Adventure Blogs

A voyage on the Ilala Ferry, Malawi

Nkata Bay – Likoma Island on the Illala Ferry

The Ilala Ferry starts as a shape breaking the line of lake and sky, beginning as nothing more than an apparition on the horizon. Slowly, she steadily motors into full form until there is no confusing her with any other on the lake. There never has been, nor ever will be, anything quite like her. Older than Malawi itself, the grand dame of the lake is still the most reliable and efficient means of transportation along the lake shore. Every week she ferries hundreds of people and any shape of cargo in a 960km round trip from South to North and back again.

The idea of the Ilala is completely entrancing and utterly romantic. Lying on the top deck, surrounded by men, woman, children and tiny babies all sleeping under the night sky, you can’t help imagining the numerable stories that have unfolded on her decks and wonder about the lives she has brought together or pulled apart throughout her 60 years of voyaging. Just as you are about to drift off with the whispers of those who have journeyed with her in the past, the present abruptly brings you back to reality.

At first it is the ticket master and his associates doing their rounds that cause a reshuffle of those opportunistic and hopeful enough to try their luck up top. Detected, they dejectedly allow themselves to be sent back down to the stifling heat of passenger class, three decks below – but not without mumble and groan but who can really blame them? Then it is the bar, getting into full swing while the heavier of drinkers begin to swig and stumble almost in tune with the handheld radios slung upon unsteady shoulders. Then, it is the soldiers, heavily armed with machetes and dressed in full uniform, trying to quietly pick their way through snoring, often times snuffling, sleeping bodies littered in horizontal positions – but hindered by big clunky steel capped boots and the clinking of their own handful of beer bottles, leave ruefully muted protestations in their wake. The clank of the dropping of anchor, the winding down of the motor for a four hour stop at a darkened island before the cycle of snatches of sleep and wakefulness are again orchestrated by the ticket master and drunks. Then, you resign yourself to the inevitable – sleep is short and ultimately impossible.

Conjuring ghosts of a bygone era her long, low, mournful horn announces her long anticipated arrival. The siren whistles and captain’s instructions work at first to rouse and then to galvanise the living. Reddened eyes are rubbed, limbs stretched and luggage gathered. The ships bell is wrung as anchor is released. The doors are opened and the ladder is dropped. Pandemonium breaks loose.

Like wide and white eyed cattle being pushed into the dipping crush, a wild panic overcomes even the most subdued of passengers as the disembarking group heaves and pushes towards the sole exit ladder. Down two flights of stairs of alternating sharp mid-morning light and almost complete darkness as you are pushed and pulled below by those desperate not to miss their chance, you gasp your last clean, clear breath before you too are pulled into the dark underbelly of the ship. Pushed, berated, intimidated, you involuntarily move forward, towards the distant light while sacks of grain and dried fish are passed inches above your head. Sweat, panic, anger and labour colour the dankly odoured air. Five more people and you will be there. Gasp for air. Try not to let the building panic overtake you. Stepping tentatively down the ladder while being pulled by a grasping hand from below, you realise you’ve made it and hopefully your luggage will follow.

The Ilala, as charming as she once may have been, is an experience to have once and once is enough to stay with you for a lifetime.

Passengers watch the offloading of cargo – a feat that can take anything from 2-6 hours at a stop.
Loading of the ferry is long and arduous – sunrise from Chizumulu Island.
Illala Ferry survival kit list – Mattresses, sleeping bag, mosquito repellant, lots of water and nerves of steel.
Prime real estate
Early morning Ilala departures at Chizumulu Island aren’t much to smile about.