The Ilala Ferry

Passengers getting off the Ilala at Likoma.


The following is a little Easter adventure. The previous week we had to leave the car in a place up north called Nkhata Bay. We went there to spend a few days by the lake, but there was no petrol in town, so we parked at a friend’s house and hitched a ride back to Lilongwe. I then embarked on a mission to recover the vehicle…

By the time I got to the Lilongwe bus station, there must have been at least a hundred people in the last bus leaving for Salima. Never mind, I thought looking at the dozens more who were somehow still pushing inside the bus with suitcases, sacks, and buckets on their heads. I asked where I could catch another ride to Salima, and before I could take one last deep breath I was sitting back-mid-centre of a minibus about to depart.

To my right a father with his son and daughter sitting on his lap. He bought them an ice cream each before leaving the city, and to my delighted surprise they managed to not spill a single drop on themselves, their father, or me. Quietly, they spent the entire trip sucking on little spoonfuls of the soon melted cream. To my left was another man with his treasure: a box containing a stereo speaker, which he put next to him and held tight the whole trip. When we got to the police check in Salima, a young officer went up to his window and proceeded to question him about the contents of the box. I don’t know what was said (they spoke in Chichewa, of course) but the result of the conversation left the other passengers with their eyebrows raised and the man holding his box on the side of the road. Behind me, in the trunk, was a gigantic sack of those stinky little fish Malawians love to eat. I breathed through my mouth the entire journey and spent the rest of the day with the taste of decaying fish in my throat.

A quick transfer in Salima left me on the outskirts of Chipoka, where I took a bicycle taxi with a man half my size pedaling the bike. He did fine, thank God, and I blame any struggle on my heavy backpack.

A few days ago I mentioned to the man who sells me fruits at the market that I would be going to Chipoka. “Ah, that’s a big place, you’ll like it,” he said. Clearly, he was taking the piss. All I could find ‘in town’ was a big bag of ground nuts and a few packets of stale corn snacks. That was to be my source of food for the next day and a half, or at least provide me with some variation from the things I could eat on board the Ilala Ferry.

There was one single, solitary aspect that resembled my ‘First Class’ ticket on the ferry to a proper first class ticket. Free snacks. What were the snacks? Why, ground nuts, of course!

All (ALL) practicalities aside, the boat is dreamy. There are few rules, none of which are written down or spoken; you are free to use whatever common sense you’ve got. How great, then, to not have a single cloud in the starry sky when I laid my sleeping bag on top of an emergency floating devise on the top deck and proceeded to doze off next to all the other First Class passengers.

I spent about a day and a half on the Ilala, one of only two passenger boats navigating Lake Malawi (the other one is not very nice, I hear). The distance we covered was not very much; in a car it would have taken six to seven hours, but we made several stops in Malawi as well as in Mozambique, which owns the other side of the shore.

From the shore of Cobue, Mozambique, a little orange butterfly saw the Ilala arrive. She decided to go over for an exploratory mission. Over the ever-changing dunes of golden water she flew, helped by a light breeze, and entered the boat through the bottom deck. The huge sacks stacked everywhere made it difficult for the passengers to move around, and they all looked tired. She went up the stairs to the second deck, where she found a little dining room and a few empty cabins. Finally, on the top deck she found a group of Malawian ants who were sunbathing. The butterfly sat with them and talked for a good long while. It was so nice up on the deck that the little butterfly lost track of time, and when she finally decided to go home, the boat was already far from the shore. She flew hard and fast, but the wind was not helping her, and so she perished in the lake, goodbye little butterfly.

A sunset from the Ilala, looking over Malawi.

Likoma Island is the most popular stop for tourist on board the Ilala. It was going to take a while to load all the passengers and their things onto small boats that went to the shore and then bring back the people who were waiting to board, so a travelling friend suggested we jump off and have a swim. Having decided to brave the sweaty heat without a shower, this seemed like an instant upgrade. It was a good swim, minus the stares of the entire boat, followed by a good meal, followed by a couple of social gin and tonics. And so, when the Ilala finally departed the shore of Likoma, I was ready to be rocked to sleep under the stars.

I would have slept like a baby, too, but when I got to my corner-of-the-deck/room, it was surrounded by Malawian military guys eating their dinners. Now, I have nothing against the Malawi Military Force – they are as useful as a flashlight on a sunny day – but the six to eight bozos who set camp around my mattress and proceeded to yell out entire conversations, play awful music as loud as their cell phones would allow, whistle (!!) and walk aimlessly around the deck as they talked on their phones for the entire duration of the night, well, they need to be sent to fight next to the forces of Colonel Gadaffi, or some other lost cause.

At 5.30am we arrived in Nkhata Bay, where I waved the little-ferry-that-could goodbye, walked over to my friend’s house, woke him and a few of his housemates up, got the keys to the car, got a housemate to move his car out of the way, and I was finally ready to go home. Well, that is, with one minor detail: petrol. There was none in town the previous week, and guess what? There was none this week! Luckily, the guy who owns store across the street from the petrol station has a gargantuan supply of the stuff, for just double the price.
And so, on Easter day I went on a petrol hunt. I’m not a fan of Easter chocolate anyway. END.

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