Guest Post: Malawi hitchhiking essentials
Advantages of hitchhiking in Malawi
Like Zambia, Malawi is one of the friendliest places I’ve encountered. Known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ it lives up to its name. It’s the most densely populated country in Africa and there isn’t a road empty of people walking, riding bikes or herding cattle. The folks on the road are more than willing to help you and even go out of their way to drop you off at a better hiking place. They’ll give you tips on what to look out for or even ask someone local where they drop you off to help you out.
I took a truck that broke down and then hitched a ride north where I was dropped in the village of Sani on the outskirts of Nkhotakhota. I was invited to ‘chat’ with a group of men (‘chatting’ means drinking and smoking). What I thought would be an hour’s break from hitching turned to me being drunk, high, playing guitar and staying the night at my new friend’s place (where I encountered my first Black Mamba).
Disadvantages of hitchhiking in Malawi
Depending on the time of year you go, the weather is divided into two seasons – wet and dry. The wet season starts from about November and lasts until around April. The rains are monsoon and I got caught out a couple of times. Malawi is also intensely hot. It’s so hot it’s offensive.
The main areas of hitching are always overloaded with buses and vehicles taking passengers. ‘Transportation officers’ will try to hustle you into waiting cars so most of the time you’ll need to hike out of the town to hitch. Shade is a rarity.
Luckily, Malawi is a small country and towns (aside from Mzuzu, Lilongwe and Blantyre) are easily walkable. Distances vary, pending on where you want to go. During the rainy season, most roads become impassable so keep your ears to the news (I left Malawi mid-January when a national state of crisis was declared due to heavy flooding in the south. 60,000 people were displaced, roads and villages were washed away, about 48 people went missing).
Almost all drivers ask for money so either you’ll have to negotiate or convince them to take you without money. If you do get a ride, you might be crammed into a car that is overloaded with baggage and people. And it’s not uncommon to sit in the back of a pick-up truck (I caught a ride on a bakkie – a pick-up truck – that began with 8 people and ended with 21).Pack waterproof clothing and a splash guard for your bag (large plastic bin liners also do the trick).
A lot taxis and buses will stop beside you, mostly already overloaded with people and cargo and take up valuable hitching time to talk with you as potential rides zip by.
Most hitching places are packed with local people waiting for rides who’ll pounce on a vehicle even if it’s obvious it stopped for you. Mannerisms go out the window and they’ll talk with the driver as though you don’t even exist.
If you have Mastercard, get a Visa. Mastercard isn’t recognised in Malawi and will be impossible to draw money from any ATM. Most places deal in cash-only so either come with cash to convert or hope your visa works.
Police are corrupt. Most bribes are in the form of soft drinks or food but cash won’t be denied.
Types of roads
There are 15,451 km of roads in Malawi, of which only 6,959 km is paved. There are 4 major classifications of roads in the country but on maps generally only 3 are displayed. A road’s classifications may not accurately reflect actual driving conditions. Road conditions may vary considerably in different sections of a road. Generally, roads are busy in Malawi. The country is densely populated with most residents living in urban areas.
Surprisingly, even though Malawi is one of Africa’s financially poorer countries, its roads are much better than Zambia’s (a fast-growing economic powerhouse in Africa). Except when the monsoon hits and washes away the roads. Shoulder lanes are non-existent and there are always cattle, goats, chickens, dogs and children. Drivers have to zig and zag to avoid them (I was on a truck to the Tanzanian border and we had to swerve to miss a cow, almost hitting the people on the roadside).
I got to drive from Cape Maclear to Blantyre and I was constantly on the lookout for animals and kids. Goats bleat away at the sound of the horn, chickens get confused and cows can be stubborn. Remember, animals are people’s livelihoods. You hit one, pull over and do the right thing and pay the owner (just make sure it is in fact the owner and not some passer-by trying to make a buck).
On your way to Livingstonia is a very windy road with a beautiful view of the lake. Baboons congregate there having learnt that cars equal food. Baboons are highly aggressive (they have longer canines than lions).
① Main Roads (M) connect the major settlements in the country and are generally in good condition. A useful road is the M 1, Malawi’s main north south road. The speed limit on all Main roads in 80 km/h
② Secondary Roads (S) supplant the Main road network and conditions vary depending on the stretch. Like all speed limits in Malawi in depends if the road is urban (50 km/h) or rural (80 km/h)
③ Tertiary roads (T) are generally in poor condition and often impassable in the rainy season when over half of the residents are cut off from the national road network
④ District roads (D) are indicated as Tertiary roads (T) on maps and are seldom paved. Many are impassable in the rainy season.
There are two general speed limits in Malawi
o Urban areas 50 km/h
o Rural areas 80 km/h
Road map of Malawi
Absolutely essential hitch-hikers phrasebook
English is the official language of Malawi, so in theory communication shouldn’t be a problem. Irrespectively, knowing a few words of the largest spoken indigenous language, in this case Chichewe, is always much appreciated.
So try and slip in the following:
Bobo or Wah-wah – Hello (seriously. My new favourite word for ‘hello’).
UliBwanji? – How are you?
BwinoBwanji – I’m good.
Mayuka – Good morning
ZikhomoKhombini – Thank you very much.
Malawi Border Crossings
Malawi neighbours 3 different countries: Tanzania (to the north), Mozambique (south & east) and Zambia (west). Malawi’s border crossings are generally open 6:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. Waits may be long at border crossings on main transport corridors.
Malawi – Tanzania
There are one border crossings between Malawi & Tanzania
- The only border crossing is the Songwe River Bridge, located in northwest Malawi. The river forms part of Malawi’s border with Tanzania. Buses and minibuses provide transport to and from the border daily.
Malawi – Mozambique
There are four border crossings between Malawi & Mozambique
- The busiest border crossing is at Zobue (Malawi) – Tete (Mozambique). Arrive as early as possible if you want to avoid long waiting times and be warned that it is closed at night. There are buses providing transport to Blantyre and other main cities once the border has been crossed.
Malawi – Zambia
There are three border crossings between Zambia & Malawi
- The most accessible and busiest crossing is the southernmost and can be found at Mchinji (Malawi) – Chipata (Zambia). It is the best crossing between the two capitals of Lusaka & Lilongwe and is also the recommended route if travelling between Zambia and Mozambique due to higher quality of roads.
map of Malawi border crossings
written by: Simon (The Nomadic Diaries)
Tired of society’s rinse ‘n’ repeat lifestyle, Simon has decided to dedicate the rest of his life to hitch-hiking the globe without flying or using money. Instead, he barters for food and board and adventures. Life is one shot. Go live it.
Check out his blog at: thenomadicdiaries.wordpress.com