Africa is a place where the journey is often as much a highlight as the destination. And the MV Ilala Ferry in Malawi is one of the true great African journeys…
My friend Melissa and I were sitting in the bar of our hostel planning our next move. I’d just finished leading my last Rock My Adventure tour of the year in Tanzania (Melissa was on that trip) and we’d made our way overland to Nkhata Bay, on the central part of Lake Malawi.
We’d been in Malawi for about a week, taking local transport everywhere, hitching rides in the back of pick up trucks, attending the dowry celebration of the daughter of the Chief of Lvingstonia (one of my favourite days ever) and pretty much having an amazing time – this was my kind of travel.
It had been an absolutely incredible experience so far, very frustrating at times (and you should know that I am about as laid-back as they come when it comes to travel), but wonderful all the same, mainly due to the awesome people we’d met along the way.
Our ‘plan’ for Malawi was that we had no plan, we would go where the wind took us, but we were aiming to meet our new friends at the Sand Festival in Senga Bay the following week.
With a few days to kill, we could have easily stayed in Nkhata Bay, but we we decided to head down to Cape Maclear, near to Monkey Bay on the southern part of Lake Malawi first. It had been a few years since my last visit and I was dying to get back.
We were discussing our options on how to get there, when the barman said “You know the Ilala Ferry leaves tomorrow right?” Melissa and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
Well that was it. Within seconds we’d decided to leave Nkhata Bay a day early and get the ferry. It would take us at least 2 nights, maybe 3 to get down to Monkey Bay but I’ve wanted to take the MV Ilala Ferry for years and it turned out to be one of my biggest Africa highlights to date.
The MV Ilala Ferry is legendary, a mini Titanic slowly making its way up and down the lake since 1951, providing a lifeline to many remote communities. Now it’s much easier to travel by road in much of Malawi, but there are still many people who depend on the Ilala, especially those living on the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu.
Lake Malawi, it’s huge at around 560 – 580 km in length and up to 75 km in width in some parts. It touches Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique and is so big, it looks like the ocean, with beaches and tides and incredible wildlife.
There were four of us from the hostel taking the ferry that night. Melissa and I had been down to the ticket office in earlier in the morning to see if we could book a cabin, but they couldn’t tell us if any were available so we were told to come back around 5pm. But the guys at the hostel said there was no way it would leave on time and to head over at around 7.30pm. So we spent the afternoon swimming and horse riding instead.
We arrived at 7.45pm. Had it actually left on time at 8pm, we would have missed it by the time we’d bought our tickets and boarded, but there was no way that boat was leaving any time soon.
As we were going to be on it for 2 (or maybe even 3 nights) we wanted to get a cabin, however there were none available, so we booked 1st Class tickets. 1st Class meaning sleeping on the floor on the top deck.
Picking up our bags, we headed down to the dock. It was heaving with people and luggage, sacks of sardines and maize, chickens in baskets, large pieces of wood and other cargo items, all of which needed to get over to the ferry which was docked a little way off shore, the walkway at this port broken after the ferry crashed into it some years ago. The only way to transport everything was on small life boats, some motorised, some not. It was pure chaos.
We were hanging around for a while and there seemed to be no specific boarding process, just lots of pushing and shoving and no sense of personal space, so we decided to go for it and hope for the best.
Tarik went first, hopping into the boat and sitting down at the side. I went next. There were all kinds of things being piled into the boat from all directions and somehow my foot went between two sacks of something and I ended up falling in backwards, pulled down by the weight of my backpack.
I tried to get up but I was wedged in, backpack on the floor, one leg up in the air, one trapped between the bags. Someone threw something into the boat and it hit me in the face. Mild panic set in as more people were piling into the boat and sitting on me. I was getting crushed and desperately trying to free my arms from my backpack straps. Luckily two Malawian women came to my rescue and helped pull me into an upright position.
I held out my hand to Melissa and pulled her in. India followed and finally we were all in the dangerously crowded boat. We sped off across the water and somehow, despite the waves, we managed to climb up the ladder onto the ferry and I think we all let out a huge sigh of relief at having made it. Looking back, it’s funny, at the time it was pretty scary!
We made our way up to the top deck and found ourselves a spot on the floor to sleep for the night. The ferry was starting to fill up and some people were fast asleep already, cocooned in sleeping bags or whatever else they’d brought to wrap themselves up in.
Looking at the hard floor and India and Tarik’s mattresses Melissa and I were starting to regret our decision to ‘wing it’. All we had were some pieces of chitenge fabric that I’d been collecting throughout our trip. Not nearly enough to keep us comfortable and warm.
There was only one thing for it – drink a few beers and hope for the best.
The bar was busy, so we grabbed a drink and made ourselves a little base at the back of the boat. Before long we’d acquired some new friends – a local guy named Young, who worked at a Mango Drift backpackers on Likoma Island and a couple of little kids who just seemed to like hanging out with us.
The ferry finally departed at around 12.30am. Welcome to Malawian time.
We sat up, talking and listening to some music. The ticket collectors came around at about 1.30am, waking everyone up, but once they’d gone, people started to go quiet Melissa and I settled down to an uncomfortable sleep at around 2.30am, accompanied by one of the kids, who slept a few feet away, wrapped in my sarong. It wasn’t all bad though, Young had bagged himself a space in a cabin with his mate and loaned us his sleeping bag, the weather was calm and above us there was a beautiful starry sky.
I awoke just as the sun was peeking over Chizumulu Island. Almost everyone was up by now, as the unloading and offloading of people and cargo is not particularly quiet. We were supposed to be leaving Likoma Island soon, but of course, we weren’t even there yet.
We just hung around for the early part of the morning, somehow becoming the ferry babysitting service whilst the parents got some rest.
India and Tarik were disembarking at Likoma, but as we were staying on, we were in no real hurry to go anywhere or get off the boat. Our friend Young had told us we were welcome to catch a lift with him over to Mango Drift and hang out there for a while, but we declined, worried we’d not be back in time.
But as we watched all of our friends zoom off on the first lifeboat, we realised we’d probably made a mistake, the sheer volume of cargo on the shore and on our own boat told us there was no way we were we were leaving any time soon and there wasn’t much to do besides watch the on and off loading of goods and people.
So we asked one of the staff if we could get off and how long we’d be at Likoma Island, he told us to “Be back in 2 hours!” So we hitched a ride with a private boat over to Likoma, which was much less packed and worth the $1 we had to pay for the privilege.
There isn’t an awful lot to do on Likoma Island, so after a little walk around the town, a cool drink at one of the bars on the beach and chatting to a few local people who said the ferry wouldn’t leave for hours, we decided to go to Mango Drift after all. It was an hour or so to walk and there are only 7 cars on the island so we convinced a couple of guys with motorbikes to take us over.
Mango Drift was a secluded beach paradise, next to a sleepy village filled with beautiful baobab trees. I’d love to say that we did something there, but we were hungry and tired, so we said hi to our friends, ate some food and had a sleep on the couches before returning to the boat at around 4.30pm with a lift arranged by Mango Drift.
And whaddayaknow? When we got back, they were still loading that God damn boat.
The sun was setting as we left Likoma and knowing we were now really behind schedule, we made the executive decision to get off the boat at the next stop, so we called ahead to Nkhotakota Pottery Lodge who arranged for a driver to come and pick us up, as we’d be arriving in the middle of the night.
After finding ourselves a new spot on deck, I went to find some water. They’d run out at the bar, but I was told that they might have some on at the bar down on the bottom deck, so leaving our bags with some friends we’d met at Mango Drift, off we went.
We walked down the steps until we reached the second deck, the ferry was really full now and there were people everywhere. Tentatively stepping over sleeping women and children, we reached the stairs that took us to the bottom deck, where everyone gets on and off the boat, where the cargo is kept and where the ‘Economy’ Class passengers have to sit.
We doubled back on ourselves towards the bar, only to be greeted by bags and bags of sardines.
The smell wasn’t terrible, in fact it wasn’t my first close encounter with sardines on this trip, but the smell of dried, warm, fish will be forever ingrained on my brain and lingered on my clothes until I was able to wash them a couple of days later.
We shimmied sideways through the sardines that were wedged against each side of the corridor, covering the windows so no air could get in or out. Then there was no corridor, as the bursting sacks were blocking the walkway, piled up almost to the ceiling, leaving just enough room to crawl through.
Being careful not to hit our heads, we carried on further down the boat, up and over the bags, on our hands and knees. Below and to my left, there were rows of benches and people staring up at us, seemingly surprised that we were down there. “Muli bwanji” we said and people smiled and said hello back. One man was playing the guitar and others were singing, some were sleeping, everyone was sweating.
These seats may have been ok for an hour or so or if it wasn’t for not for the fact that they were now totally wedged in – people were literally packed in like sardines, with sardines (take a look here to see what the place is like empty, now imagine tons of people and cargo shoved in there too, the windows you can see at the back were completely blocked by the sardines) – but some people have to stay on this boat for 3 days! I dread to think what it would be like on a stormy day, with no air coming in and people vomiting.
We jumped down from the sardines and the ‘bar’ was right in front of us. I say bar but it was actually more of a small cupboard selling various drinks and sweets, but unfortunately no water.
We decided to stick around for a soda anyway. We were getting a few curious looks, but most people were friendly and happy to have a chat.
After a while, with sweat dripping down my face, I started to feel a bit claustrophobic. All I could think of was – what if this boat starts to sink or capsizes?
I know that’s perhaps a bit dramatic and the likelihood of anything happening on this ever so calm evening was low, but if it did, there’s no way people could get out of here easily and I just hope that it doesn’t take an accident for them to change the way they operate.
I wish I could have taken a photo or video to show you what it was like, but I just didn’t think it was appropriate.
Back on the upper deck, we managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before we finally arrived at Nkotakota at around 3am. Exiting the ferry and getting into the lifeboat wasn’t quite as dramatic as when we boarded, but there was still a lot of pushing and shoving, and squeezing through the sardines with all our bags took some skill and a little bit of help from my motorbike driver from earlier who happened to be on the ferry too.
It was pitch black as we made our way towards the beach, watching the lights from the Ilala twinkle on the lake and fade into the distance. Leaving the ferry in the middle of the night like this reminded me of the lifeboat scene from Titanic.
The boat came to a halt a good 30 metres of so from the beach and people began to climb out, wading through the water and holding their bags above their heads. Melissa and I took off our shoes and were about to do the same when we were told to get into another smaller boat that pulled up alongside us. Our bags were taken out of our hands and we hopped into the boat as we were told.
That took us another 10 metres or so towards the shore, meaning that we only had to wade through calf deep water rather than above the knee.
It was a relief to see our driver waiting for us, a dude called Rasta who was a tour guide, taxi driver and all round good guy. As we were putting our bags into the car, he said ” You owe these guys money!”
We were confused. Who did we owe money to? We turned around and there were 3 or 4 guys stood around with their hands out.
“No we don’t!”.
“You got in their boat, they said you owe them money.”
We’d just assumed that the boat that pulled alongside us was part of the whole operation. But this was a private boat and seeing us these guys had spotted an opportunity to make some cash and now wanted paying for taking us the extra 10 metres to shore.
“We don’t owe you money.”
“I told you you had to pay!”
“No you didn’t and you know it, we were just told to get in the boat and no-one said anything about payment.”
“You should have asked! Why didn’t you ask?”
“Why would we ask?”
Rasta told us to get in the car, he knew these guys and he would sort it out.
I was annoyed at myself for not realising what was happening when we had stepped into the boat, but it was late (or early) and we were exhausted.
We could have just paid them the money they were asking for, it was only around $5 each, but it was the principle. These guys had taken us a few metres, not told us about payment, were trying to rip us off, had shouted at us and were now trying to intimidate us, which they probably did to tourists every week. We weren’t having it.
After 10 minutes or so of arguing (we found out later that the men had been giving Rasta a hard time for ‘siding with the mzungus’) I’d had enough, it was 4am now and I wanted to get out of there. So I got out the car and stormed round to the men, hands on hips.
“You didn’t tell us about payment, this is not right, you are trying to rip us off, you only took us from here to here and this is a horrible welcome to Malawi!”
They all looked a bit taken aback by my defiant stance and then, I did something unexpected… I cried. Well, I didn’t actually cry. I pretended to cry. I did my degree in Drama after all, may as well make some use of it.
None of the men quite knew what to do with themselves and grumbling they slunk off into the night. Was it right to cry? Should we have just paid? I don’t know.
But we were off the ferry and on our way to Cape Maclear, although that’s a whole other story…
Would I get the ferry again? Of course I would. Knowing what I know now would make it a hell of a lot easier. It was uncomfortable and long, but it was one of my favourite African journeys to date.
And as you know, travel in Africa is all about the experience.
Everything You Need to Know About the Ilala Ferry
Ilala Ferry Schedule
The ferry starts in Chilumba in the north on Monday at 2am (ish) and ends in Monkey Bay in the south on Wednesday, then makes the return journey from Monkey Bay on Friday, reaching Chilumba on Sunday. You can find the most recent schedule here.
However, you should know that the ferry is often early or late/delayed (depending on how long it takes to load/offload) and so you can’t really guarantee the time. If you’re on a super strict schedule, it probably isn’t the mode of transport for you!
We were meant to leave Nkhata Bay at 8pm, but it was actually 12.30am when pulled out of port. We were meant to arrive at Likoma Island at 3.30am, I think we arrived at about 9am. We were meant to leave Likoma at 8am, but the sun was setting we pulled out. We were due in to Nkotakota at 3pm, but I think we actually got off at around 3.30 – 4am. You catch my drift.
You’ve probably heard about ‘African Time’ well ‘Malawian Time’ is on a new other level. Just roll with it.
There are 4 types of ticket you can buy – Cabin, 1st Class, 2nd Class and Economy Class.
Cabin Class: Twin beds or bunk beds, with a sink (I think there is only 1 with a shower, the Owner’s Cabin). The cabins are on the middle deck.
1st Class: Sleeping on a bench or the floor of the top deck under the stars.
2nd Class: Sleeping on the floor of the middle deck. I think there are some benches too. I didn’t see them but you can see a pic here and Laura from a wandering sole wrote about her experiences in 2nd Class.
Economy Class: Sleeping on the floor, on sacks of sardines or sitting on a bench on the bottom deck.
The cabins can be quite difficult to get as there aren’t that many of them and they have no proper booking system, so they don’t know whether they will have any free until the ferry turns up at a specific destination.
There weren’t any free for us, so we got the 1st class tickets which would be my preferred option either way. Believe me, you either want 1st Class or a Cabin on the 2nd deck. You do not want a 2nd or Economy Class ticket – people will be stepping over you all night and the bottom deck is full to the brim with cargo.
You can buy your tickets in advance at the dock or on the ferry. We bought ours when we arrived at the port, but I saw some others paying for theirs on the ferry. You will need to take enough cash for the journey, as you can’t pay by card on the ferry. You may be able to get cash at some of the stops, but I wouldn’t count on it as getting on and off the boat is a right pain, some places don’t have ATM’s and you might arrive in the middle of the night.
The ferry cost me 20,450 MWK ($28) for 1st class from Nkhata Bay to Monkey Bay (although we actually got off earlier than we were supposed to at Nkotakota, because we figured would be quicker to go by bus and after a night and a half of sleeping on the floor, we were over it. One and a half nights on the ferry is more than enough, in my opinion – if we’d had more time I would have just stayed on though).
Getting On & Off the Boat
Getting on this damn boat was one of the scariest moments of my travels. It reminded me of the lifeboat scene in Titanic, lots of pushing, shoving and dangerously overloaded.
There are some docks that allow you to walk on and off the ferry (I think just Monkey Bay at the moment as Nkhata Bay is broken), but most stops require you to take small shuttle boats like we did. At Nkhotakota we took shuttle boats most of the way, but then had to wade through the water and onto the beach carrying our luggage (this is where a wheelie case just wouldn’t work).
Take your time, there’s eally no need to rush, but also be assertive.
If you do take a shuttle boat, and your big bag is heavy (like mine) take it off. You’ll need to use a ladder to get onto the ferry and it can be a bit choppy, so keep your smaller bag with you and pass your bigger bags up/down to the guys on deck or on the small boat. There will be people passing stuff up and down around you and sometimes people trying to climb around you too. It’s not very pleasant but keep calm and you’ll get on eventually! TIA!
You can catch a ride with some of the private boats, but just be aware that they will want paying. It won’t be a lot but agree the price beforehand so they don’t try and rip you off.
If you are arriving in the middle of the night, I would arrange a taxi to come and pick you up via your accommodation, especially if you are coming into one of the smaller towns. Again, agree the price beforehand.
If you are sleeping in a cabin, you don’t need much. The cabins have beds and bedding, although you may want your own sleeping bag or liner.
If you are sleeping on the deck, take something comfy to sleep on. If you have a roll mat or a piece of cardboard, that’s better than nothing, but if you can get yourself a cheap mattress or cushion from the market, even better. You can always gift it to someone when you get off. They will be forever in your debt! I’ve heard that there are mattresses for hire, but I didn’t know this at the time and didn’t see anyone do this.
Take a sleeping bag or blanket as it can get cold at night.
Finding a space is a bit of a free for all. If you are on the top deck, find yourself a spot that is shaded from the sun and protected from the wind. We slept between the lifejacket storage and what I think was the lifeboats (those circular barrel things above right and left). The bar area is covered, so is an ok spot, but just be aware that the music can go on late into the night and people are always walking around, so you may want to sleep away from there or bring ear plugs. It may also be worth investing in a cheap tent!
If you’re on the middle deck, I’d try and find a spot towards the back of the boat away from the staircases. People will be stepping over you all night otherwise.
If you’re on the bottom deck… actually, just don’t. It’s dangerous and very uncomfortable. You have been warned.
Toilets & Showers
There were 2 toilets and 1 shower (that I saw), both on the middle floor, but I never had to queue for either. I didn’t bother showering.
The toilet at the rear of the boat was a little bit nicer (and didn’t smell so bad), but it didn’t have a sink. The one near the middle of the boat also contained the shower and had a sink but got a bit stinky after a few hours. I think there are sinks somewhere, but again, I didn’t see them.
I also believe there are squat toilets on the bottom deck.
Melissa and I both had a big rucksack and a smaller daypack. When we were on the boat, we left our bigger bags in our ‘space’ and kept our daypacks (with all the important stuff in) with us when we moved about the ferry – not that we could go very far!
When we left the ferry to go to Likoma Island, we put our big bags under the table with all the DVD’s on in the Saloon. But this meant we lost our good sleeping spot. Some of our other friends who took the ferry also just left theirs on the top deck and they were fine.
Whatever you do, just don’t leave any valuables unattended. Keep your laptop, camera, passport etc on you at all times. There are no lockers to keep your stuff safe unfortunately!
If you have a cabin you should be able to lock it, but if you can’t same principles apply.
Food & Drink
There’s a bar on the top deck that serves alcohol (beers & spirits) and soft drinks. However, by our second night, they’d run out of water and only had sodas and beers left.
They have a Saloon where they serve sit down meals that you can book in advance, some meals are included with Cabin Class. I only had some chips from there which were fine, however I’ve heard mixed reports about the rest. Some people had a great experience, but another friend said they’d ordered the ‘continental breakfast’ which just ended up being 2 slices of bread as they’d run out of everything else!
On the bottom deck there’s a small kiosk serving drinks and snacks.
At the very least, I would take some water and a little bit of food. Things like nuts, peanut butter, jam and bread work well. You may be able to get some food when the ferry docks, but I wouldn’t count on it.
We had some lunch at Likoma Island when we stopped there and regretted not buying water on land as the boat had run out when we returned, so stock up when you can.
For us, the water was super calm and our journey was smooth, however it can get rough in high winds. If you’re prone to seasickness, take some tablets or wristbands with you.
If you want to charge your electronics, there is a charging point in the Saloon on the middle deck by the TV. No-one else seemed to be charging their stuff so we had it all to ourselves. In Malawi, they use British plugs.
We didn’t have any bother on the ferry and the worst part was getting on and off, but you never know!
Keep your valuables with you at all times and sleep with your daypack either in your sleeping bag or under your head. Somewhere that is hard for people to get to.
I would avoid spending much time on the bottom deck as I really don’t think it’s safe. God forbid that anything bad should happen as many of the people down there would be trapped. I don’t even want to think about it.
Be aware that when you get off the boat that if you get into any other boat than the Ilala’s shuttle boat, the boatmen will want paying and they can get a bit aggressive about it (see above).
The Ilala Ferry Survival Kit & Packing List
Wondering what you need to take on the Ilala Ferry, this list has you covered!
- Baby Wipes/Hand Sanitizer: Try and keep clean however you can.
- Sun Cream/Hat: There isn’t much shade on the boat.
- Water: Maybe take a couple of litres to start with.
- Food: If you are fussy about what you eat, I’d take your own food, if not, just take a few snacks to keep you going.
- Tent: If you could be bothered, you could always put up a small tent, although no-one did this on our trip.
- Mattress: Thank me later.
- Blanket/Sleeping Bag: You’ll want something to sleep under.
- Warm Clothing: It can get cold at night out on the lake.
- Trousers/Long Skirt/Sarong: Malawi is still pretty conservative, so ladies I’d suggest you cover your legs to avoid any stares or comments.
- Battery Pack: Just in case you can’t charge your stuff.
- Book/Cards: There’s not a lot to do on the ferry so you might want to entertain yourself.
- A Good Friend: Doing this on my own wouldn’t have been half as fun.
- Chitenge/String: You could fashion yourselves a shelter of sorts using some chitenge material and some string.
- Water Shoes: You may get your feet wet getting on and off the boats, so these are handy.
If you are looking for a truely authentic Malawi travel experience, then take the Ilala ferry!
I hope this guide helps you prepare for your journey and makes it a little more comfortable than mine. If you have any more tips or info, please leave them in the comments below!
Want to experience Lake Malawi for yourself? Then come on the next Rock My Zambia, Botswana, Malawi & Lake of Stars Adventure!
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