Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu, Malawi – Big Brother’s African Brother

Mzuzu to Lilongwe, Malawi

When is an express bus not an express bus? When you’re in Malawi trying to fathom out the intricacies of the transport system.
September 2002

Answer: It is difficult in Malawi to distinguish between the different
classes of bus travel. We had been lead to believe that express buses were
fast, making limited stops with no standing passengers. These buses are the
next step down from the holy grail of bus services – the luxurious, air
conditioned Coachline with a price tag to match. The express bus turned out
to be not quite what I expected.

After a 4:30am start, we arrived at Mzuzu bus station at 5:50am to stake our
claim, ready to catch the 6:30am express to Lilongwe. Tickets cannot be
reserved in advance, so it is important to position yourself where ever you
think the bus door will be.

While waiting, a bus that terminated in Mzuzu, trundled in. It had a
strange cargo of rolled mattresses, wooden bed frames, aluminium pots,
kitchen utensils and crates of live chickens. All of these were hoisted
down to porters that stacked the goods into wheel barrows, dashing off down
the road.

Our bus rolled in on time, a battered tin can on wheels. This resulted in a
frenzy of bodies pushing forward, desperate to secure a seat. After paying
MK490 each, we squeezed into two seats that would comfortably accommodate
one person, keeping an ever vigilant eye on our backpacks stowed at the
front of the bus.

Other passengers just deposited their hefty bags in the aisle, forming a
mountain for others to climb over. By the time we left (I’ll give them
credit for leaving on the dot), Tom was wedged against a wall of bags,
one of which was foul smelling, and two steel buckets. Ten minutes later,
the conductress intervened, the mountain of luggage was just too high to
scale and asked someone to move the buckets down the back. Commonsense had
prevailed at last.

Amazingly, the bus travelled faster and was far smoother than the overland
truck. However, it was the stops that ate up the journey time – eight of them in
total. I had anticipated just two or three. At Jenda, there was a border
check point that involved two army personnel inspecting the contents of the
locals’ bags; they showed no interest in our backpacks. I have no idea
what they were looking for.

During the journey we feasted on fried chips and samosas from the street
vendors, passed into the bus through the windows. One feature of African
life that I have great admiration for is the ‘baby carrier’. ‘Chitenjas’,
pieces of brightly coloured cloth, are used by local women to wrap their
babies onto their backs. Not a whimper or cry was heard from the babies on
the bus for the duration of the journey. If we were back in Britain, I’m
sure social services would have banned the practice as being cruel to

Finally I feel that I have seen more of the real Africa in the last couple
of days than I ever did stuck on the truck. Half the time, I never felt as
if I was in Africa, now I feel as if I am in the thick of it. The truck
cushions you from the outside world, ensuring that you feel far more like a

In Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, we made a bee line for popular St Peters
Guesthouse, run by the neighbouring church. We were welcomed with organ music
and the congregation singing hymns, while nuns were cooking in the kitchen.
For MK800, you get a spotlessly clean room with shared bath and sizzling hot

Lilongwe has all the creature comforts of home packaged up nicely in the
nearby Nico Centre. We raided the modern supermarket buying fruit juice,
cheese, popcorn, cream cakes and chocolate, while dodging truck members from
the Aussie vet group (small world, isn’t it?). We weren’t ready to be
confronted with endless questions of ‘Why did we leave the truck?’ etc.

Tom is in his element, planning and budgeting our route through Malawi.
At St Peters, we met veteran travellers David and Darlene, Canadian cyclists
from North Yukon, that have been in the saddle for five months. They were a
gold mine of useful information having cycled through Namibia, Botswana and
Zambia, highly recommending Etosha National Park and the Namib dunes. In
Botswana, they had a magical experience in the Okavango Delta, taking a 3
day mokoro ride through a local community co-operative reached by water
taxi, for a mere US $128 for two.

David, originally from Manchester, lives
in a tiny village of 800, enduring winters that plummet to -30 degrees
Celsius. The round trip to the nearest supermarket is 320km. They
entertained us with stories of the Annapurna Circuit, Everest Base Camp,
having your senses rammed into overload in India, hating an all-inclusive
resort in the Dominican Republic and travelling on a double decker bus
around Iran, drinking beer from a teapot!

Malawi is incredibly cheap by backpacker’s standards; we have been surviving
on US $24 per day including food, transport and accommodation (only US $4
more than the US $20 a day kitty money we received back when we left the
truck). The difference is that I haven’t had to endure truck rations (in
fact I’ve been stuffing my face) and I don’t have to sleep in a tent anymore
or make mad dashes to toilet blocks in the middle of the night. There are
very few independent travellers around, I guess they are all sunbathing on
the shores of Lake Malawi, so we have had no problem with getting our first
choice of accommodation.

To obtain our Mozambique transit visa, a requirement if you want to catch
the bus from Blantyre to Harare, we had to venture into the City Centre.
Remarkably different from Old Town, distinguished by gleaming high rises,
manicured lawns in well-kept grounds, smart security guards and bank
headquarters. Sparkling, brand new 4x4s and massive utility vehicles with
tinted glass cruise down the wide avenues driven by sharply, suited Malawian
officials and workers. No one would ever guess that this is a famine
stricken country when placed in these surroundings, yet the national papers
have a new IMF or starvation headline everyday, even topical cartoons of
Malawians begging the IMF for money.

Yet even in the bright-as-a-button City Centre, scratch beneath the polished
surface and you find squalor and poverty. We ate egg and chips in the City
Centre shopping mall for a mere MK80. I asked if I could use their toilet
and was led into a dark, tiny room crammed full of women and children. This
was the kitchen where a path was cleared for me between the boiling pots on
the floor and glowing red charcoal. The kids were methodically peeling
potatoes in the gloom, while the women fried eggs, sausages and samosas. I
could not believe they were able to produce meals in these conditions; the
children should have been in school but were working for the family business