There is a very good road system and the traffic level is usually very low. There are towns or lake resorts at regular intervals making it easy to find places to stay and eat. The water out of the boreholes in the villages is potable. The people are friendly and colorful. The resort operators are an assortment of odd characters. This adds to the fun. It’s hot and the winds are unpredictable but the distances are manageable. The scenery is good especially along Lake Malawi. The enthusiastic kids eventually become tiresome with their mantra of “Give me money.” The Expats are a great resource for both information and entertainment. It’s easy going and easy biking with manageable distances between mostly good places to stay. We really enjoyed it.
How We Rate This Trip
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.
TOTAL SCORE 79
Malawi Route Descriptions and Maps
Airport to Lilongwe 28 Ks
A 5 K ride out of the airport to the Highway then right, 23 Ks to town. Rolling, wide, busy and mostly downhill. Arrive on Kamuzu Procession Road. We stayed at the Imperial Hotel, which is within walking distance to internet, good restaurants and popular bars.
Lilongwe to Salima to Senga Bay 120 Ks
Leave Lilongwe via Kamuzu Procession Road direction of the airport on a wide tarred road with paved shoulder. This road is busy near town. After 11 Ks there is a turn for Salima. The road to Salima (M5) has long rolling hills, fairly easy grades and gradually down. Water is available occasionally. Salima has everything on a modest basis. From Salima the road becomes flat. Good road with interesting towns. Little traffic but sometimes fast. It’s a good ride with winds in October from the east (head winds). The winds are variable in intensity at this time, even within the day. (The road along the lakeshore toward Carolina Hotel is sand and not rideable.)
(From the airport there is a shortcut to the Salima Road (M5). At the main road out of the airport turn right toward Lilongwe. After only 50 meters there is a dirt road on the left. Turn left on to this good gravel road for 6 Ks to the Highway M5, turn left to Salima on M5.)
Senga Bay to Salima to Nkhotakota 130 Ks
The road to Salima is 35 Ks of good tarmac. At the junction, turn north or right toward Nkhotakota. The winds were southeast and strong. Every 10 Ks there is a kilometer marker. This good road starts flat, with dull scenery and then some rolling hills. The traffic is the “few and fast.” Winds were more east and changed to north east (head winds). We stayed at Njobvu Safari Lodge. It is 13 Ks before Nkhotakota. The road into the lodge off the main road is 4 Ks of sand but rideable.
Nkhotakota to Dwangwa to Ngala 93 Ks
It is 4 Ks from the resort to the road and then 13 Ks into Nkhotakota. This town is mostly away from the main road. Water, cold drinks and food are available. Rolling hills and O.K. scenery on a good road. Winds again from the northeast. It’s 64 Ks from Nkhotakota to Dwangwa where cold water, soft drinks are found at the PTC Supperette on the right (east) side of the highway. It’s 18 Ks to Ngala Beach Resort. There is a 400 meter dirt road into the resort. You can drink from the village boreholes in this area.
Ngala to Chintheche Strip 125 Ks
.Good road with rolling hills continuing north and better scenery. This is an area with lots of places to stay on the beach. The towns are nothing but the resorts and camping are nice. We stayed at Kande Beach with all the Overland tour trucks.
Chintheche Strip to Nkhata Bay 50 Ks
This continues to be mostly flat with some rolling hills and resorts along the beach. There is a PTC Supperette in Chintheche with water and cold drinks. The winds are strong from the east. The road is good and the scenery O.K. It becomes hilly after the bridge over the Luweya River. At the junction it’s 4 Ks down to Nkhata Bay.
Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu 50 Ks
First 4 Ks from town are up to the junction. The road is down and flat for 14 K, and then mostly climbing, sometimes steep, for the next 35 Ks with occasional respites from the climb. Good views. This road is o.k.but not as good as the road along the lake.
This is as far north as we rode. We returned on the Lake road to Senga Bay. The trip picks up again going South now from Senga Bay.
Senga Bay to Mua 87 Ks
It is 23 Ks from Senga Bay to Salima. Then turn south on M5 62 Ks. This road is mostly flat with interesting villages. Look for the turn off for the Mua Mission which is up a hill 1 ½ Ks. Accommodations are at the Mission with Father Bouche. They are building a formal guesthouse. There is an interesting cultural museum and art gallery at the Mission.
Mua to Balaka 100 Ks
Continue south on M5 for 2 Ks and there is a junction with M10 which goes to Monkey Bay. At this time this road was reported to be in bad shape and not recommended to ride. The M5 toward Balaka was a slow rise for a while but mostly flat. Good scenery with views of mountains. A few mild hills before the junction at 87 Ks. from Mua. Turn left on M1 which is busier but o.k. for 5 Ks to junction then 8 Ks to Balaka.
Balaka to Blantyre 120 Ks
Go back to the junction at M1, 8 Ks. Turn left on M1, busy and narrow road with rolling hills with long climbs and long descents. It’s 60 Ks. to the junction for Blantyre then left and across the Shire River. Now rolling hills but more up and finally climb to Blantyre. The last 25 Ks are through big towns. The road gets very busy and it’s not a great ride. There are lots of stores etc. on M1 and the mountain views are good.
Blantyre to Limbe 8-10 Ks
It is up hill and rolling on a busy road. There are alternative roads beside the main road for part of the way.
Limbe to Thyolo 36 Ks
Great day ride with moderate traffic and the road has a shoulder. Excellent scenery of tea fields with rolling hills and distant mountain views. Basic rest houses in Thyolo so we did this as a day ride from Limbe (round trip 72 Ks).
Blantyre to Chikwawa 47 Ks
Another day ride. It’s 20 Ks drifting lower then down an escarpment. These are steep and curvy roads with excellent views across the river to Chiwawa (94 Ks roundtrip).
Limbe to Mulange 60Ks
The direct route is on a dirt road. The road out of Limbe is paved for 8 Ks and then dirt. The road changes from sandy, to washboard, and hard packed. Out of Limbe the roads is mostly down then up and down to the junction with the tar road which is 50 Ks. At the tar road turn left and it’s 10 Ks down to Mulange with beautiful views across tea fields with mountains in the background.
Mulange to Mozambique border 28 Ks
Great scenery. The mountain, tea fields and in October red Flame trees, purple Jacarandas and green tea fields are beautiful. This is an excellent quiet road, with rolling hills.
(We took an interesting side trip to the Lujeri Tea Office on red dirt roads through the tea plantation. The views were spectacular.)
Mulange to Thyolo (see Limbe to Thyolo day trip) 43 Ks
This route is all paved and very good road with little traffic. Mulange to Luchenza is 23 Ks with the last 10 Ks drifting down. Winds usually southeast but can be fickle. Luchenza to Thyolo is a 20 K gradual climb.
Limbe to Zomba 63 Ks
This (M3) road is narrow, no shoulder, hilly with heavy traffic and trucks out of Limbe. The narrow road has a drop-off to the shoulder of the road. The winds were different again, from the north. Traffic becomes more moderate after 30 Ks at Nanadzi where there is a Suppertte with water and cold drinks. Good scenery, agriculture and small mountains. The traffic picks up near Zomba and there are more hills.
Zomba to Liwonde 53Ks
This was an easy day because we needed to position ourselves to enter Liwonde National Park the next day. The road drifts lower toward the Upper Shire Plain. The winds were strong from south to southeast. No Supperettes but enough small stores for water and cold drinks. At Machinga the road starts down to the Shire River. Good scenery. The road is still narrow with a rough shoulder. Be vigilant. The traffic is fast, few and Big. This is a main road. Most of the hotels in the Lonely Planet Guide were closed. We stayed in town at the Liwonde Park Hotel.
Liwonde to Mvuu Camp (Liwonde National Park) 45 Ks
From Liwonde town to the junction (to Balaka & Monkey Bay) it is 5 Ks. To Ulongwe it is another 25 Ks. Turn left at a sign on a good dirt road to the boat dock for Mvuu Camp. This is a very interesting ride through small villages. It’s 14 Ks to the Park entrance and then 1 K to the boat landing. This 1 Ks. is an exciting ride among the wild animals. A ranger usually accompanies bikers. Peter had to fix a flat tire while waiting for the boat, there are lots of thorn trees in the park (elephants love these trees).
Mvuu Camp to Mangochi to Palm Beach Resort 60 Ks
From the boat dock to the main road on good dirt road 15 Ks. At the main road turn right or north to Mangochi 45 Ks. This is a good flat road with views of Lake Malombe and mountains. Traffic is the few, the fast and the unforgiving. You must be defensive. There is a Supperette in Mangochi, only. It can be hot. Turn off for Palm Beach Resort is 12 Ks. from Mangochi and then 2 Ks on a ridable dirt road to the resort. There are many resorts along this stretch to choose from and most offer camping.
Palm Beach Resort to Cape Maclear 66 Ks
Back 2 Ks. to the main road, then north or right on a flat, quiet road. There is a junction 42 Ks. with a sign “M5, 73 Ks.” This is a poor dirt road that we were advised not to take. Keep going north after this junction 6 Ks to a “Total” Gas station also called the “One-Stop”, where you can buy water and cold drinks. Turn left at this junction for 18 Ks to Cape Maclear. This road is mostly dirt, sometimes sand. The road is gradual up for 7 Ks, then steep up and down for 4 Ks., then gradual down for 7 Ks. The steep parts are tarred for traction. In June of 2002 a solo German female cyclist was killed by a group of farmers on this road when she stopped to take a photo. We asked the people who ran the “One Stop” if this was true and they said, “Yes, and it will never happen again.”
We returned to Palm Beach and then the road to Liwonde.
Liwonde to Balaka 40Ks
Road is rolling and dull. Lots of construction in October 2002.
Balaka to Dedza 114 Ks
Follow the M1 for 8 Ks to the junction for Blantyre, another 5 Ks to the junction to Salima (146 Ks on M5). On M1 it’s 30 Ks to Ntcheu over rolling hills and then 71 Ks to Dedza. This is a road with a good dirt shoulder, excellent vistas and we highly recommend going from Dedza to Balaka (direction is mostly down.) This section of the road is quiet. Winds started out from the southeast and switched to the north.
Dedza to Lilongwe 86 Ks
Rolling hills but slightly more down. Scenery is good but not the great vistas of the road from Dedza to Balaka. It is a good road with a good dirt shoulder. The traffic picks up and gets heavier toward Lilongwe, and then the shoulder is important. Winds were from the north.
Lilongwe to Airport 28 Ks
It is 11 Ks to the junction with M14 to Salima. Stay on M1. Now the traffic gets a little lighter. Mostly up hill and slow to the airport entrance. Winds were from the north so it was a slog (2 hours). The road is busy with trucks but with a good shoulder. At 23 Ks there is an airport entrance sign. Turn left for 5 Ks. mostly down hill into the airport with good vistas.