You can travel around Malawi by air, road, rail or boat. Compared to other countries in the region, distances between major centres are quite short, and generally roads and public-transport systems are functional, making independent travel fairly straightforward.
Airlines in Malawi
Malawian Airlines The national carrier operates daily flights between Lilongwe and Blantyre (US$50, one hour), a good alternative to the bus. Its booking system isn't always reliable, so it's worth confirming your flight by phone or at an office.
Ulendo Airlink The aviation wing of Ulendo Travel Group operates scheduled and charter flights on safe twin-prop planes to locations including Likoma Island and all the major wildlife parks. Check the 'bid to fly' section of Ulendo Airlink's website for discounted seats on upcoming flights.
Mountain bikes are available for hire at many lodges throughout Malawi at a cost of around US$10 per day. Guided bike rides are also offered in the parks and reserves.
Cycling around Southern Africa is a popular way of experiencing the region, but it involves some risk given the state of the roads and Malawian motorists. You will have to be fairly self-sufficient with parts and equipment.
The Ilala ferry chugs passengers and cargo up and down Lake Malawi once a week in each direction. Travelling between Monkey Bay in the south and Chilumba in the north, it makes nine stops at lakeside villages and towns in between, as well as at Likoma and Chizumulu Islands. Many travellers rate this journey (or a leg of it) as a highlight of the country, although there are occasionally nasty storms. If you’re unlucky, be prepared for some pitching and rolling. The boat dates to 1949 and is certainly no cruise liner, so it's better to regard it as a practical method of getting from A to B than an experience in itself.
When the Ilala stops at lakeside towns or villages, the water is too shallow for it to come close; the lifeboat is used to ferry passengers ashore. In both directions, the ferry docks at Nkhata Bay for seven hours and traders come aboard, selling food, drinks and newspapers.
The whole trip, from one end of the line to the other, takes about three days. The official schedules are detailed in the table below, although note that the Ilala often runs late and timetables do change. You can normally download the latest schedules from Malawi Tourism.
|Monkey Bay||–||8am (Fri)|
|Makanjila||10am (Fri)||11am (Fri)|
|Senga Bay||1pm (Fri)||2pm (Fri)|
|Chipoka||4.30pm (Fri)||5.30pm (Fri)|
|Nkhotakota||4am (Sat)||7am (Sat)|
|Likoma Island||2pm (Sat)||5pm (Sat)|
|Chizumulu Island||6.30pm (Sat)||8.30pm (Sat)|
|Nkhata Bay||12.30am (Sun)||7am (Sun)|
|Usisya||10am (Sun)||10.30am (Sun)|
|Ruarwe||11.30am (Sun)||noon (Sun)|
|Tcharo||1pm (Sun)||1.30pm (Sun)|
|Mlowe||3pm (Sun)||3.30pm (Sun)|
|Mlowe||5am (Mon)||5.30am (Mon)|
|Tcharo||7am (Mon)||7.30am (Mon)|
|Ruarwe||8.30am (Mon)||9am (Mon)|
|Usisya||10am (Mon)||10.30am (Mon)|
|Nkhata Bay||1.30pm (Mon)||8pm (Mon)|
|Chizumulu Island||12.10am (Tue)||2am (Tue)|
|Likoma Island||3.30am (Tue)||8am (Tue)|
|Nkhotakota||3pm (Tue)||5pm (Tue)|
|Chipoka||3am (Wed)||4am (Wed)|
|Senga Bay||6.30am (Wed)||7.30am (Wed)|
|Makanjila||9.30am (Wed)||10.30am (Wed)|
|Monkey Bay||12.30pm (Wed)|
Classes & Reservations
The classes are the exclusive Owner's Cabin, Standard Cabin, Upper Deck, Second and Economy. The standard cabins were once luxurious, and are still in reasonable condition. This class and the upper deck are popular with travellers, due largely to the sociable bar. There are also seats, a shaded area and mattresses for hire on the upper deck. Second and Economy classes are not recommended; the latter covers the entire lower deck and is dark and crowded, with engine fumes permeating from below.
Cabin and Upper Deck class passengers can dine in the ferry’s restaurant, which serves beef curry, peri-peri chicken and the like. Dishes such as beans, rice and vegetables are served from a galley on the economy deck.
Reservations are usually required for Cabin class, and are recommended to ensure a comfortable journey.
Sample Routes & Fares
The following are sample fares from Nkhata Bay.
|Destination||Owner's Cabin||Standard Cabin||Upper Deck||2nd||Economy|
A newer ferry, the Chilembwe, sometimes replaces the Ilala. It was out of action at the time of writing but expected to be back on the lake by mid-2017. The Chilembwe follows a similar timetable to the Ilala and stops in the same places (apart from Senga Bay) but is faster.
Malawi’s best bus company is AXA Coach Service, with three classes of vehicle: Super Executive, Executive and Special. The former is a luxury nonstop service with air-con, toilet, comfortable reclining seats, USB ports, reading lights, good drivers, snacks, fresh coffee and even an on-board magazine. Services operate between Blantyre and Lilongwe twice a day, leaving every morning and afternoon from special departure points in each city (not the main bus stations).
The Executive and Special services are the next in line. These buses have air-con and reclining seats as well as TVs, but they don’t have toilets. They ply the route between Blantyre and Karonga via Lilongwe and Mzuzu daily, serving the main towns, with limited stops elsewhere.
Other smaller bus companies, including the National Bus Company, have daily services up and down the lake and between the country's main centres. These are marginally more comfortable than minibuses, but no more efficient, and they generally cost the same.
Minibuses are the most popular option because they leave regularly throughout the day. They operate on a fill-up-and-go basis; you can speed up the process, and buy yourself some comfort, by purchasing two seats. Direct long-distance minibuses are becoming less common; you will likely have to change once or twice on a long-distance journey up the lakeshore or M1. You can still buy a long-distance ticket – the driver should transfer your fare to the connecting service – but it is wiser to only pay as far as the place where you will change minibuses.
In rural areas, the frequency of buses and minibuses drops dramatically – sometimes to nothing. In cases like this, the ‘bus’ is often a truck or pickup, with people just piled in the back. In Malawi this is called a matola.
You can buy tickets in advance for AXA services, all of which have set departure times, and doing so is recommended. AXA has offices and agents at the main bus stations and departure points, or you can buy tickets at branches of Post Dot Net (post, internet and business centres found in Malawi’s major towns). A week’s notice is sometimes needed for the Super Executive coach, particularly for Friday and Sunday services.
Car & Motorcycle
The majority of main routes are sealed, though off the main routes roads are rutted and potholed, making driving slow and dangerous. Secondary roads are usually graded dirt. Some are well maintained and easy to drive on in a normal car; others are bad, especially after rain, and slow even with a 4WD. Rural routes are not so good, and after heavy rain are often impassable. Several lodges along the lakeshore have poor access roads that need a 4WD. The same goes for the country’s national parks and wildlife reserves.
You need a full driving licence (an international driving licence is not necessary), and are normally required to be at least 23 years old and have two years’ driving experience.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Petrol costs around MK800 per litre (about MK40,000 per tank), diesel around MK770. Supplies are often limited, so always keep your tank no lower than half full (how's that for optimism!). Spare parts are available in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu. At petrol stations, wait for the attendant to fill your car, and give a small tip.
Most car-hire companies are based in Blantyre and Lilongwe and can arrange pickup, drop-off deals. International names include Avis and Budget, and there are many independent outfits. Check the tyres and spare: bald tread and holes are common. In fact, check the entire car carefully, as vehicles from independent companies are often in bad condition due to the roads and poor maintenance. It is well worth scheduling a day around Lilongwe or Blantyre with the vehicle, or not travelling too far initially, so you can troubleshoot any issues that arise.
With independent companies, self-drive rates for a small car with unlimited mileage, or a high daily mileage of around 150km, start at around US$65 per day. For a basic 4WD such as a Suzuki Jimny, you’re looking at around US$95 per day; for a proper 4WD, around US$150. Charges come down for over two weeks' rental. If you're procrastinating over a 2WD or 4WD, spend the extra cash because a sturdy vehicle with good clearance will remove a lot of the stress from driving Malawi's poor roads. It may even save you money in the long run, as you will be less likely to damage the vehicle in a monster pothole.
To the above charges add the 16.5% government tax, the 1% tourism levy plus a fee of about 5% for using a credit card. Some companies include the first two charges in the price, along with compulsory third-party insurance. Fully comprehensive insurance is available, but it will likely cost a few hundred dollars, so check what insurance will be provided by your credit-card company.
Also, most companies will quote you in dollars, but if you pay by card they’ll have to exchange this into kwacha first – at an unfavourable rate. The only way around this is to take a briefcase of US dollars. The company will of course block off a security deposit on your card.
If you’d rather not drive yourself, most companies will arrange a driver for between US$50 and US$100 a day. Privately hiring a taxi would likely work out cheaper.
Despite most vehicles being crisscrossed with dents and scratches, you will have to sign the standard form with defects marked. When returning the car, the staff will certainly look the car over, but they don't tend to be too draconian. If you do have to replace a part or fix an issue that you caused, the independent companies will likely give you a quote, get the part replaced and the problem solved, and give you the mechanic's receipt. This will happen quickly (in Lilongwe and Blantyre), but the drawback is that your insurer is unlikely to reimburse you without paperwork from the car company. If the bill is steep, try to get the job done through the hire company, so you end up with the right paperwork for making an insurance claim.
Third-party insurance is a requirement for all drivers, but this can be arranged through car-hire companies or purchased at border crossings.
Malawians drive on the left. Seat belts are compulsory. Speed limits are 80km/h on main roads and 60km/h in built-up areas. Try to stick to these limits: MK10,000 speeding fines are common.
Police roadblocks are found at the entrance to major towns and cities. The officers will often wave you on, but sometimes they will check your car's licence discs on the front window, your driving licence and the contents of your boot.
The roads are generally in poor condition, so leave plenty of time for journeys and drive below the speed limit. Crowds of pedestrians and cyclists are common at the roadside: always get off the road before sunset.
You can often share a taxi instead of waiting for the minibus to depart – a safer, more comfortable and faster option. Better still, inquire at your accommodation about the possibility of privately hiring a taxi with another traveller or expat; sharing the charge makes this an affordable and recommended option for long journeys.
If you don't want to drive in Malawi, privately hiring a taxi will likely work out cheaper than renting a car with a driver. You will have to pay a sum including accommodation and food for the driver, but this will often be a small addition that the driver will pocket (they'll sleep in the car). Taking a taxi removes the stress of driving and gives you an unofficial guide and interpreter, but travelling by aged sedan will limit you to the main roads.
Central Eastern African Railways operates the following services. The trains are slow and unreliable, so buses and minibuses are a better option. The following journeys cost MK2100 in business class.
Limbe–Balaka via Blantyre (11½ hours) Departs 7am Wednesday, returns 6am Friday.
Balaka–Nayuchi via Liwonde (six hours) Departs 6am Thursday, returns 1.30pm.
Limbe–Makhanga (9¾ hours) Departs 9am Saturday, returns 7am Sunday.