Rough Waters, An Even Rougher Ride on Malawi’s Ilala Ferry

The ferry was quite possibly the worst transit experience of my life. It was due to leave at 10am. It left at noon. It was due in the next day according to the schedule at 1:30 pm. It arrived at 10pm. Aside from the bugs on the wall, the occasional rat sighting, the ants biting my ankles, the woman retching next to me, the orange peels all over the floor, the women and babies sleeping on the nasty floor, and the bad waves and seasickness, I guess it was a nice journey.

I was leaving my volunteer project in Monkey Bay to go to Likoma Island. First class, which is open air and occupies the top deck of the ferry was about 9600 kwatcha. Second class on the bottom deck has a room with cushioned benches and a small deck area outside. It was 3250 kwatcha. The decision was a no-brainer for me: I needed to save some money, and when I spotted other tourists in second class, I figured it would be fine. I’m glad I went second class for a few reasons. One- it was really cold and windy at times and I was inside so it was a little warmer. Two- me and my friends I met on the boat all got seasick, but somehow lying down and not being able to see the waves outside made it better. And three- they let you roam the decks and didn’t check tickets, so you could go sit up at first class whenever you wanted. I went up there to take photos several times when I wasn’t feeling a wave of seasickness coming on. If you were looking to sleep outside, under the stars, and among the wind and waves, then first class might be right for you.

So here’s a rough overview of the long-ass, mostly miserable journey.

Unloading people off of the ferry

I boarded the ferry around 9:15am. Second class looked fine: a few other foreigners, not crowded, etc. 10:00 passed, 11:00 passed, and we finally left at noon. It was initially really choppy, but died down. We made our first stop at 4pm. We picked up a few passengers but not all that many. This is when it got really cold and the water started to get choppy. Everyone put on their warmest clothes, scarves, and hats, and foreigners pulled out their sleeping bags. From Monkey Bay I met a girl from Finland and a couple from Switzerland. Then a couple from Chile got on at the first stop. At around 5pm, one of them thought they spotted a rat. But then again maybe it was just a shadow on the floor. At 6pm, another girl saw the rat in the rafters. Oh god. I thought, Okay I can handle this. What can a rat possibly do? But then I spotted it running down the wall and before I knew it my reaction was to jump, gasp, and tuck my legs in under me off of the floor. I was so freaked out. The bugs that had been crawling around my stuff seemed to be gone though. Everyone pretty much laid down and slept to overcome seasickness. I woke up at 9pm, and it was warmer and less windy so I had to strip off my jacket. I read until midnight, and then fell asleep again.

Goods piled up in front of the sink

Around 3:15am, we had our first Titanic moment. Everyone was jolted awake by severe waves, a huge crashing noise, and water running off of the rafters like a rain shower. Bottles, food, bags, everything that was on the tables had fallen to the floor. Women and babies got up off the nasty ground because water was dripping on them. We picked everything up and laid back down. The waves were rough. We arrived in Nkhotakota around 4:30am. We can’t go to port because it’s too shallow so we sent out small boats to drop off people and pick people up. At this stop, tons of people, goods, food, and furniture got on. It took until 8:30 to get everyone and everything on board. I got up around 6:30am to check it out. People were all barefoot, and soaking wet from wading in the water to get on the small boats. I met a girl from New Mexico, and she said people were fighting to get on the boats. Some people waded out to their chests to climb on the boats. It was so chaotic, and the waves were bad. Goods were piled up in front of the sinks so to brush my teeth was quite a feat. I had to get a good arc on my spitting technique to make it to the sink.

Tight Quarters

Second class gets crowded

Hoards of people were now everywhere on the boat. Economy class was crammed in like sardines. Second class was tight quarters but we managed. Lots of people ate oranges and there were peels all over the floor. It started to get really dirty and substandard. I continued to sleep on and off even though I had a headache from sleeping too much because it was either do that or be seasick. I was awoken several times by what I swear was something crawling on my ankles but I never saw anything. Then I finally saw an ant scrambling for refuge in my shoe. So there were ants biting me. At 2pm we finally made the stop in Metangula, Mozambique. We didn’t leave until 4pm, and it was still 6 hours to Likoma. At 4:05pm, I hear a woman retching and look over to see her under the neighboring table puking into her blanket while her baby was sitting there crying. I definitely laid back down and closed my eyes trying to ignore what was going on. After it got dark and warmed up again, we all just wanted off the boat so badly. At 9:30pm there is a horrid fish smell. I was wondering where the smell was coming from. Then I spot him- a man that had opened a garbage bag and was sorting his fish. At that point it was just like, ‘Can it get any worse when we’re almost there?’ But oh yes, it can. We finally dock out in the water at 10pm.

We made it to land!

Are we there yet?
We’ve arrived! Lots of people were getting off. We crammed in line on both sides of the ferry (they have two boats to take people ashore). The first boat left. We waited about 20 minutes for it to come back. We literally clambered over bags of maize as if it were an obstacle course to get off. When the boat came back suddenly it was mad chaos: people shoving, an old woman tearing at my arm to get off before me. I didn’t want to lose my friends so I just shoved forward. I handed my small bags down to one of the guys. It was scary climbing down the ladder to the small boat because people were trying to shove bags of goods and even a TV by my head. Again, it was like a Titanic moment, as if it were the last boat, and no one else was getting off. I made it into the boat, and suddenly the island went completely dark. It was time for the island’s generators to be turned off for the night. The ferry had to shine a spotlight so the boats could see to get to shore. I rolled up my pants and took off my shoes. The boat got as close to shore as possible then it was chaos all over again. Since the island has no crime you can trust people, and thank goodness for some wonderful locals. A guy took my rucksack and shoes, while I kept my big pack on my back. I threw one leg over and only could reach the water with my tiptoes. I put my arm around this man’s neck and as he braced me I literally just rolled over the side of the boat. And then was in it nearly waist deep. We got to shore and he handed me my things. The locals were generous trying to help foreigners. Josh was there from Mango Drift in the most badass transport ever! If you’ve ever ridden the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, it was a similar experience. The car is an open air, stadium seating type of Land Rover. I want one!! It was full though, so we waited about 30 minutes for him to come back for 4 of us. We made it to Mango Drift at midnight. We took showers, however after over 36 hours on this damn ferry, my equilibrium was off, and I had a hard time bending over to shave without falling. The accommodation is phenomenal, set right along the shore of Lake Malawi. However, as I lie in bed that first night, I kept thinking that what would normally be the soothing sound of waves lulling one to sleep had become a reminder of that miserable ferry ride, rough waves, and all that it entailed.

The guidebook said that the Ilala Ferry is the highlight of a trip to Malawi for many visitors, but I digress. Don’t believe everything you read!

One thought on “Rough Waters, An Even Rougher Ride on Malawi’s Ilala Ferry

  • Thanks for all of your travel advice. I just got back from Africa, and it was amazing. My Ilala experience wasn’t as bad (first class was nice and not too cold), but the Titanic experience of getting off was hellish. A week later when I left Likoma Island, I was on the lifeboat getting back to the ferry and just climbed up the side of the ferry – backpack and all- to the second class deck to avoid the craziness. Such an intense trip. Not as bad as yours, but certainly not a highlight.

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