The Ilala has chugged up and down Lake Malawi each week since 1951. On its 6 day round trip the Ilala travels over 400km from Monkey Bay to Chilumba near the lake’s northern end, with 13 stops along the way.
Although Lake Malawi is totally landlocked, at 365 miles long, 52 miles wide and up to 700m deep you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived at the coast! This vast body of freshwater fringed by beaches of golden sand offers a plethora of water sport opportunities for those looking for something beyond sun, sand and swimming. But, if you are wanting to absorb the scenic wonderland and experience authentic Malawi then there’s 600-tonne ferry that can help you take it all in.
The Ilala ferry provides a vital lifeline service to local communities along the lake, as well as offering an affordable form of transport for the more adventurous tourist. At 66 years old Ilala is no spring chicken, but it did have a complete refit just a few years ago, which included brand new engines giving it a top speed of 10 knots!
The vessel isn’t for those expecting a luxury cruiser, but it does exude a charm that has ‘Malawi’ written all over it. It gives the opportunity to take in the stunning scenery, experience a slice of daily Malawian life, and give yourself the chance to slow down, and take in your surroundings.
The ship docks for several hours at Likoma Island where you’ll have time for a swim and a meal at one of the cafes along the beach. There are spectacular island views from the tower in Saint Peter’s cathedral if you’d like some more picture opportunities and a swim in the lake isn’t for you.
Another popular stop is Nkhata Bay, a stunning shoreline with plenty of accommodation overlooking the lake. There is a woodcarving market and plenty of restaurants and bars to take up your time here.
Author Oliver Ransfors, in his book Livingstone’s Lake, perfectly describes the atmosphere on board the Ilala: “Each day on board, amid the excited bell ringing, siren shrieks and hooting that seem inseparable from all maritime arrivals and departures, laughing crowds of Malawians line up on the Ilala’s deck to disembark, cluttered up with baggage that includes bicycles, cages filled with squawking fowl, sewing machines and even tethered goats.”