5 of the best road trips in Malawi
5 of the best road trips in Malawi: Malawi’s geographical diversity is likely to capture your attention as you travel.
And with a fairly reliable coach system covering all the main roads, you can see much of the country using public transport. However, to get to places off the beaten track in this beautiful place and explore the wildlife and national parks to your heart’s content, you’ll want to organize your own road trip.
From day trips to epic multi-day adventures, these are the best road trips in Malawi, from the wide Shire River in the south to the zigzagging road to Livingstonia in the north.
Drive the Thyolo escarpment to the Majete Wildlife Reserve:
5 of the best road trips in Malawi: It’s hard to describe the grandeur of the views as you descend the high Thyolo Escarpment, ever descending towards the sweltering valley of the Shire River. This southernmost tip of the country is surrounded by Mozambique and crossed by the wide, winding Shire, whose waters are home to hippos and crocodiles. In the distance, you’ll see the hills of the Majete Wildlife Reserve, your destination on this journey.
It’s well worth staying at least a few days in Majete, either camping or in one of the lodges. A car gives you the luxury of nature walks: the revitalized park features all the Big Five animals, as well as birds and other wildlife in abundance.
Planning tip: Ask your accommodation for detailed advice on driving protocol. If you turn a corner and come across a herd of elephants, especially if they have calves, it’s best to back away as slowly and discreetly as possible.
Conquer the hairpin bends near Livingstonia:
The almost impossible zigzag of the dirt road from the shores of Lake Malawi up the high escarpment to Livingstonia has been described as Africa‘s most exciting road. More than 20 hairpin bends lead through thick Brachystegia forest, with occasional dizzying views across the lake. At the top, you’ll find a group of excellent lodges on the edge of the escarpment, including Mushroom Farm and Lukwe Eco-Camp.
DEVIATION: If you’re not ready to stop, continue for a further 6 km (thankfully flat) to the historic settlement of Livingstonia, which boasts colonial buildings including a church and the Stone House built by early Scottish missionaries.
Explore Malawian art and culture around Dedza:
This picturesque four-day itinerary leads from the capital Lilongwe to the pottery town of Dedza, where you can spend the night at the famous Dedza Pottery Lodge, try your hand at pot making or buy some of the beautiful products. In the morning, head east to see the fascinating ancient rock art at Chingoni, with an overnight stay at Kazela Forestry Resthouse – or spend a second night in Dedza.
Continue your cultural travels by heading east to the KuNgoni Art and Culture Center, a woodworking hub that also houses an impressive collection of Chewa masks. You can stay at the Namalikhate Lodge in the center, which has a restaurant decorated with masks and wood carvings. Back in Dedza, take the M1 north to return to Lilongwe.
Take the meandering Zomba Plateau:
5 of the best road trips in Malawi: Fabulous for its walks and panoramic views, the Zomba Plateau is a magnet for hikers seeking a less challenging wilderness feel than Mount Mulanje.
The most attractive accommodation option is Zomba Forest Lodge, a secluded off-grid lodge that lies to the west of the plateau’s main group of buildings. The dirt road leading up to the lodge from the town of Zomba twists and turns as you climb, enjoying ever more spectacular views of the plateau and plains below. Follow the lodge’s detailed instructions to find your way there safely.
Once you’ve arrived, you can relax in this sociable yet secluded spot with its troupe of samango monkeys and devour the delicious cuisine. Everything is homemade, from breakfast muffins and morning muesli to salads and pastries served for lunch in the idyllic garden surrounded by forest, and berry-infused sunset gin. Dinner can start with forest mushroom soup followed by coconut-stuffed chicken with fragrant rice, chutneys, seasonal salads and a gourmet dessert. All diets are catered for, and the abundance of local fruit and vegetables makes this a good option for vegetarians and vegans.
Climb up to the Ntchisi forest reserve:
A short weekend drive from the capital Lilongwe, Ntchisi is a mountain forest reserve with scattered small villages and wildlife, including duikers, porcupines, bushpigs, hyenas and leopards. It’s also a wonderful place for birdwatchers, with souimangas, canaries and green bulbs darting through the liana-knotted trees. The road here is steep and challenging but profoundly beautiful, leading to a long, low building, a 1914 colonial house that is now the Ntchisi Forest Lodge.
Planning tip: Don’t rush your visit here. It’s an ideal place to stay for a few days and enjoy hiking in the surrounding natural beauty.
Top tips for driving in Malawi:
Compared to other African countries, Malawi is a reasonable place to drive, with a decent road network and vehicles in fairly good condition. That said, people drive fast here and accidents are all too common. Driving at night should be avoided at all costs, as streetlights are rare and people, animals and bicycles often stray onto the roads.
A pleasant – though obviously more expensive – alternative to autonomous driving is to hire a chauffeur-driven car. Qualified drivers will guide you around the sights and give you a wealth of information about their country. This is particularly recommended if you’re driving through a wildlife park. It takes nerves of steel to withdraw slowly and calmly from an encounter with an elephant. In the parks and on roads such as the road to Nyika, a 4×4 is highly recommended, especially during the rainy season.
5 of the best road trips in Malawi
Car hire is expensive in Malawi, so consider sharing a car with other travelers, both to reduce your impact on the environment and to minimize costs.
The speed limit is 80 km/h (50 mph) and 50 km/h (30 mph) in towns. Drive on the left. The M1 freeway is the backbone of the road network, crossing Malawi from north to south.