawi
Traveling long distances in Malawi by bicycle is only for the fit and well-equipped, and passing cars are a hazard on major roads. That said, most Malawians travel by bike rather than car, and you are likely to enjoy friendly encounters with fellow cyclists. Get some good maps and then take to the back roads for an adventure. Bikes can be transported intercity on the roof of a coach or minibus.
Most lodges rent out bikes for local exploration, and cycling with a local guide can be a fun way to explore rural areas.
Can I travel by train in Malawi?
Malawi has a limited train service that operates between Limbe and Blantyre, Balaka and Nayuchi via Liwonde, and Limbe and Makhanga. Trains are overcrowded and in poor condition, so it’s not a recommended way to get around.
Accessible transportation in Malawi
Malawi is not an easy country for travelers with disabilities, and no special provisions are made for wheelchairs. The best option, though not a cheap one, is to hire a dedicated driver with a car that has space for a wheelchair.
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