Malawi Travel Tips

…for South Africans

I’ve been in Malawi for a while now and during this time, fellow South Africans have been asking me some questions about Malawi. Honestly, these are questions I wish I could have had answers to, over a year ago before I bought that one-way bus ticket. After spending about 21 months in Malawi I feel like I am in a position, at least from a tourist perspective, to answer some of these questions.

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, “Is it safe?” I understand why this would be more important to South Africans if you consider the violent nature of our own country. But having lived in Malawi for some time, I am learning that Malawi is safe for tourists. Of course, every country has its issues with crime but you only have to worry about making sure that your immediate surroundings are safe as you travel around the country.

I’ve travelled through Malawi using buses, minibus taxis, bicycle and motorbike taxis. I’ve even hitchhiked, which is a very popular means of travelling between cities in Malawi. Motorists give lifts to strangers so that they will save money on fuel. There are no safety concerns, but just caution that people should always remain vigilant.

Me, on a bicycle taxi in Mchinji

I have dealt with other practical questions below:

  1. Do I need a Visa to Travel to Malawi?

No. You’ll be very pleased to know that South Africans do not need a visa to travel to Malawi. Make sure that you have at least 6 months remaining on your passport. Upon arrival you will be issued with a 30-day visitor’s permit which can be extended to an additional 60 days, thereby giving you 90 days in total should you wish to slow down your travel pace. Believe me, Malawi will do that to you. While in you are Malawi you might want to travel to neighbouring Mozambique, Zambia or Tanzania where South Africans do not need a visa to travel.

South Africans do not require a visa to travel to Malawi
  1. What vaccinations do I need before I can travel to Malawi?

There are no compulsory vaccinations required before you travel to Malawi, but you are advised to take malaria prophylaxis. Malawi is a high-risk area for Malaria, especially during rainy season (November – April) and you will most certainly need to bring a mosquito repellent. Most hotels and lodges provide nets for your safety and convenience. With all that protection you should be okay, but if you do contract malaria, Malawian hospitals are sufficiently resourced to handle Malaria cases. As soon as you feel a fever or any malaria symptoms, go to the nearest hospital or clinic. Additional vaccinations that you will need are Typhoid Fever, Hepatitis A, B and Polio.

  1. COVID-19

Malawi has been very fortunate that the Covid numbers have been low, compared to South Africa. This is no reason to be complacent about it. As of 29 October, 2021 Malawi has had a total of 61 782, with 57 244 recoveries. Currently, there is a national 00:00 curfew in place and all restaurants and clubs are expected to close well before curfew. Some places are opening earlier to allow their patrons time to socialise with enough time before curfew. Tourist hotspots tend to be less populated compared to the cities which usually have more economic activity. 

All Malawian borders are open and travellers arriving in Malawi are expected to be in possession of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival. Travellers showing signs of infection may be tested and quarantined until test results return. Should the test be positive, travellers will be sent to a government facility for treatment.

  1. Do I need a yellow fever certificate?

Not necessarily. Malawi doesn’t require you to have a yellow fever certificate before you enter but if you have travelled to a high-risk area for yellow fever you are advised to have your certificate handy, especially if you would like to go travel to Tanzania where the yellow fever certificate is required. To ensure that your travels are stress-free, get vaccinated for yellow fever and always have your certificate as close to your passport as possible.

  1. Do I need travel insurance?

Yes! This is not only specific to Malawi, you always have to buy travel insurance when you travel. Malawi is an adventure destination and during your travels, you might take part in outdoor activities like hiking, camping, kayaking, snorkeling etc. And should you meet the misfortune of an accident and need to be evacuated by air or repatriated home, you shouldn’t need to pay out of pocket for this. Therefore, before you travel, look into travel insurance and make sure you are covered. Some banks offer free travel insurance to their clients.

  1. When is a good time to travel to Malawi?

If you are planning to take advantage of the country’s sunny weather, beaches and water activities, do not plan your holiday during Malawi’s rainy season. When is Malawi’s rainy season? It starts around November ending in April. The rain can be relentless during this time, with days of grey skies and flooding in low lying areas. The country’s autumn and winter seasons have lower temperatures of about 16 ºC in the mornings 26ºC in the afternoons. The lakeshore is relatively warmer even during the cooler seasons. This is also the season when your chances of contracting malaria decrease significantly.

  1. What transport options can I use to get to Malawi?

A direct flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe will take you about 2 hours at roughly R7000. If you take the scenic route, by bus, you get a front-row seat to some of Southern Africa’s best views. The bus travels through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Before COVID Ciltiliner Plus and Intercape had buses travelling from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu for about R3000 return. Before COVID, border control was seamless as long as your documents were in order, of course now there are additional measures to be followed.

  1. What is the Currency Exchange?

The exchange rate between the rand and the Malawi Kwacha is R1=MK50. Malawi is a cash country so you absolutely have to have cash on you at all times because most suppliers do not have speed point machines. Do not exchange money with money changers, try and go to a legitimate forex office where you will get a fair rate. Better yet, withdraw Malawian Kwachas from any ATM using your Visa and MasterCard. Standard Bank ATMs will warn you of a MK2900 (R60) charge before your withdrawal. This goes for any amount.

Sample of MK200 banknote with freedom fighter Rose Chibambo’s picture
  1. What time zone is Malawi in?

Malawi is in the same time zone as South Africa, silly!

  1. What is the capital city of Malawi?

Honestly, this one could have been answered by Google. The capital of Malawi is Lilongwe and that is where you are likely to land when travelling from Johannesburg. The city is in central Malawi and enjoys proximity to the Zambian and Mozambique borders.

  1. How is the Wi-Fi access?

Internet access in Malawi can be a challenge, considering that less than 1% of the population has access to the internet, Wi-Fi is even more difficult to come by. The more upper-class establishments will offer free Wi-Fi but you cannot walk into a regular restaurant, order your meal and ask for the Wi-Fi password. It might be more helpful to buy yourself a local SIM card and buy internet bundles to post your Insta-worthy content.

  1. What is the tipping culture in Malawi?

There is no obligatory tip amount in most establishments but it is expected when dealing with tourism and hospitality staff, more so from tourists. This applies to all hospitality activities, not only restaurants. The guy who will take you out on the lake on his boat probably expects a tip over and above his fee. Although it might be rude for someone to ask for a tip, it is most certainly expected. As a traveller, you probably already know that it’s good practice to tip for good service. People tend to be a bit more open and receptive after receiving a tip.

  1. How do I greet people in the local language?

Language is not much of a barrier in the more urban areas where people will quickly defer to English when they realise that you are a visitor. Just like in any other African country, greeting is very important in the Warm Heart of Africa. It can be a ceremonial affair that can involve bowing and putting your hands together as if to clap inaudibly. In some extreme cases genuflecting or full-on kneeling is expected. There are ways that women greet men and how children greet elders. A cultural code if you will. It can be very offensive when one doesn’t follow the greeting protocol. In the cities just greet politely.

The most spoken language in Malawi is Chichewa and everyone will understand you if you greet them in Chichewa. Fortunately, the only expectation as a guest is “Muli Bwanji?” which is Chichewa for “How are you?” and the response to which is “Ndili bwino”. That translates to “I am well”.

If you are in the northern parts of the country where the most spoken language is Tumbuka you will greet by asking “Muli wuli?” which means the same thing as Muli bwanji (how are you?). The response to this is “Tili Makola”. There are still a few Ngoni speakers in the northern region and here you might be greeted in Ngoni, which is essentially isiZulu. The Mzimba district in northern Malawi is where you will find descents of the Zulus that left South Africa during the Mfecane wars of the 1800s. Incidentally, if you swear in Afrikaans, you might have to watch your back because a lot Afrikaans swear words are very familiar in Malawi.

14. Other common words/phrases?

  • Money – Ndalama
  • Food – kudya
  • How much?  – Ndalama zingati?
  • Please – Chonde
  • Please help me – Mundithandize, chonde
  • My name is… – Dzina langa ndi…
  • Thank you – Zikomo
  • Thank you, very much – Zikomo kwambiri
  • I want… – Ndikufuna…
  • Enough – Basi
  • Water – Madzi
  • Meat – Nyama
  • Chicken – Nkhuku
  • Vegetables (leafy) – Masamba
  • Beer – Mowa
  • Yesterday – Dzulo
  • Today – Lero
  • Tomorrow – Mawa
  • See you tomorrow – Tiwonana mawa
  • Car – galimoto
  • Luggage – Katundu
  1. Any dress expectation for women?

Yes. Malawi is still relatively traditional and in some parts of the country, people frown upon revealing clothing for women. In the cities women can dress in short skirts and shorts, although not without uncomfortable stares, from both men and women. If your trip includes village tours make sure you dress accordingly; a dress or skirt that covers the knees. You might even be expected to adorn yourself with a Chitenje; a traditional wrap-around, as a sign of respect.

In the tourist hotspots, there is no dress expectation. Along the beaches, you can dress comfortably in clothes of your choice. Lakeshore dwellers are used to seeing tourists in shorts and bikinis and this is not a problem for them

16. What Should I Pack?

  • Mosquito repellent
  • Malaria Prophylaxis
  • Hiking shoes
  • Sporty Clothes
  • Backpack
  • Flashlight
  • Camera (extra batteries)
  • Sandals
  • Sarong
  • Sun hat
  • Swim wear
  • Long sleeved clothing for protection against mosquito bites at nightfall
  • Warm Jacket
  • Evening wear

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