Fly in, or aim on taking three days to drive up to Lake Malawi from Joburg (although it is possible in two gruelling days). The best route is via Harare (in Zimbabwe) and Tete (in Mozambique). The roads are generally in good condition all the way up, although there are a lot of potholes to watch out for from Tete to the Malawian border. Roads in Malawi, even the smaller ones, are generally in great condition, although you will hit some dirt roads on the way to some lakeside spots (like Cape Maclear). You can easily get to Malawi in a sedan but take care with sandy bits you may encounter when you turn off the main road to your backpackers (such as Kande Beach Resort) that you don’t get stuck. There aren’t many of these stretches though.
Zimbabwe: The first border you’ll cross is Beit bridge, from South Africa into Zimbabwe. This is the worst border of the trip: it’s a bit chaotic, queues can be long and the officials are pretty unhelpful. If anyone comes up to help you through the confusing process of getting through the border, they are an agent and they will demand money afterwards for their services. Basically, what you need to do at this border is get your passport stamped (you don’t need a visa as a South African), pay carbon tax, get a temporary import permit (TIP) and get cleared by customs.
Mozambique: When we travelled through Mozambique, you needed to have a reflective vest and triangle in your backseat to show the cops. The regulations for what you need in (and on) your car changes all the time though – check before you travel. The border crossing into Mozambique from Zimbabwe at Cuchamano was relatively quick and easy. You have to buy third-party insurance, and a TIP (temporary import permit), and get your passport stamped (you don’t need a visa if you’re South African).
Malawi: It’s a bit confusing crossing from Mozambique into Malawi. You check out of Mozambique and then go through the gate, only to find no immigration building for Malawi on the other side. Immigration is actually 7kms away from the border gate – so don’t worry, you’re not entering the country illegally when you continue driving without a passport stamp. We found the Malawian immigration process quite confusing, and so we enlisted the help of a friendly agent who helped us through the process. It’s basically the same routine as the other borders – passport stamps, TIP and third-party insurance – but you fill out a form at one counter, go into another building to pay, then go back to the original counter, then go to another counter to get something stamped…. all without any clear instructions on what to do.