Getting Around in Zambia and Malawi

November 2-22, 2008

While in South Africa Pnina and I decided to rent a car, in Zambia we decided to go with public transport. This also applied to Malawi (we didn’t originally plan to visit Malawi but we ended up going there – more on that in another post).

At one end of the spectrum you have large buses. They are bigger and the seats are theoretically more comfortable, but there are still issues.

First off, they rarely leave on time. In fact, in the 3 weeks Pnina and I spent in Zambia and Malawi, we only had 2 buses leave on time: the ride from Lusaka to Livinstone and the ride back. Everywhere else the bus left anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours after the advertised time. Why such a delay? Because the companies don’t leave until the bus is full, so they hang around waiting for more people to join. Eventually some people from the bus get tired and drop off, so the waiting game gets longer. Meanwhile the people who choose to stay on the bus have the pleasure of baking in the heat (they hardly ever use air-con).

And by the way when I say “full” I mean “really really full”. It’s not enough to fill every seat, they also have to put something in the aisle, don’t they? In Malawi they actually sold standing-only tickets. In Zambia they would just stuff cargo in the aisle. We had one bus ride from Lusaka to Chipata where the aisle was so crowded with boxes that to get out of the bus you had to climb from one armrest to the next. In the US it would have broken some kind of fire code, I’m sure, but in Zambia, no problem.

All the waiting around is good for one group of people – the hawkers selling food, soft drinks, small baggies of water, hard-boiled eggs, mangos, sunglasses, perfumes, and various other do-dads. Sometimes they climb on the bus and sometimes they try to reach up from the ground:


You see hawkers like this at every stop along the way, so at least you don’t have to worry about packing a lunch.

The waiting game is also good for preachers! Zambia and Malawi are full of devout Christians. We found that it was very common for somebody (the driver or a random passenger) to say a prayer before we hit the road. We don’t know what the prayers were all about because they used the local language, but they did mention “yesu” a lot and at the end everyone said “amen”. In a couple of cases we actually had a preacher come on the bus and do a whole 15 minute sermon.

When it’s not full-size buses it’s mini-buses or mini-vans. The main benefit with these is that they fill up quicker so you generally have to wait less. But they cost a little more and you get even less leg room (not so much of an issue for Pnina, but for me, well, you know).

And at the complete other end of the spectrum, in Malawi, you have matolas – pick up trucks. A few lucky souls get to ride on actual seats in the front, but the majority of the people ride on the flatbed in the back. Some sit on the floor of the flatbed, some sit on the edge, and some stand; and everyone hugs some piece of cargo, generally not their own. Here’s a small example:


The worst matola ride we had was from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear. It was only 45 minutes but it was on a hilly, bumpy dirt road. Pnina sat with one butt-cheek on the rail and another butt-cheek on a giant sack of corn. She was the lucky one. I stood the whole way with my feet together like a monopod, desperately clutching Pnina with one arm and some random guy’s shoulder with the other arm. How I didn’t tip over still astounds me. I did catch one branch in the face.

When our rides reached their destinations (especially in larger towns), there were always at least a dozen people anxious to help us find our next ride – taxi drivers or guys who were hoping to make a small referral fee sending us to their buddy’s mini van. At times these guys were pretty aggressive. They generally tried to pick up our bags and head to their ride. Our experience in India helped prepare us for this, but it was still not much fun.

But for all these hassles, though, it was definitely much cheaper to get around by public transport in Zambia and Malawi than it was in South Africa (where it cost us $30/day + gas).

One response to “Getting Around in Zambia and Malawi

  1. this post is hilarious. i love it–i can totally picture you and pnina smashed against strangers in a loaded pickup.

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