Unlike South America, Africa has many fewer bus companies and there is very little information online. We got our information from a pair of travelers from Malta who had gone from Tanzania to Livingstone by bus. Here is a summary of what we got from Livingstone to Lilongwe, followed by our experience.
Livingstone, Zambia – Lusaka, Zambia: Mazhandu Family Bus Services (blue bus), K120 or $10
Lusaka, Zambia – Lilongwe, Malawi: KOBS Bus, K220 or $18 (ended up being K160 or $13.50 for us, getting off in Chipata)
Zambia-Malawi Border: $75 Visa for US Citizens, must be paid in USD, bills no older than 2006
*Note: there are also mini-buses on all of these routes if you are adventurous and want to take that route.
Livingstone to Lusaka
Livingstone was the first place where I saw an outdoor bus station. Each of the bus companies has a little hut with a hand painted sign. The buses pull up in a big dirt area next to the street. Street vendors sell bananas, chips, and drinks out of wheelbarrows. Its located several blocks off the main road.
We took Mazhandu Family Bus Services from Livingstone to Lusaka. This was by far the nicest bus we have taken in Africa (outside of South Africa). We were given assigned seats and our bags went under the bus without a problem. The 7 hour ride was comfortable and straight forward. The buses left multiple times per day.
The Lusaka bus station is not for the faint of heart. We were barraged by taxi drivers even before getting off the bus. Drivers were pointing at Will through the windows. Pushing our way through the crowd, we got our bags and identified a taxi driver we wanted to go with. He took us to the KOBS ticket window where we bought our ticket to Lilongwe. We found out that the Lusaka-Lilongwe route does not run on Tuesdays, so we planned to stay an extra night at Lusaka Backpackers, which was in walking distance of the bus station. It’s good to leave yourself some extra travel days in case schedule changes happen. As far as we know, KOBS is the only company running the Lusaka-Lilongwe route.
Lusaka to Lilongwe (or Chipata in our case…)
We ended up altering our ticket to get off in Chipata, which is the town just before the Zambia-Malawi border, since our safari would be starting from there. We were still on the same bus, however, mostly with folks headed for Lilongwe.
The bus boarded at 4:00am, and by that time most of the cargo space was taken. We ended up paying one of the KOBS employees 50 Zambian Kwacha to squeeze our bags into one of the spaces. On the bus, no one paid attention to the seat assignments on the tickets. We ended up sitting on the side of the bus that is 3 people across. I was squeezed between Will and a woman who was not too happy to be on the bus herself. The aisle was packed with bags and there were cases of soda under all the seats. The bus seemed about to burst with cargo and people.
At the time of our travel, the road from Lusaka to the border was largely under construction. As such, most of our journey occurred on dirt roads next to the main, paved roads. It was a bumpy, dusty, 10-hour ride to Chipata. Those going on to Lilongwe had a 15+ hour bus ride. On the plus side- they played a few entertaining movies, including Home Alone 2.
We brought sandwiches with us, which was a good idea. KOBS serves a cookie and some sort of soda, but it is not much, and extremely processed. At some of the stops you can buy snacks off vendors through the windows of the bus (if you have access to window).
The Zambia-Malawi Border
We crossed the border with our safari group instead of the bus, but the process is the same. As of October 1, 2015, Malawi now requires entry visas for any country that requires an entry visa for Malawians. This means US citizens must pay $75 for entry. Some information says that you must obtain the visa in advance. We traveled during the month of October 2015 and were able to get a visa at the border without a problem. We heard from other travelers that going to the Malawian embassy (in Zambia or Mozambique) only ends up costing you more money because they say you need extra documents (like a letter of approval, etc.) and charge you for it.
I will warn you, while we were actually at the border a Japanese man was having a very hard time getting through. He had money but did not get prior approval. The immigration officials told him initially that he would have to go back to Lusaka and go to the embassy. After conferring with their supervisor, however, the officials made an exception (or so they said) and let him through upon payment for the visa. While this Japanese gentleman was given a hard time, those in our party (US and UK citizens) were given visas by the same officials without a blink of an eye. It took us about 30 minutes to get our visas processed, but we arrived before a line formed. The visa is a bit laborious for the immigration clerks – they have to handwrite the visa twice and then mark up your paperwork.
Once in Lilongwe
Lilongwe is not a particularly walkable city, but taxis are also fairly affordable. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, which is a 2000 Malawian Kwacha ($4) ride from the middle of town. From Lilongwe we used the AXA Bus to travel to Mzuzu and Blantyre. The AXA Bus doesn’t leave from the regular bus station, but from City Mall, and you can buy your tickets in advance. The buses are clean and make pit stops, though the seats are narrow and cramped.
I hope this logistics rundown was helpful for those traveling in Zambian and Malawi. That being said, ask the other travelers around you. It wouldn’t be traveling in East Africa if you didn’t have to figure things out as you go and ask for help when you need it.