Lilongwe to Karonga: A Travel Guide

The distance from Lilongwe to Chitipa is about six hundred and fifty kilometers. For all the Americans reading this, it’s a little more than two hundred miles… about the distance from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Lynchburg, Virginia. If you were driving that in America, you’d plan out your trip to avoid traffic, calculate your average speed between sixty-five and eighty, and figure four to six hours. Easy.


…And not at all the same as traveling across Africa. Firstly, it’s way way way less common to have a personal vehicle. In America, almost everyone of my acquaintance has one car, and some people have more than one.  It’s not true of Malawi. So to start the trip, first you have to do some walking. If you’re hauling a 29 kilo suitcase and a backpack full of photographic equipment that cannot leave your hands under any circumstances, the first ten steps are an adventure… and the rest are just a pain. So you start walking. If you’re really tired of walking, you can hire a bike taxi. In fact, at 50 kwatcha for an average fare (about 15 cents) you could hire one for each of your bags as well, as well as any friends you want to take along.  In this manner, get thyself to the nearest taxi staging zone, and hop a minibus.


A minibus is, in the loosest terms possible, a 15-passenger van. These range in condition from almost brand new (rare), to well-used (more common), to oh-my-God-how-is-that-thing-still-rolling-with-three-wheels-and-do-you-smell-something-burning? (most common).  On the latter model, you have to be very careful if you’re the person sitting closest to the sliding door, because the handle is often broken off and it’s rather difficult to see if it’s actually closed or not. So you say a prayer, hop in (as far from the door as possible) and wait while the minibus fills up.


To this end, each minibus has a person who rounds up business. We’ll call this person the Caller. The Caller is usually an animated individual with the deep-seated conviction that the minibus they represent is the fastest, most reliable, and most comfortable way from where you are standing to where you want to be. So the caller calls. So they grab everybody who’s going their way and take off!  In this manner, you get to your next stop: the bus station.


In Lilongwe, this is a place like a bus trap. Any given bus, in order to escape, must make an eighteen-point turn. If you have never made an eighteen-point turn on a bus in Malawi, you can picture it like making the same turn in an ’85 Volkswagen Cabriolet in the Walmart parking lot.


Without reverse.


With a blindfolded driver.


…In the midst of the zombie apocalypse.


Yeah, it’s like that. If nobody gets killed, it’s sure not for lack of trying. The nice thing about the bus is that everyone gets their own seat. That’s it, the one nice thing. The seats aren’t comfortable, the chickens on the overhead racks are complaining loudly about their car sickness and irritable bowel syndrome, the guy next to you has passed out on your shoulder and started to drool, there is no AC, the window latch is broken and locked closed, three different people are playing competing songs on their phones (which in turn compete with the song that’s playing on the radio), and two babies are crying. All you can do is pull your shirt over your nose to hide the smell of chicken and wait for the bus to stop somewhere where you can pay a couple of kwatcha to use the bathroom.




The road from Lilongwe to Mzuzu by bus is about 375 kilometers, and takes about ten hours. However, you have to time your departure and arrival. If you arrive too late in the day (7-8 pm) you have another problem. You drag yourself out of the bus, jump into the only remaining minibus. It’s refreshingly empty, and you’re glad to have an entire seat to yourself. The ailing diesel engine revs, the driver throws the bus into reverse, slams backward twenty feet… and parks. And gets out. And goes to have a beer.


At this point, you’re wondering something like ‘…where the heck is that guy going?’


The simple fact is that for taking you the 260km from Mzuzu to Karonga, the driver is making 1500 Kwatcha. For him, this is a simple multiplication problem. His current six passengers times 1500 Kwatcha equals 9000 Kwatcha. However, if he waits for three more hours for the next bus to come in, he can fill his bus and make a great deal more. This is only possible because his is the last minibus on the lot, and you are armed with nothing more potent than bug spray, which, as means of persuasion, is rather not. So unless you want to walk the two hundred-odd kilometers to your bed in the rain, you will wait.


You wait.


Three hours later, the next bus shows up. The driver crams 20-79 more people in with you, just to the point that if you have to scratch your nose you have to ask the guy two bodies down, because that’s where his arm is and your arm is locked above your head and between a case of chickens and a bag of maize. Then the Caller crams himself into the remaining twenty five square inches (which were previously being used to haul the last vestiges of the vehicle’s hydrogen and oxygen) and off you go!


Then you stop every half-hour or so, everyone gets out, (using you as an escape lever) and everybody reshuffles back in, with new people in the sardine can. You will surely doze off between stops, if only because there is not enough air left in the car for everybody AND you to breathe, and oxygen deprivation makes people sleepy. The woman beside you flips her breast out onto your arm to quell her squalling infant. You are shocked and alarmed but there’s not really enough air to fuel an objection. The bus shudders on through the night and you all doze off in a gentle stupor, the baby murmuring contentedly on your arm.


Don’t worry though! The minibus is rocking right along at an average speed of 49km per hour. You’ll almost definitely get to Karonga by tomorrow.