Wednesday, August 26, 2009

MV Ilala

The MV Ilala is an infamous steamer plying the waters of Lake Malawi. It is over 60 years old and is showing signs of its age. The ship no longer conforms to international safety standards and as a result the Malawian government have been trying to have it de-commissioned for over 5 years. Which means there is no time like the present to clamber on and go for a ride! Apparently the government are looking into building a replacement but these things take time.

It leaves its home port of Monkey Bay on the southern shore every Friday, travelling northbound via Chipoka and Nkhotakota to Metangula in Mozambique, from there to the isolated islands Likoma and Chizimulu and on to the bustling fishing port of Nkhata Bay. It then continues north via several small villages to Chilumba where it should arrive on Sunday evening before leaving again early Monday morning and starting the return journey, arriving back in Monkey Bay by Wednesday, scheduled around lunchtime but more often than not sometime in the evening. Many of the stops do not have a harbour or jetty and so the passengers, and all their worldly goods, are ferried ashore, or as close as they can get, via the Ilalas two lifeboats. This means a stop at one of these places can last up to 8 hours as they fill each lifeboat and over in both directions. Just a couple of weeks ago one of the lifeboats capsized doing a run from the Ilala to Chizimulu, a distance of just a couple of hundred yards. I cannot imagine the frustration and fury, having almost survived the experience, only to be thrown in the drink within spitting distance of dry land!

The most common use of the Ilala by foreign tourists is to visit the beautiful islands of Likoma and Chizimulu. To do this and continue in the same direction means to spend a week on these two very small islands, although this is hardly a bad thing. If you don’t mind backtracking then you could make a visit of 4 days. A visit to the islands is a highlight of Malawi for many tourists.

Lake Malawi is stunning and at times you can be forgiven for thinking you are out at open seas. Come sunset most tourists, both foreign and local, find themselves up on the top deck, enjoying a sundowner at the bar.

Officially the passenger capacity is 460 and the cargo capacity is 100 tonnes, plus 10 tonnes for “personal luggage” although, naturally, these figures are often ignored. When we recently boarded at Nkhata Bay the ship was full to bursting point, to the extent that some passengers were denied boarding, meaning a whole week until the next departure! Trust me, it’s an experience being on a ferry (or any form of transport) in Africa when they decide there is not even space for one more person, or sack of rice!

There are four classes on board the Ilala:

- Economy, which is a few municipal-baths style benches on the lowest deck, plus any cubic inch of space anywhere on the deck. This is often packed to the extent that we were unaware that there were any benches as all we could see were a mass of people sitting on bags of rice and corn flour and the piles of flattened cardboard boxes that people seem to be dragging everywhere.
- 2nd class, a small cabin at the front of the lowest deck, in between the economy section and the cargo on the bow. There are roughly 10 sets of tables with bench seats. If it is quiet this can be quite comfortable as you can stretch out.
- 1st class deck is the next step up, free reign of the top deck, which is also where the bar is situated. Sounds great for that sundowner but not so good on the busy sectors to/from Nkhata Bay where it is bound to be packed with paralytic fishermen. These sectors are also the worst for theft on the top deck, funnily enough.
- Finally Cabin class. Nice two-bed cabins with basin and table inside. There is also an owners cabin which has an ensuite bathroom.

On the second deck, where the cabins are situated you will find two hot(!) showers and clean toilets, although when the ship is packed to the gills it can be difficult making your way to the toilet. When I had to go I think I crushed three babies’ heads and several old women’s ankles, whilst searching for a small gap to plant my feet as I swung from the overhead pipes monkey style. There is also a nice restaurant with an impressive menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Highlights include the grilled chambo (Lake Malawis most popular fish), the shredded beef and rice, and the vegetable curry. Breakfast offers a variety of options including a Full English, the Middle Eastern Shakshuka or just a fried egg sarnie. Down in the Economy class there is a galley serving cheaper and simpler but no less tasty meals if you are trying to save the pennies. There is also a small shop selling essentials such as biscuits, crisps and beer.

It can be quite an expensive trip. From Monkey Bay to Likoma Island in a cabin will cost more than 15000MK, which is over $100, 1st class for the same sector will run to around 9000MK (around $65) and 2nd class will be just under 3000 ($20). We travelled 1st class from Nkhata Bay to Chizimulu, which cost us 2600MK each, and then 2nd class from Likoma Island to Chipoka (having got a small dhow between the islands). We then decided to continue to Monkey Bay so bought an economy ticket for the final sector. As we arrived in Monkey Bay during the night the captain invited us to sleep in a cabin, free of charge, and disembark in the morning so Monika and I are in the unique position of having tried every class on the Ilala!

All in all it can only be described as an ‘experience’. This is the third such ferry we have travelled on in Africa (not including the fast ferries between Jordan and Egypt and between Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar) but by far least comfortable. Whilst the ferry across Lake Nasser was packed there was still room to move and in contrast to the Ilala the Lake Victoria ferry was a luxurious experience!

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