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Malawi: Ilala Ferry

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Ilala Ferry > Malawi > Africa

[Visited: November 2010]

With such a big lake in this stretched out country, it seemed logical to use a boat to cover some of the distance to travel in Malawi. One of the Great African Lakes, Lake Malawi is actually the eighth largest lake in the world, and is claimed to hold more fish species than any other lake in the world. It is hard to see how you could visit Malawi without also visiting the lake, and a trip on the Ilala seemed the best way to do so. Moreover, apart from taking a flight, the only way to reach the islands near the Mozambican coast is on the Ilala. The boat takes around six days to sail from Monkey Bay in the south, to Chilumba in the north, and back. When coming down from the Viphya Plateau in western Malawi, it was Sunday afternoon and the Ilala was supposed to leave that evening. Three friendly guys taking the examinations for a school to Karonga in the north were willing to give us a lift to the crossroads near Chilumba, where an overloaded taxi with great music took us to the coastal town - the passengers were so infected by the music that they actually left the car dancing into the night - making it one of the best taxi rides I ever had. In Chilumba, it soon turned out that the Ilala would be late - very late. Instead of leaving that evening, it was estimated to arrive early in the morning. It sent the larger than expected number of travellers looking for accommodation in this fishing village. Not wanting to miss the once-weekly boat, I set my alarm at 5am, but the quay was still very empty. Rumour spread through Chilumba: the boat was still in Nkhata Bay, it had already left, it would be arriving at 8am, at 10, at 12... All of us were just killing time, looking at the stands on the beach where fish was drying in the sun, playing at the beach, taking a first dive in the fresh water of Lake Malawi. Then, it appeared around the nearby cape - a blue-and-white ship - the MV Ilala. It took some time to unload, to prepare, during which we were jumping off the quay and getting dry in the sun. After getting on the boat, and waiting for the cargo to be loaded onto it, we finally left Chilumba after 2pm.

Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): The Ilala steamer docked in Nkhata Bay

The Ilala was still quite empty, and those first hours on the boat were pretty comfortable. There was plenty of space to explore the ship, to walk over the various decks, to meet people, to talk, to look out over the lake. The water was quiet, the sailing easy, and the hours passed unnoticed. The sun was getting low as we reached the first small stop where the two sloops were lowered on the lake to take passengers to the village, and to take new passengers to the boat. We left fast, and I had good hopes we would make up large part of our delay by quick turnarounds at the many stops between here and our destination, Likoma Island. As evening fell, we saw many bush fires on the mainland, a common practice in Malawi to prepare the earth for the wet season. We talked, played, and sailed into the night. Eventually, we slept under the sky on the First Class deck which was more comfortable than we could imagine. The next morning, the early sunrise did not fail to wake me, and I was surprised to learn that we had not even reached Nkhata Bay. But the long stop there would surely be shorter, I thought. And indeed, when we disembarked the ship to explore Nkhata Bay and do some practical stuff, one of the guys of the boat told us we would leave again in 2 to 3 hours. Actually, when I got back from buying myself new sunglasses (I had seen the previous ones fall more than 100 metres down the Manchewe Falls the previous day), I did not see many people on the quay and quickly returned to the boat, just to be sure. But that was a mistake - like I would make so many wrong assumptions about the Ilala. It turned out we were still many hours away from our departure, and we even had time to go to a beach, cool off in the pleasant waters of Lake Malawi. All the time, we had seen a large batch of school desks waiting on the quay, but since the front of the small ship seemed full, we thought we were close to leaving. Instead, a cart with desks showed up at the ship, and amazingly, the Malawians were capable of stowing a surprising number of desks on top of the already overloaded front deck. So it was that we finally left more than 7 hours after arriving, and we had actually lost more time in Nkhata Bay. Moreover, when I walked on the lower decks, I noticed that not only were they full with people, there were large and heavy pieces of cargo stowed away everywhere. Safety clearly is of no concern at all - stowing a maximum number of passengers and cargo has the only priority. Where the atmosphere on the lower decks had been relaxed and friendly after our departure from Chilumba, people were now getting a little more anxious - not surprising, considering their condition. Even the First Class deck was pretty full now, and we tried to calculate at what time we would be arriving in Chizumulu Island. The Ilala is actually not a very powerful boat, and progress was slow - in the end, it took us more than 5 hours to reach the first, smallest island on the other, Mozambican side of the lake. It was dark, and unloading and loading took a long time. Seeing the passengers getting into the sloops made me realize what was in store for us - we were to get off at the next stop.

Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Looking at the MV Ilala from the front of the vessel

It was getting so late that we all fell asleep again, and fortunately, woke up when the anchor was lowered into the lake at Likoma Island. It was the middle of the night; it had taken us 12 hours to get here from Nkhata Bay. We tried to push our way through the crowds trying to get off, and managed to jump into one of the sloops. I had been smart enough to wear my plastic sandals, and indeed: when we arrived at the beach, we had to jump into the water with our luggage to walk ashore. Our first adventure on the Ilala had ended, but 4 days later, we were in for another one, taking the boat from Chizumulu to Nkhata Bay. Another long delay, and another middle-of-the-night departure. The beach was full of big brown boxes and passengers with lots of luggage, and they all had to be taken to the Ilala on the small boats. There was absolute chaos: people coming from the Ilala, trying to take their belongings and cargo from the small boats, while others tried to put their luggage in and climb into the boats. It was total madness, there was no one even trying to organize things a little, and the small boats were virtually attacked by people trying to get to the Ilala. When the sloop finally left, I counted more than forty passengers where officially (as stated on the side of the boat), it was only allowed to carry 22. That does not take into account the huge amount of bags, boxes, and other pieces of cargo. The sloop hit something and most of the standing passengers fell, while one just fell backwards into the dark waters of the lake. Instead of trying to haul the poor guy into the sloop, the others just laughed and we were on our way to the Ilala, lying so deep in the water that we were barely above the waterline. Totally crazy. But the next day, upon arriving in Nkhata Bay in rough weather with high waves (Lake Malawi showed a totally different face now), it would be even crazier. First, just when we were about to dock, the Ilala was sent away, and we were floating in a nearby bay. Apparently, those in command of our ship were negotiating with the port authorities about our usage of the jetty, and after waiting for several hours, we were allowed in. I wondered what all the people on the jetty were doing, but as soon as the boat docked, it became clear. They were porters, and they stormed the boat, desperately trying to get jobs as porters. Some climbed the boat from the outside, some started pulling at big boxes, and what had been a chaos the night before, now looked like pure anarchy. Again, no organization, people getting on and off the boat simultaneously even though that was normally impossible, fights, shouting, pushing, pulling, people jumping over each other, mothers with babies on their backs overrun by strong men trying to be a porter for someone... it was fascinating to watch from the upper deck. Even after an hour, the boat was still full of passengers who wanted to disembark - and we tried our luck, too. Without lots of pushing and being firm, getting off the Ilala proved impossible. While we were assaulted by taxi drivers, we looked back at the boat, and despite the hardships we had encountered, it felt like saying goodbye to a dear friend.

Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Dark skies over Lake Malawi on the first class deck of the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Chilumba harbour: the Ilala steamer docked
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Preparing the sloop to bring passengers to land
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Entrance to the wheelhouse of the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Strong men taking care of the heavy cargo of the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): School desks on top of all the other cargo on the deck of the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): People pushing each other in an effort to either leave or enter the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Commotion as a big box with dried fish breaks when being unloaded at Nkh
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Porters working hard to load the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Passengers and cargo being loaded on the MV Ilala
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Lower deck of the MV Ilala, crossing Lake Malawi to Chizumulu Island
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): View of the upper deck of the MV Ilala, docked in Chilumba
Picture of Ilala Ferry (Malawi): Threatening clouds in the skies over Lake Malawi

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