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2013-04-20 12:10

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The rusting hulk of the MV Ilala ferry has inconsistently plodded a weekly route around Lake Malawi for more than 60 years.

Often infuriatingly tardy, its relaxed attitude towards timetables, health and safety, and a good regular tune-up, reflects Malawi’s laidback nature.

Sailing north

Starting in Monkey Bay at the far southern end of the lake, the Ilala criss-crosses its way northwards before following the same route back to its starting point.

A short boat trip from the mainland’s beach village of Cape Maclear, Mumbo Island provides exotic luxury of honeymoon proportions.

Here, an exclusive ecolodge restricted to five indulgent safari tents, each perched on its own rock plinth, offers views of clear water and distant hills.

Two days feels like a total escape, as months of hard grind unravel in seconds.

Back on the Ilala, the dull waft of its massive diesel engines will awaken the hardiest of dreamers.

A toot of its booming horn and off it chugs, carrying businesspeople, travellers, pleasure cruisers, a varied cargo and livestock to their final destinations.

The Ilala keeps the wider lake economy ticking. Thousands of tiny dried usipa fish caught in the waters off remote lakeside villages are transported to markets across Malawi; students are dispatched to schools, colleges and universities; and live samples of Lake Malawi’s colourful and unique cichlid fish start their journeys here to tropical fish tanks around the world. Whether travelling first class (from 6 820 kwacha one way – about R160) or economy (from 1 190 kwacha one way – about R27), exclusivity is non-existent on this vessel.

Food is either cheap and cheerfully dished out of a communal pap-and-beans kitchen, or an overpriced Western imitation from a poor excuse of a first-class lounge.

The top deck bar attracts drinkers of all types and facilitates a rare camaraderie among the Ilala’s guests.

Ports of call

Next stops are the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu, technically in Mozambican water but still territorially Malawian.

Likoma, home to St Peter’s Cathedral, a cavernous century-old church of epic proportions, has good beaches and the five-star Kaya Mawa resort that makes it worth a visit.

Its smaller sister island, Chizumulu, is also worth a stay.

Small enough to be explored by foot (there are no vehicles on the island) in half a day, the hourglass-shaped island is split into two distinct geographic and atmospheric regions: Wakwenda Retreat, a beautifully designed beachside resort for backpackers, and the rest of the island which is sparsely populated by a few chilled out fishermen.

As the Ilala trundles to the briskly busy port of Nkhata Bay, a remarkable symphony of night-time lights can occasionally be seen.

Hissing hurricane lanterns strapped to the stern of fishing boats and dancing stars on the lake’s horizon create a symphony of light.

Ilala day in Nkhata Bay means market day and a shock of bustling reality.

Second-hand clothes compete with sacks of fried termites, seasonal vegetables and bewildered tourists.

Low-budget overlanders flock to this Caribbean-esque travelling Mecca. One reason is the excellent scuba diving school, Aqua Africa, which conveniently occupies a space adjacent to the Ilala’s dock.

With a full complement of PADI courses, it’s a relaxed, safe and cheap place to learn.


The final leg of the Ilala’s route north takes in the isolated communities of Usisya and Ruarwe.

Zulunkhuni River Lodge, built into the rocks of a natural harbour close to Ruarwe village, offers an array of accommodation options and a choice of high diving platforms before an Indian-style dinner washed down with cold beer.

If your legs need a stretch, the day-long hike along a coastal path to Usisya will do the trick.

Although it doesn’t have the facilities of Zulunkhuni, Usisya Beach Lodge is a tranquil spot to unwind and wait for the iconic Ilala’s return journey.

Places to stay and play

Mumbo Island, off Cape Maclear, offers luxury tents and kayaking

• Kaya Mawa, Likoma Island, is a five-star resort

• Wakwenda Retreat, Chizumulu Island, is a great spot for backpackers

+265 (0) 934 8415,

• Aqua Africa, Nkhata Bay, offers scuba courses

• Zulunkhuni River Lodge, Ruarwe, is built into a natural harbour

• Usisya Beach Lodge: ask for info about this tranquil lodge at Kaya Papaya restaurant in Nkhata Bay, +265 (0) 111 744 048, or at Zulunkhuni Beach Lodge in Ruarwe.

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