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 naïve 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.