Malawi’s reputation as ‘the warm heart of Africa’ is fully justified by its people. Cycling along its roads you’ll meet them in their hundreds; on the way to market, to work, to the fields or to school. Many, many people cycle and it’s quite rare you’ll be alone. And always you’ll be greeted in the most friendly manner – Malawians (particularly in the North) generally have very good English.
Stopping off at water pumps or roadside restaurants (both which feature very regularly along all roads) you’ll get into conversations with students, fishermen, preachers, bus drivers… cycling in Malawi is a great way to get a glimpse into how Malawians live day to day.
I entered from the Northern border with Tanzania and slowly made my way South along the lake, and then into the hinterland.
PLACES TO SEE
Most of Northern Malawi’s tourist attractions are difficult to get to with public transport and thus neglected by the majority of backpackers. That’s where the bike comes in – Livingstonia, Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve and Nyika National Park are all reachable within a day from the main road on pretty and traffic-free backroads.
VWAZA MARSH GAME RESERVE
It takes less than 3 hours to cycle from Rumphi to Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve – an idyllic marsh tucked away near the border with Zambia.
The main (and only operating) campsite is right inside the main gate so you can take your bike with you all the way to your tent. This beautiful (and very affordable) attraction has been neglected in recent years, but still has a perfectly located campsite 100m from Lake Kazuni, full of birdlife and literally hundreds of hippos.
When I was there in the middle of the dry season there was a herd of around 80 elephants foraging around the lake and bathing in the cool waters. The Kazuni campsite is quite unique in that you camp right there under some trees in front of the lake with nothing separating you from the hippos and elephants at night. A real experience!
NYIKA NATIONAL PARK is a massive plateau of grassland and juniper and pine forests high above Lake Malawi, a day’s ride from Vwaza or Rumphi. It was created in the early 50s by the British colonial government who were fascinated to find a place in Africa so reminiscient of Europe.
The green rolling hills leading to viewpoints are perfect for the willing cyclist, and cycling is permitted inside the park without or with a guide (bike hire is also available). You’ll be able to spot all types of antelope, bushbuck and zebra and when I was there I had whole herds crossing the road in front of me when I startled them.
I spent three days inside the park, enjoying the waymarked ways that cover the whole plateau. The park office has maps of the routes, and it would be quite difficult to get lost. To get there, take the main road from Rumphi to the Thazima gate (where you can camp, if needs be).
It’s around 60km from the gate to Chelinda Camp, situated in the middle of the park. There are some luxurious Alpine chalets you can rent there, or an affordable and well maintained camping ground with a fantastic view for those with tents.
LIVINGGSTONIA is a mission station on the plateau 900 metres above the lake. It’s full of old mission buildings built in the early 20th century and still very active (now housing one of the best teaching colleges in Malawi).
The town is a great place to stay for a couple of days, and there are many hikes, bike circuits and even an ice cream parlour! There’s also probably the best selection of accomodation in Malawi, ranging from the beautiful 100+ year old Stone House, an eco-camp built into the escarpment beside a permaculture farm and a small campsite built on the edge of a cliff.
Getting there is a mission in itself, and having a bike instead of relying on intermittent public transport is a great way to climb to the plateau.
There are two roads: one from Rumphi and one from Chitimba by the lake. Both are very pretty dirt roads, winding up through farmland and some remaining indigenous woodland.
The ‘Galotti Road’ (a mispronunciation of ‘God Road’, according to local people I talked to) climbs from the lakeshore for 15km to the village of Livingstonia. It’s a hot, dusty ride on a sometimes rocky road. Be prepared to walk some of it as it gets quite steep. The payoff, though, are views that I would rate as among the best in Africa. As the road zigzags up and up the escarpment, you’ll have magnificent panoramas of the lakeshore, the twinkling lake and the distant Tanzanian mountains. It’s a great ride, but not for the faint hearted!
USISYA is one of my favourite villages in Malawi. It’s a rambling sprawl of fishing huts and markets spread along a beautiful beach on the Lake. Most people get here by boat from Nkhata Bay, which is an adventure in itself, but they’re missing out on one of the best downhill rides in Africa!
It takes around a day to cycle from Mzuzu down to Usisya along a well maintained dirt road that winds through tobacco and coffee fields before plunging down from the plateau to the lake in a series of hair-raising switchbacks.
Check your brakes before going down that hill!
In the village you’ll be warmly welcomed by the friendly people and you can relax for a few days by the beach. A recommended trip from Usisya is the walk to Ruarwe, a village around 10km to the North.
The walk along the lake is pretty stunning (but I think too steep and rocky for bikes) and Ruarwe could be paradise: a little fishing village in a horseshoe cove that you’ll first see after climbing over a high promontary sticking out into the lake.
There are great backpacker lodges in both Usisya and Ruarwe and also some NGOs doing good work in the communities that you can get involved in if you like (Temwa in Usisya and Phunzira in Ruarwe). There are daily trucks leaving Usisya before dawn for Mzuzu that you can put your bike in (unless you want to cycle back up!).
There’s one more ride I’ll recommend that’s very off the beaten track but very rewarding. It’s the old forestry road that leaves the main M1 Mzuzu to Lilongwe road near Chikangawa and winds its way down to the lake.
If you have time, I’d recommend this route for seeing what Malawi was like before it became overpopulated and deforested, because the road goes through some of the largest swathes of pristine forest i’ve seen in the country.
To start, either cycle or take a bus along the M1 to Chikangawa (around 80km south of Mzuzu – quite a hilly ride!).
In Chikangawa I recommend staying at the old Kasito Resthouse, a former colonial resthouse from bygone days but still a nice place to stay. Then ask for the road to Mazamba that leaves the M1 around 2km North of Chikangawa. From here you’ll drop straight into lush forest and the narrow road begins to wind down the escarpment.
It can be a confusing road to follow, as many roads branch off the main road, but it’s very beautiful and wild. After passing through Mazamba (a tiny outpost) you’ll cycle past an old dam full of birdlife, then climb for a while before falling down into more populated territory and eventually the Kawalazi Tea Estate. From here the road eventually makes its way to Chintheche, a village on Lake Malawi. If you plan to do this route, contact me for directions.
WHAT TO BRING
Africa is a continent of cyclists, and there is a better developed infrastructure of bike shops and repair stalls in Malawi than in any Western country I know!
Every small village has a bike repair guy with an ancient toolkit who will help you out with any problems you may have.
Apart from the usual biking apparel, here are some things I would recommend especially for cycling in Malawi
1. Thick Mountain Bike Tyres: Malawi’s back roads can be rocky and full of thorns. Don’t cycle them with road bike tyres, please! Take durable thick tyres or you’ll spend most of your time fixing punctures. I can’t remember the brand I had (Chinese) but my tyres served me well and I only had one puncture in three weeks.
2. Lots of Water Bottles: As I mentioned previously, there are water pumps all along the road in Malawi. However, you will literally be sweating buckets in the heat, and will need a lot of water. I had 3 500ml bottles – 2 in holders on the bike and one on my panniers.
3. Strong Sunglasses: The glare of the sun can be blinding. Normal sunglasses might not be good enough for Malawi. Get good strong ones, respect your eyes.
4. Maps: Maps are in short supply in Malawi, and are of very poor quality. I have yet to find a decent map for the country – i’ve found the International Travel Maps series to be terrible, and Google Maps isn’t much better. The Michelin map of Southern Africa might be your best bet, or if you’re a GPS person the Tracks4Africa is very good.
WHEN TO GO
Timing your trip to Malawi is quite important. When I was there in mid-December, the lake Shore was almost too hot to cycle along and I chose the mornings and evenings to cycle.
However, up on the plateau it was much cooler and more enjoyable. Keep in mind that the rainy season runs from around January to April, then June until September is bearable and then in begins getting very hot before the rains strike again.
Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to predict weather patterns in the tropics due to climate change, so this whole ‘rainy season’ versus ‘dry season’ talk isn’t gospel. I’d say June until October would be the best time to go.
CYCLING RESOURCES IN MALAWI
Unless you’re bringing your own bike in, you’ll be looking to rent or buy a bike in Malawi. The majority of bikes for sale are either very cheap and very poor quality Chinese bikes, or very cheap and slightly better quality Indian bikes that are very difficult and uncomfortable to ride.
I’d recommend getting in contact with people in country first to see if there are (decent) bikes for sale. Here are some web links that may be of use:
A google group called ‘Lilongwe Chat‘ occasionally has people selling imported bikes.
Luwawa Forest Lodge and Chelinda Lodge rent bikes for around $20 a day
Lukwe Eco Camp in Livingstonia has an owner very knowledgable about cycling in Malawi.
Bikes with Borders is a Canadian NGO in the South of the country that buy in second hand bikes from South Africa. Perhaps they could help.
HAPPY BICYCLE TRAVELS!
Luke Cape traveled by bicycle for three weeks in Malawi, in December 2012. He wrote this piece exclusively for The Bike In My Life.