The main roads are paved, very good and frequently there is a paved shoulder. Occasionally, the paved roads have no shoulder with steep drops from the pavement, which makes it difficult to get out of the way when the road is congested. The dirt roads are ok except near the lake, where roads into hotels can be so thick with sand you have to walk your bicycle.
Generally the traffic is very light except around Lilongwe and Blantyre. Along Lake Malawi north of Salima the road is very quiet. M1, the main north/south route is even quiet outside the cities. There are only two rules to remember, ride on the left and recognize you have no rights so get out of the way. Watch your mirror.
The weather around Lilongwe is almost perfect. The October weather is dry and warm. At altitude it gets cooler and even cold at night. In Mzuzu, up in the highlands, it was cool, especially at night. It rained a little in October. Along Lake Malawi it was warm and dry. It’s hot at midday. The weather was predictably pleasant: warm and dry.
The winds were fickle. We were initially informed that in October the winds were from the South East. In reality we encountered winds from North to East to South at various strengths. They changed from day to day and even during the day so it was hard to plan your distances.
The scenery at times is a little monotonous but the lake is beautiful and parts of the highlands are spectacular. The stretch between Balaka and Dedza is dramatic. The Tea plantations around Mulanje are superb.
Estimates of distances by locals were never correct. They constantly underestimate distances. The Lonely Planet guidebook was less reliable than usual. We also used the older Brandt guidebook for better road descriptions. Some expats are a wealth of information but they are very opinionated about places.
Road Safety: 4
The traffic level is low but it’s “the few, the fast and the unforgiving.” An overtaking car or truck will leave you little room. You must keep an eye on your mirror and be prepared to get off or risk death. Peter took to riding toward the middle of the road. This forces the drivers to pull way over to pass. Then he would pull back to his side of the road, as the car got closer. This maneuver increased the space between the bike and the passing car. If the traffic meets at you – you have to get off the road. They don’t relent.
This is the kinder, gentler Africa. The towns and countryside are safe. During the day, it’s basically safe everywhere. There can be problems walking around at night in the larger towns. You must be careful around the bus station. It’s a den of thieves. Our worst experience was arriving in Lilongwe at dusk with a flat tire at the bus station. We had to walk our bikes and they unzipped a pocket in one pannier and stole a tube, and when we slowed to cross the street a young man came up to us and said, “Keep moving this is a very dangerous place.”
You pay high prices for ordinary accommodations, especially in the bigger cities. Good food is relatively expensive. Basic food is cheap. Soft drinks and beer are cheap. The often-included English breakfast with the room is outrageously expensive: about $4 to $6 US. We ran out of cash. Credit card transactions are double surcharged with a 5% fee plus an unfavorable exchange rate. Travelers checks are also penalized the same. Bring cash and change in Lilongwe or Blantyre at the Forex for your best deal.
In the countryside, with the hot climate, it’s hard to find anything cold. The PTC Superettes and Gas stations have refrigerators. These are only in the larger towns. Soft drinks and Carlsberg beer is widely available at reasonable prices. The boreholes in the villages, especially in the north, are safe. This comes in very handy if you run out of water. Bottled water is available mostly at the PTC Superettes.
Food tends to be basic. In the cities you can find a couple good restaurants including Indian and Italian. Basic food like nuts, fruit and bread are available and cheap. The resort fare is variable from basic to good. We only had one mild stomach problem.
Considering that it’s Africa, it’s fairly easy to find any level of accommodation through out the country. But they are generally overpriced. Along Lake Malawi there are little funky resorts every 60 to 80 Ks. It’s easy to find camping and rooms at reasonable distances. The hotels in the larger cities are way over priced. A South African we met said in Lilongwe he paid $100 for a Meridian hotel and told us the equivalent hotel in South Africa would cost $40.
Malawi describes itself as “the warm heart of Africa.” We concur. They are kind, polite and gentle people. A serious negative, especially after a while, are the enthusiastic, screaming children. Constant begging and the greeting of “Give me money” wears you down. A huge positive are the whites who live in Malawi. They have a great camaraderie. We were offered places to stay and even a car to use. They are interesting, well informed, opinionated and generous. This all makes for lively discussions.
The African approach to life is always visible and audible. The blending of voices singing in a church, in the back of a truck or just walking along the road is brilliant. We frequently just stopped and listened. Carving and painting are very imaginative. Mostly we saw dancing at political rallies.
This is where missionaries like Dr. Livingstone first started. These early missions are still operating. There are a few old colonial buildings and residual signs of the slave trade that thrived here especially along Lake Malawi.