Tales from the ferry: Taking a trip across Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi — the heart and soul of the country — is best explored on the MV Illala ferry. We follow in one writer’s footsteps.

By Amelia Duggan
Published 4 Jul 2019, 08:00 BST
Passengers disembarking at Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi
Photograph by Alamy

Men, women and children are lining up to shimmy down the ship’s ladder to a wooden skiff bobbing below. Ladies hike up their colourful chitenje wrap skirts and navigate the rungs, babies wrapped in papooses on their backs. Young men help with cargo sacks and the elderly, both of which are bundled up and tossed the last few feet into waiting arms. In this melee I find a perch near the prow, mesmerised by the boathands’ ability to organise everyone and everything. It’s like Tetris: “bags of maize go here, crate of chickens on there; just wedge yourself between the sardines and this surfboard — it’s not far to shore!” Finally we’re off, chugging away from the painted hull of the MV Ilala towards Likoma Island — a remote fleck of Malawian territory encircled by Mozambican waters.

As we approach the beach — a broad smile of white sand dotted with palms —  helpful locals, waist-deep in the water, arrive to piggyback passengers the last stretch. But I’m more than happy to wade, grateful after two hot days aboard the Ilala to dunk myself in the turquoise lake. This isn’t the end of my journey though; I’m merely disembarking for a few hours before sailing on for another day to Malawi’s north.

I look back at the old-fashioned steamer, toy-sized in the distance. My recent journey is nothing compared to hers. The 620-ton Ilala was engineered near Glasgow in 1949 and transported to Lake Malawi, making her maiden voyage as a passenger and freight ferry in 1951. Bar occasional breathers for repairs, she’s run the vast length of the freshwater lake, between Monkey Bay in the south and Chilumba near the northern border with Tanzania, twice-weekly for nearly 70 years. It’s a journey of around 300 miles via some dozen ports, and before Malawi’s road network was modernised, a lifeline for remote communities. But if rumours are to be believed, Malawi’s grande dame is soon to be retired.

Likoma proves the perfect respite. After ticking off the grandiose cathedral built by zealous missionaries (said to be modelled on the UK’s Winchester Cathedral) and enjoying a bean stew in a shack-restaurant shaded by mango trees and a hulking baobab, I reboard the Ilala feeling refreshed. Three hours behind schedule, a baritone klaxon signals the weighing of anchor. The young men from the island who were enjoying beers on the sundeck climb down into their dugout canoes. Passengers on the lower deck get comfortable among the new cargo. I retire to my cabin — one of only six — to lie under the fan and watch the scenery change through my open door until dinner time. Life quietens. Until the next port, of course, when the dance is repeated.

The Ilala, I learn over a plate of fresh fish and rice served at sundown in the first-class saloon, was named after the region of Zambia where the Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone died. As with most conversations aboard the boat, the subject runs like a tributary back to the lake itself. David Livingstone, a fellow diner reminds me, discovered Lake Malawi for the Western world, giving it the poetic epithet the ‘Lake of Stars’ for the nighttime vista of fishermen’s lanterns spread out across the water. The lake is the heart of Malawi, its pride and joy —  a dazzling inland sea that demands attention, not least because it covers a fifth of its territory. For the villagers living along its banks, it’s their source of food and water. For other Malawians, it’s symbolic of the country’s beauty and natural riches, despite its ranking as one of the poorest nations in the world.

Sailing the length of the lake, I see its different characters: its marshier sections, likely home to hippos and crocodiles; and sections where it’s as tranquil and pellucid as an aquarium, met by a shore of lumpen boulders, russet cliffs and trees between which fish eagles flit.

We dock at the final port, Chilumba, in the dead of night and my departure feels furtive, like I’m stealing away from a sleeping lover or the scene of a crime. A taxi deposits me at the foot of a mountain, where a matola pick-up truck is waiting to cart me up a series of pitch-black, hairpin bends to my guesthouse, Mushroom Farm, a remote, clifftop retreat set amid permaculture gardens, waterfalls and coffee fields. None of this I see when I arrive at midnight, and it’s not the first thing I explore when the sunrises in the morning. I pad out onto the cantilevered deck and gaze down at the lake and watch, for hours, as a single ship cuts across the counterpane of golden, morning light.




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