The Ilala is an old-world, 620 tonne ship that travels the length of Lake Malawi¬†transporting locals and adventurous travellers alike. On a recent trip to Malawi with friends, we¬†decided this would be an interesting way to travel up the lake and see the country.¬†While initially disconcerted by the unfortunate departure date of January 1st (at 8 am) we began the New Year groggy but happy aboard the¬†Ilala.
We first took a taxi to Monkey Bay from Cape¬†Maclear, where the party at our backpackers was still in full force. Once at Monkey Bay¬†we picked up a bag of mangoes and some cheap chips abundantly displayed from every¬†street stall, bought our tickets and jumped aboard.
The Ilala (or MV Ilala) resembles a forgotten Wes Anderson set. The ship is a 66-year-old veteran that was originally built in Scotland, dismantled and reassembled in the¬†Lake for its first voyage in 1951. The original Ilala was built in 1875 and was named¬†after a region in Zambia.
After leaving close to departure time, apparently not such a common¬†occurrence, we found a piece of coveted shady deck and curled up on our towels for a¬†nap. The average trip from Monkey Bay to Likoma Island stretches about 30 hours¬†which leaves you with plenty of time to lie about, read and really contemplate how much¬†more pleasant this journey would have been sans hangover.
The continuous breeze is a welcome one as the Malawian summer heat is no joke. The¬†view is consistently spectacular as the sky changes over the course of the day as we glide¬†along the lake, tranquil and vast. We occasionally pass curious, lush islands, spotting one or¬†two villas which look like something an eccentric billionaire might own.
The ship makes¬†stops at the bigger islands and mainland towns along the way but never docks. A lifeboat¬†is sent out to pickup new passengers and drop off those who have reached their destination. Some of us who are feeling¬†less fragile use this time to jump off the roof of the vessel into the unknown depths of the¬†lake.
The ship has two restaurants, one on the middle deck and one on the bottom. Basically¬†they offer up the same dishes, all local, all served with nsima or rice. We eat our chambo¬†while Men in Black blares from the small TV in the dinning room.
The evening is quiet and we find a space on the open deck to sleep with a single¬†hoodie for a blanket due to na√Øve packing decisions.¬†I fall asleep under a night sky abundant with stars and awake to a new passenger taking¬†a cell phone snap of me wrapped in a mix of towels and mismatched clothing items I grabbed during¬†the cold night before. My cheek now sports a deck imprint and the morning sun is¬†already glaring down with ferocity. This occurrence sums up the trip really, you relax¬†into a vacation haze surrounded by astounding beauty only to be woken up by¬†something raw and unpredictable.
The full trip goes up north to Chilumba, near Tanzania, but we plan to stop off at¬†Likoma Island for a couple of days. The island is relatively small and utterly beautiful¬†with friendly people and two great backpackers. We find ourselves stranded (debatably) on¬†Likoma for a few extra nights at the mercy of minimal transport options before eventually¬†boarding the Chambo to Nkata¬†Bay. As five hot hours amidst fish and groping passengers ensues I¬†reminisce about the breezy Ilala and decide I would easily do it all again.