The Ilala is a shipping and passenger boat that has been traversing up and down the 360 mile (580 km) long Lake Malawi since 1951, and riding on it was definitely one of the most unusual adventures we’ve ever taken!
Most foreigners take the Ilala in order to get to Likoma Island, a gorgeous little treasure of a place in the middle of Lake Malawi. That was our destination as well on our maiden voyage on it.
We wouldn’t have had the courage to endeavor on this adventure if it weren’t for the encouragement and advice of our friend, Anneke, who has traveled on the Ilala many, many times and genuinely loves it. So we have her to thank for our decision to finally jump in and make this one-of-a-kind trip!
The Ilala was actually built in Scotland, and then dismantled and sent to Malawi by ship, where it finally reached Lake Malawi and was reassembled here. It is a huge part of life for many Malawians, carrying a large amount of people and cargo as it goes up and down the long, skinny lake each week. It leaves the southernmost port, Monkey Bay every Friday morning, stopping at multiple ports as it goes north all the way to Chilumba, and then returns the same way it came all the way back to Monkey Bay the following Wednesday afternoon… usually.
We say usually, because the Ilala is notoriously behind schedule. Like the Malawians she is operated by and transports, the Ilala is never in a hurry, as you’ll see from our experience.
Find it Quickly
There are 4 fare classes:
I’m not sure how Second and Economy are different, but I know that only Cabin and First class ticket holders are allowed to enjoy the top deck. If you can’t manage to get a Cabin, you definitely want a First class ticket in order to hang out and sleep up on the top deck.
There are 7 cabins on board, only one of which has an en-suite bathroom: the owner’s cabin.
The standard cabins all share a couple of common bathrooms, which are kept locked. The keys for the bathrooms are kept in the restaurant, which gets locked at night, as we learned the hard way on our first night! On our second night, Josh took a key from the restaurant to keep and use in the night.
All of the cabins have 2 twin beds (which are fully equipped with sheets, blankets, and 1 pillow per bed), a sink with a mirrored medicine cabinet, and a small desk. We were lucky enough to score two standard cabins, one for the girls and one for Josh and the little boys, and the owner’s cabin for me and our oldest son.
Families can definitely double up in the beds to save on cabins, you’ll just need something (a packable camping pillow or wadded up sweatshirt, perhaps) to use as extra pillows. Actually on the way back to Monkey Bay, the girls slept in the cabin with our oldest son and me, two to each bed, because their room was so hot and stuffy. I wish we’d done that from the beginning.
The owner’s cabin is a little bigger than the standard cabins, and served as a great place for us to all hang out together when we wanted to escape the crushing crowds, and it also gave us a private bathroom for all of us to use. It’s in the front of the boat and has more windows for better airflow, so it was CONSIDERABLY cooler than the standard cabins (big plus for hot natured people like me).
If you can get the owner’s cabin, we highly recommend choosing that one. It’s a little more expensive than the others, but very much worth it.
Those who can’t get a cabin just sleep literally wherever they can find a space on the decks, using chitenje (African wraps), blankets, or sleeping bags that they brought with them. Some people even set up tents on the top deck.
The process of getting on and off the Ilala was so insane that we have written an entirely separate post just about that. But here, let’s talk about where to get on and off.
Coming from Zomba, we drove 3 hours to Monkey Bay the day before and spent the night before our journey at Monkey Bay Beach Lodge. If you’re coming from Lilongwe, you can get on at either Monkey Bay or Senga Bay.
When we were trying to decide whether to board at Monkey Bay or Senga Bay, we were advised to board at Monkey Bay for two reasons: 1) It is one hour closer to drive to from Zomba, and 2) It has an actual dock that allows you to just walk onto the boat. None of the other stops have a dock, and the Ilala just stops a bit away from the shore and lets smaller boats ferry passengers back and forth from the boat to the shore.
Now that we’ve done it, though, we’d strongly recommend starting at Senga Bay, because it cuts about 11 hours off your boat ride each way. At Monkey Bay we boarded at 7:45am, and we got to Senga Bay around sunset. On the way back, we were again at Senga Bay around sunset, and finally got to Monkey Bay at 2:00am.
You could also drive another 4 hours north to the Nkhotakota port and save an even more significant amount of time, but we can’t recommend that route, because the Ilala always stops at Nkhotakota in the dead middle of the night. Getting off at 2:00am at Monkey Bay wasn’t so bad, because we just walked off onto the dock. But do you really want to wake up at 3:00am in order to groggily shuffle yourself through a mass of people, out onto a smaller boat, and then onto the shore in the pitch black darkness? No, you don’t. Trust me, that is crazy enough in the daylight.
Also the amount of people and stuff that gets on and off at Nkhotakota is INSANE. More about that in a bit.
Obviously if you’re coming from somewhere farther north like Mzuzu, you’ll get on somewhere else. From the route map that was on board the ship, it looks like Nkhata Bay is your best bet, in which case you’d just have a quick little trip over to Likoma Island, and we will be very jealous of you.
The Restaurant (aka Saloon)
There is a surprisingly decent little restaurant onboard that has a few round tables. It also makes for a nice refuge when the boat gets crowded or the top deck is too hot and sunny. We ate all of our meals there during our journey. The best thing to do is to go order your food about an hour before you want to eat, and then the friendly waiter will come find you and tell you when your food is ready.
The meals turned out to be about $5 per person per meal, including bottled waters. We all had the full English breakfast every morning, and for lunches and suppers we mostly had either chicken or “chicken salad” with rice or chips (aka fries). I put chicken salad in quotes because that’s what it’s called, but it’s actually more like shredded chicken and vegetable stir fry in a tomato sauce. Not at all what Americans think of when we think of chicken salad. It wasn’t bad, just not what we were expecting the first time.
On our last evening aboard, the kitchen had run out of chicken, so we all had fish fillets. It was surprisingly delicious, but took FOREVER to cook (probably because they were as fresh as possible and had to be cleaned on the spot), so be aware that if you want fish fillets, you should order at least 2 hours early. Perhaps mercifully, we were all pretty seasick that day and didn’t have appetites anyway, so waiting longer wasn’t too big of a deal.
The boat did run out of bottled water on our way from Likoma Island to Nkhotakota. They bought more the next morning before leaving Nkhotakota, but it made for one very thirsty day for our family who drinks a lot of water. In hindsight, I wish I’d brought our Sport Berkey, which is a water bottle with a built in charcoal filter so we could have just filled it with water from the tap and had as much safe drinking water as we needed.
Mango Drift Lodge on Likoma Island booked our passage on the Ilala for us, and I’m pretty sure all of the lodges on Likoma probably do the same. So if you’re going to Likoma, check with your lodge about that. If you want to book yourself, we got the above picture of the booking information that was posted in the saloon.
I don’t know this for sure, but I’d imagine WhatsApp would be the best way to contact Mary at that number. That’s how we do all business here in Malawi.
Monkey Bay to Likoma Island
7:45 AM THURSDAY – MONKEY BAY
We boarded at Monkey Bay at 7:45am, and were the first ones on board (crazy foreigners and our weird thing about punctuality, ha). This first leg of the trip was deceptively unpopulated, and we all enjoyed having the sunny top deck mostly to ourselves to play and enjoy the views.
The Ilala apparently likes to keep things spicy, and doesn’t actually go the route printed on the map above. If you look carefully, someone drew in the corrections showing how it now goes from Monkey Bay to Makanjira, then to Senga Bay, and on to Nkhotakota.
12:00 PM THURSDAY – MAKANJIRA
It took about 3.5 hours to get to our first stop, Makanjira, on the eastern shore of the lake. We spent about 3 hours here letting people and stuff on and off via smaller dinghies. A few people got on here, but not too many, and the boat was still uncrowded.
After Makanjira, we spent about 1.5 hours crossing almost straight west to Senga Bay.
4:30 PM THURSDAY – SENGA BAY
We arrived at Senga Bay around 4:30pm and stayed another 3-ish hours there for unloading/loading. By the time we pulled away from Senga Bay to head toward Nkhotakota, it was almost 8:00pm and time to settle down in our cabins for a good night’s sleep.
Or so we thought. Actually we had been warned by our friend Anneke that we would probably get woken up when we stopped in the middle of the night at Nkhotakota.
3:30 AM FRIDAY – NKHOTAKOTA
Sure enough, at 3:30am we were all woken up by the sounds of the dinghies being lowered and the noise of people getting on and off the boat. There is so much shouting involved in that process.
We finally managed to go back to sleep, and when we woke up at 6:00am, we were surprised to find that were still in the same place. It wasn’t until about 7:30am that we started to move once again.
When we opened our cabin door in the morning to go to breakfast, we couldn’t believe the crowds of people on the deck! You could hardly walk across the deck for having to carefully plan each step around sleeping people, bags of stuff, and a few live chickens.
We stayed in our cabins that whole day except to make our way to the restaurant and back for breakfast and lunch. It wasn’t too bad, because we were all tired from the poor night’s sleep, so several of us dozed on and off throughout the day as we read books and watched movies.
3:30 PM FRIDAY – LIKOMA ISLAND
8 long hours later, we finally pulled into the port at Likoma Island! We’re told the Ilala usually arrives around 9:00am, so spending that whole extra day in our cabins on a very crowded boat instead of on the beach was pretty disappointing. But we were just happy to finally be there. It was about 5:00pm when we finally made it onto the shore.
Because of the Ilala’s schedule, you have to stay either 3 nights on Likoma Island or 10 nights. So we spent 2.5 days and 3 nights on beautiful Likoma Island at Mango Drift Lodge, and then headed back to the port to board the Ilala for home the following Tuesday morning.
Thankfully, our lodge manager was in contact with the captain on the Ilala to know exactly what time was best for us to come to board, so we didn’t have to wait for a long time unnecessarily.
Likoma Island to Monkey Bay
12:00 PM TUESDAY – LIKOMA ISLAND
On our return on Tuesday, the Ilala arrived at Likoma Island at 4:00am. We’re told that it stays so long at Likoma because the captain gets some shut-eye during that time, which we definitely don’t blame him for, and we appreciated not having to board in the wee hours of the morning!
The captain told the manager at Mango Drift that we should board around 10:30 or 11:00am, so we arrived at the port at 11:00am, and were aboard the Ilala by 12:00pm. That hour was probably the craziest hour of our lives, which we will post about soon. But we and all of our backpacks did make it safely onboard, and we took refuge from the crowd in our cabins. We didn’t think it was possible, but the deck was even more crowded this time than before. We finally pulled out of port at 1:30pm.
8:30 PM TUESDAY – NKHOTAKOTA
About 7 hours later, we arrived back in Nkhotakota. We went to sleep in our cabins shortly after stopping, fully expecting to wake up around 3:00am when we arrived at our next stop, Senga Bay. Well the joke was on us, because we woke up the next morning still in the same place, and they were STILL unloading the majority of the people and fish! When we opened our cabin doors to go to breakfast, we couldn’t believe the difference! The deck was now completely clear! It wasn’t until 8:00am, almost 12 hours later, that we finally set sail again south, this time with a significantly lighter boat.
3:00 PM TUESDAY – SENGA BAY
7 hours later, we pulled into Senga Bay. “This won’t take 3 hours like it did before,” I said to Josh, “there are hardly any people getting on and off.” Almost exactly 3 hours later, shortly after sunset, we pulled out of Senga Bay headed for Makangira.
7:30 PM TUESDAY – MAKANGIRA
It took 1.5 hours to get to Makangira, and another 3 hours sitting there unloading and loading. We were so tired and bored by this point, we were bordering on delirium. Thankfully it was time for bed. We packed all of our things so we’d be ready to jump up and disembark as soon as we got to Monkey Bay in the middle of the night, and settled down to try to get a little sleep.
2:00 AM WEDNESDAY – MONKEY BAY
After what felt like the boat ride that would never end, we finally pulled back into the dock at Monkey Bay at a bleary-eyed 2:00am. Warren from Monkey Bay Beach Lodge was gracious enough to come pick us up and bring us back to his lodge to spend the rest of the night.
Top 10 Tips for Riding the Ilala
1. Definitely book cabins in advance. Mango Drift organized this for us, and I’m pretty sure all the lodges on Likoma Island do the same. On our way up to Likoma, we met the only other two foreigners on the boat. They had just booked the day before, and all the cabins were already taken, so they slept in sleeping bags on the top deck. The cabins were so nice to have as a home base for our stuff and a place to get away when the boat was really crowded.
2. Bring Dramamine and melatonin! The lake can get pretty big waves, which make the boat rock considerably in some places and can make you pretty seasick. And the melatonin will help you sleep a tiny bit better amid the noise outside.
3. Take lots of snacks and extra water. There is a surprisingly decent restaurant on board, but not much in the way of snacks in between meals. There is a small tuck shop on the bottom deck and a bar on the top deck that sell some drinks and snacks, but they tend to sell out quickly. As I said above, the boat ran out of bottled waters (as well as all sodas except for the super strong tasting Sobo ginger, which we are not fans of) at one point. Not good on a long, hot day. If you have a Sport Berkey or similar water bottle with a built-in filter, bring it.
4. Only bring what you can carry in one backpack per person. It’s so much easier to just have all of your stuff on your back.
5. Have some things to do to keep yourself entertained, especially if you are traveling with kids. There are long stretches without cell phone service, especially the whole way between Nkhotakota and Likoma Island. For the kids, we loaded a lot of movies onto the iPad and iPod, and we also brought coloring books and colored pencils, a deck of cards, their Kindles, and a couple of stuffed animals (we love their Pottery Barn Makenzie backpacks for being able to clip their stuffed animals to the outside of their packs). For ourselves, we each brought a book, and we also worked offline writing blog posts on our phones.
6. Take plenty of cash (in Malawian kwacha) with you to pay for food on the boat, as well as what you’ll need on the island, as there aren’t any ATMs on the boat or island.
7. If you have a cabin, bring a surge protector with a British plug end. Each cabin has one double outlet, and your fan will use one of those. We have a very handy travel surge protector that we use everywhere we go. It comes with plug adaptors for everywhere. The multiple usb outlets make it easy to charge allllllll of our devices at once. If you don’t have a cabin, bring a good portable battery pack. We have two of these Anker ones, and love them. They hold multiple charges for your phone at a time.
8. Be flexible and patient! This isn’t Germany or America. I don’t think Malawians have words for “punctual” or “efficient.” But you will get there eventually, so try to just relax and enjoy the journey.
9. At the same time, also be brave! If you aren’t used to being a minority, it can be uncomfortable to stand out from everyone else and be stared at everywhere you go. Also getting off and on at Likoma Island was hands-down the most insane thing we’ve ever done. It was chaotic, stressful, sweaty, and even a little scary for the kids at some parts. But we had to push through and just do it, and we are so glad we did! We will share more tips just for that process in the next post!
10. Possibly the most important part of riding the Ilala is choosing to see it as part of the adventure, and not just a means to get to Likoma Island. Because if we’re only talking about efficiency, it would be way faster to drive to Nkhata Bay (about an 8-9 hour drive from Zomba) and take a ferry to the island from there. But taking the Ilala is an incredibly unique adventure in and of itself that you won’t regret.
Would We Do It Again?
So the big question is, would we do it again? Would we change anything?
If we go back to Likoma Island (which we’d love to do) we would definitely drive an extra hour to Senga Bay and get on there instead. One extra hour on the road saves about 11 hours of time on the Ilala, and I really think that would make a huge difference. If the Ilala is running close to on schedule (which is definitely not a given, but does sometimes happen), then you’d just have time to watch the sunset, sleep, and when you wake up you’d only have a few hours to enjoy the novelty of the boat before arriving at Likoma Island around 9:00am. That sounds so much more enjoyable than coming from Monkey Bay.
Don’t get us wrong, the Ilala isn’t perfect, and during your trip you’ll definitely encounter your fair share of cockroaches, drunk men, people wanting to take your picture, fishy smells, and extremely crowded conditions. But that’s part of the adventure of it! We’d definitely encourage anyone who is considering this trip to absolutely do it! It’s wild and unpredictable, but that’s what makes unique!
Please let us know in the comments if you think you’d be up for experiencing the Ilala, or if you ever have! And don’t miss our follow-up post about the process of getting on and off at Likoma Island!
We’re also happy to answer any of your questions about it that we didn’t answer in this post!