Wednesday 20 November 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Malawi to Tanzania

Dear Viven,

I’ve yet to sit down and count up all the hours we’ve spent on buses and trains since parting with Archer back in West Africa, but it has to be in the hundreds.  This portion of the trip, which brought us from Blantyre, Malawi, to Moshi in northern Tanzania, tacked on about 38 to the total.  The time goes somewhere, I suppose.  It has to.

We are one British and one Canadian.  This letter is accurate as of the day we crossed on Tuesday 20 November 2013.  We are returning to Tanzania from a wide southern African circle starting at Dar es Salaam and passing through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi.

Visas are required to enter Tanzania, and were available at the point of crossing for a flat US$50 rate.  Our previous three-month visas expired on 13 November and it was no problem acquiring another 90-day entry stamp.  The officer advised us that the visas are considered multiple-entry in the East African Community (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi), which means that if we leave to one of those countries and return, the visa will still be active.  It is single-entry if departing to any other country.  I assume, and hope, that this has something to do with the planned EAC tourist visa, which will be valid for all five member countries.

Tanzania’s lingua franca is Swahili, with English spoken widely in the major centres, higher education and the tourism industry.  There was no problem making this crossing using only English.

Tanzania uses the shilling (TSH, where 1000 = US$0.62 or MWK 254).  Money changers were available at both sides of the crossing, but the coach driver informed us to be careful of the ones at the gate leading into the town.  Sure enough, another traveler from the UK tried to change money with them and the changer walked away with his Malawian kwacha “for just a minute” without returning.  We changed our money with a man who did the exchange onboard the bus and who was recommended by the driver.  The standard rate seemed to be MWK 1 = TSH 3.58.

There are ATMs (accepting both Visa and Mastercard) all over both Malawi and Tanzania.

Time Change
At the border we passed from Central Africa Time (CAT, UTC + 2 hours) to Eastern Africa Time (EAT, UTC + 3 hours).

The Route & Means of Travel
From the Scottish-named city of Blantyre in southern Malawi we progressed by a four-hour bus to the capital of Lilongwe (Premier Bus Services, MWK 3000 each, from the main station).  Buses and minibuses ply this route regularly, connecting Malawi’s capital with its major commercial centre, and services depart every hour or more.  From Lilongwe we caught an overnight coach heading to Dar es Salaam (Taqwa Buses, MWK 17,000 each) which departed on time at 7pm.  It was the only company we could find to make the long distance from Lilongwe.  20 hours of driving brought us to Iringa in central Tanzania where we disembarked.  After a night’s rest in the picturesque highlands town we proceeded by another full-day coach service to Moshi (Hood Ltd., TSH 43,000 each).  This final coach departed from the bus station in Iringa on time at 6am en route to Arusha via Morogoro and Lushoto, thus going the long way and avoiding Dodoma.  It arrived in Moshi at 8pm, making it a 14-hour journey.  There were no shortage of coaches on this route, especially once it connected with the traffic from Dar es Salaam, though we could find no direct connection to Arusha and Moshi via Dodoma, which the map suggests would be a good deal faster.

Tickets for all three buses could be arranged in advance or just prior to departure, though the best seats were often taken by about an hour before leaving.  And to fill you out with a little more information, here is a list of the fares by destination from Taqwa Buses on their route from Lilongwe to Nairobi, Rwanda and Burundi via Dar es Salaam:

Tanzanian Border – MWK 10,000
Mbeya – MWK 13,000
Makambako – MWK 15,000
Iringa – MWK 17,000
Mikumi – MWK 18,000
Morogoro – MWK 19,000
Dar es Salaam – MWK 20,000
Nairobi (Kenya) – MWK 36,000
Bujumbura (Burundi) – MWK 40,000
Kigali (Rwanda) – MWK 40,000

The Border
We arrived at the Songwe border before it opened and had to wait 40 minutes before 6am.  We walked through to queue at the Malawian immigration office and fill forms at 6:05, and at 6:15 the kiosks opened.  Within ten minutes we had our photo taken and our passports stamped for exit.  We all reboarded the bus at 6:45 and drove one minute to the Tanzanian side, where we got off to fill forms and wait in the immigration building.  By 7:20 we had our new Tanzanian visas without any problems, and at 7:30 we received a cursory inspection of our baggage, which had been taken off the bus.  We reboarded the bus and departed Songwe at 7:50, which was now 8:50am Tanzanian time.  The whole process from arrival to departure, including waiting for the border to open, took two and a half hours.

What We Needed

For the buses
  • MWK 40,000 and TSH 86,000 for tickets
  • 38 hours

At the border
  • Passports
  • Yellow Fever vaccination certificates (not inspected)
  • US$100 for visa fees ($50 each)
  • Forms filled with details, including our hotel at destination
  • About 2.5 hours

After this there will be one more bus: Moshi to Dar es Salaam.  Though, I’m not mentioning all the driving we are to do on safari, the dalla-dallas on Zanzibar, the taxis in Dar es Salaam, all the taxis and dalla-dallas we’ve already taken, all the…  Africa is a big place, and you need a lot of hours.

Happy trails,


Sunset at Lilongwe bus station
Portrait of Malawi's president,
Joyce Banda 
The Taqwa bus (Lilongwe-Iringa) 
View from our Iringa lodging