Most people cross from Zambia into Malawi and vice versa via Chipata/Mchiinji. The roads are well paved, making the highly traveled road a simple journey. However, we started from Kasama in Northern Zambia, meaning it would take us 24 hours of transport to reach Malawi. Plus I wanted to start in Northern Malawi and work our way down from Karonga to Mulanje, stopping at places along Lake Malawi. There wasn’t much information online on how to cross the Nakonde/Chitipa border, so I thought a write-up would be helpful for travelers.
Do note that we did this trip in June 2019, a few months into the dry season. The road may not be passable during the rainy season (November-April). If the road is closed off, you can head to Mbeya and catch a ride down to Karonga if you already have a Tanzanian travel visa.
Another option is from Isoka to Muyombe and then Rumphi near Mzuzu, Malawi, but the unpaved roads seems longer than the Chitipa route.
Kasama to Nakonde
Getting to the border town of Nakonde is relatively easy. Daily buses leave Kasama at 11 every day and costs K110 (as of July 2019). Since we wanted to reach Nakonde earlier, we hitchhiked. Many trucks drive through Kasama from the Copperbelt to Dar Es Salaam, so it wouldn’t take long to find a ride. We paid K100 each. Allow about five hours to reach Nakonde. If you get there early enough, you can cross to Tunduma for a few hours for a taste of Tanzania. I’ve done it twice and didn’t have to get stamped in. Actually, nobody even asked to see my passport.
I recommend Muchinga Exquisite Lodge in Nakonde for a room for K200. Nakonde can be a bit overwhelming, but this lodge is in a quieter area away from the noise of the streets. Staff are friendly and breakfast is included. The restaurant is also cheap and has good portion sizes.
Nakonde to Chitipa
The day before, we walked around inquiring about transport to Chitipa. Every person we spoke with gave a different time and different price, from 4am to 1pm, K50 to K100. We didn’t want to risk missing transport, so we headed to the Chitipa station (Walk further down the road past Power Tools bus station. See map below) at 5am. There was no transport to be found until the sun started to come out. Numerous people offered motorcycle taxis, but we declined. We tried hitching rides with people going in that direction, but it turns out that private vehicles don’t really go to Chitipa. The only option was a minivan. We reluctantly got in at 9am as the driver said we will depart at 10. 10 turned into 11 and 11 turned into 13. Long story short, we didn’t leave until 13:30 when the car was full. We paid K70. So if you are coming from Kasama to Nakonde, it is possible you can transfer to a car going to Chitipa that same day, but it is a gamble because transport only leaves when full.
The journey to Chitipa was scenic albeit slow and bumpy. I now understand why cars don’t normally that road. The narrow dirt path is laden with holes in some parts, sand in the other. How that minibus manages to survive those road conditions is a mystery, but people make it work. The 120km drive took five hours. Pack your own snacks and plenty of water because there aren’t any options until you reach Malawi.
We reached the border post and stamped out of Zambia quickly and easily. It was apparent we reached a new country because we immediate found ourselves on a smooth tarmac road.
We hopped back in the car to the border post to stamp into Malawi. Since transport left so late, we reached the post at 18:01, one minute after the office closed. The immigration officer was already in her car and ready to go. We begged her to stamp us in or else we would have to wait around Chitipa for the next day. She reluctantly obliged, for which I am forever grateful. We paid in USD (do not use bills later than 2013) and got a full page visa for Malawi. Costs will vary depending on nationality, but it was $75 for U.S. citizens.
Chitipa town was another few kilometers away. Even at night, there was plenty of transport options. We immediately got in a shared car to Karonga, a transit town in Northern Malawi, where our friendly CouchSurfing host met us (read our CouchSurfing guide). The cost was 2,500 Malawian Kwacha. I already had some MWK from a friend, but I recommend exchanging a bit in Nakonde to prepare you for the first day. You can withdraw from an ATM or exchange at one of the many banks in Karonga.