The Ilala Ferry of Lake Malawi

By: Matt

The Ilala Ferry of Lake Malawi.

There is something romantic about the idea of taking a ship across a lake in Africa, and the Ilala gives you just such an opportunity. The Ilala ferry has been traversing Lake Malawi for some 60 years and travels the 365-mile lake from north to south and back again once a week. We boarded the Ilala in Monkey Bay, its southernmost port, to take us north to Nkhata Bay. Only three of the twelve ports on the route had a working pier, and the others were serviced by teams of shore boats, so exploring each port was not an option. With a 42-hour journey facing us at a running speed of 8.4 knots, there was nothing but time to explore the ship and look out over the lake.

The Ilala Ferry of Lake Malawi.

The top deck of the Ilala ferry.

The top deck of the Ilala ferry.

The entry to the bridge.

The entry to the bridge.

There are three classes of service available on the Ilala, a very cramped 3rd class below, an equally crowded 2nd class and 1st class on the top deck. Initially, we booked a 1st class ticket having heard that there were hammocks available to sleep in, but after boarding and surveying no sleeping options, we quickly decided we needed to make a change. The Ilala has a limited number of cabins, six total, and with our luggage to watch over and zero sleeping options we sprung for the last available cabin.

From a nostalgia sense, the cabin was pretty classic with a sink, two beds, storage for your gear, an oscillating fan, and little reading lights above each bunk. The bathrooms and showers were crude and shared amongst all of the passengers with a cabin or in first class. The top deck had a bar that sold water, soda, beer, and light prepackaged snacks. A full galley was onboard, and available to passengers in the cabins and 1st class. The friendly chef spoke a little English and enthusiastic towards us; particularly when the conversation regarded food.

Our cabin on the Ilala.

Our cabin on the Ilala.

Our cabin on the Ilala.

Our cabin on the Ilala.

Our friendly and capable chief.

Our friendly and capable chef

Our time on the ship felt excruciatingly long at some points, mostly caused by the heat that never seemed to relieve its strangle on us. The cabin wouldn’t begin to cool down until long after midnight, partly from its metal frame and complete lack of air circulation. During a port stop, a fellow passenger, Willy, and I decided to attempt to cool off by taking a swim while we waited for the shore boats to complete their tasks. It was a great deal of fun and provided a brief, but much-needed break from the heat. The bar on the top deck quickly began to run out of supplies; starting first with water and by the time we reached our destination they only had beer left. I spoke to the bartender about this, and he informed me that he had made the necessary requests, but that they had not been nor did he expect them to be fulfilled. Considering the temperatures and the number of people on board this was completely unacceptable.

Willy and Matt swimming.

Willy and Matt swimming.

By giving relatively reasonable access to towns that otherwise can be difficult to reach, the Ilala provides a vital service to the people of Malawi. Outside of people, cargo is moved by the ton, whether it be food (in some of the largest sacks of potatoes I have ever seen), to building materials, or any number of household goods and clothing. All this concludes in a full ship. Nighttime highlighted just how crowded the boat was; with practically every inch of deck space occupied. If you happen to need a 3 am toilet run, be prepared to navigate an obstacle course of working crew members, sleeping passengers and either cargo or luggage.

Likoma Island Port.

Likoma Island Port.

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In the end the Ilala delivered us safe and sound to our intended destination; albeit a little bit behind schedule and thirsty.

Know Before You Go:
  • Make sure you have cash, as it is required for your ticket and every purchase on board the ferry. There is no place to get cash once your journey has started.
  • Get money before you reach the port. The walking money exchangers at the harbor entries are known to rip you off.
  • Bring some food and water, Do Not rely on the ferry to provide all your needs.
  • If you have limited time, the ferry is not recommended.
  • The ferry only runs once a week in either direction.
Travelasics:

Be wary of information obtained regarding the Ilala’s schedule. We inquired on the departure and timetable of the ferry often and with many sources, and we were told various answers regarding its schedule. Your best bet is with the ticket office. I noticed a sign on the boat itself dictating a list of stops, but we did not even follow that route.

Travelationship Rating:

2 out of 5 Travelationship High Fives. The fact that the ferry ran out of drinking water and was ignored by the company is completely unacceptable. If you like adventure, relaxation, or bucket lister type travel, and you have lots of time, you will enjoy taking the Ilala ferry.

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Comments 22

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      Author

      Hello, Grace. The stop times varied along the way depending on how much stuff they had to load and unload; most were at least two hours. You can get off, but you have to go via the shore boats because there are only two stops with a pier, Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay. Make sure you have cash on hand when you board the boat, bring extra water with you and get a cabin. Safe Travels

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! Debating taking it next month and the insight you provided was quite helpful….though the internal debate goes on. Time to check weather report!

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  2. 42 hours in the heat and cooped up in the ferry, is quite and experience though personally not for me. But great article and great photos too. Also the ferry seems to be a lifeline for many of the inaccessible ports.

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  3. Yikes, I think I would have passed on this journey. The heat and lack of water would have been a huge problem for me. I’m sure I would have gone a little “Here’s Johnny” by the end!

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  4. Even though it was hot and miserable at times. I bet it was an amazing adventure. Something you’ll talk about for years to come and will be glad you tried (at least once). The water situation though…

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  5. Some experiences I am cool going without. This sounds like a veritable hell on water. Very bold choice… but not surprising knowing the other adventures you guys have gone on. PS: this made me think of African Queen staring Humphrey Bogart… but without the jungle.

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  6. Pingback: Our Travelationship in Review: December 2015 - Travelationship

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