The Guide to Getting On and Off Malawi’s Ilala

Riding on the Ilala is an adventure, but getting on and off at Likoma Island is a WHOLE 'NOTHER adventure of its own, and was hands-down the CRAZIEST thing we've EVER done. Let our experience and tips prepare you (as much as is possible) to make Likoma Island your next destination!
fishing boats around the MV Ilala in Lake Malawi waiting to board passengers and cargo

As we told y’all in our last post, we recently traveled on Malawi’s MV Ilala, a passenger and cargo ship that goes up and down Lake Malawi. AND IT WAS CRAZY.

Are the caps a bit much? No. Because honestly no amount of words or pictures can adequately describe what this experience is like, but we will try our best.

We rode the Ilala from Monkey Bay at the southernmost part of Lake Malawi to Likoma Island in the northwest-central part of the lake. (Is that a confusing enough way to say where the island is? It’s in the north-west area of the central part of the lake. It feels REALLY far north to us in Zomba, but if you look at a map it’s actually only about halfway up the lake.)

passengers getting off the Ilala boat in Malawi Lake Malawi
a boy leans over the rail of the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi watching passengers get on and off

Monkey Bay is the only stop south of Likoma Island (possibly the only stop at all? I’m not sure) with an actual dock, so we got to walk right onto the Ilala when we boarded there (but if you haven’t already read this post, don’t miss the reasons why we wouldn’t board there again).

By the time we arrived at Likoma Island, we’d already watched people come and go at Makanjira, Senga Bay, and Nkhotakota, so we knew the basics of the process of getting on and off without a dock. The Ilala stops a ways out from the shore where lots of people are waiting, it lets down two dinghies to ferry people and cargo back and forth, and it also gets swarmed by a dozen or so private boats doing the same thing. To save trips back and forth, everybody is coming and going at the same time, so there’s no process for getting everyone off and then letting people on. It’s just complete and utter chaos. Organized chaos, maybe? I’m not even sure.

a family waits on board the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi

Our friend Anneke, who has traveled on the Ilala many times, gave us the tip before we left that we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get on one of the first boats. So when we arrived and people started getting off and on, we waited. And waited. And waited. And the bottom deck, which is where you come and go, still looked impassably crowded. And maybe it had calmed down from when we first arrived, or maybe we should have waited longer, but after about an hour of waiting we finally decided we were just going to have to go for it. So we put on our backpacks, I got in the front and Josh got in the back, and we told the kids to just hang onto the backpack of the person in front of them and do their best to push through and not get separated.

children with backpacks going down stairs on the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi to the crowded bottom deck
a family pushes through the crowded bottom deck of the MV Ilala in Lake Malawi to disembark at Likoma Island

We got to the bottom and couldn’t see any way to go toward the door in the middle, which was where we thought we needed to go. But after looking around for a minute, I spotted a side door in a slightly less crowded direction and headed that way. As we inched our way through the crowd, a man came up to Josh and offered to help us get on a boat. So this nice man pushed himself to the front, got us to the door, and eventually started helping us out the door and down onto the fishing boat. That was a LOT of chaos summed up in a relatively mild-sounding paragraph, but let me just emphasize to you that it felt NUTS. Our adrenaline was pumping as we worked to push through the extremely crowded deck and also not lose any children.

a girl is helped to get off the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi onto a fishing boat to go to Likoma Island
a boy is helped to get off the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi onto a fishing boat to go to Likoma Island

It was a really intense few minutes, but we’d finally made it! We texted our families back in America and posted on Instagram about how crazy it was! But now that we’d done it, we were prepared for getting back on in a few days, right? Well, yes and no. We’d gotten used to the crowded bottom deck, but nothing could have prepared us for the process of boarding from Likoma!

passengers and cargo wait on the shore at Likoma Island to board the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi.
a boy climbs aboard the MV Ilala in Lake Malawi from a fishing boat while many other people wait to board also

After a few days at Mango Drift on gorgeous Likoma Island, we made our way back to the harbor to reboard the Ilala. We waited for what felt like forever with our heavy bags and tired kids under the baking sun, until we were finally able to get on a boat to get to the Ilala. That boat got as close as it could until they told us to hop onto a boat between it and the Ilala that was covered in cargo. We stood on top of the cargo on that boat for a few minutes (as it was rocking from the waves, and we were both trying to keep our own balance and also hold onto a few kids each to try to keep them from falling off).

Eventually that boat wasn’t getting to the door either, so they told us to get off that boat and onto a third boat, very full of people, which had pulled up beside us. We SOMEHOW managed to squeeze the seven of us onto this boat, but it was TIGHT. One of our kids was whimpering at this point, but they were all being incredibly brave. Josh kept telling them, “you can all swim, so if you fall off, just swim to a boat.” I think this was more comforting to him than to the kids.

That boat FINALLY got us to the door of the Ilala, where we climbed one-by-one up and into it. But that’s not where this adventure ends!

Large white bags of dried fish are piled on the shore of Lake Malawi on Likoma Island waiting to be put on a fishing boat and taken to the MV Ilala boat, which sits in the distance

Fun fact: Likoma Island supplies the mainland of Malawi with the majority of the small dried fish (called bonya) that Malawians love. They pack them tightly in these HUGE white bags (pictured above) that just barely fit inside the door of the Ilala.

two boys climb over large bags of dried fish aboard the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi boarding from Likoma Island

So when we boarded the Ilala to head south, so did an INSANE number of huge bags of dried fish! They piled them so high in the bottom deck, that where we had previously walked through with several feet of head room, there was now only a couple of feet between the bags and the ceiling, and we had to crawl OVER the bags to get to the stairs! It was insane, but I managed to snap one picture of our oldest son as he crawled across the bags in front of me. (The kid to his right was just hanging out there watching the chaos.)

The blue rail to his left in the picture is the stair rail, and there was a man on the stairs pulling each of us out of a small hole and onto the stairs. It was so small I had to pass my backpack and purse through before I could go through.

Once we finally got up the stairs, the deck was already super full of people sitting and lying everywhere they could find a spot, so we carefully made our way to our cabins and stayed there the rest of the day. Phew! What an adventure! 

a family rides a fishing boat from the shore of Likoma Island to board the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi

Our tips for getting on and off the Ilala:

1.     Be patient, but at some point you also have to be brave and just go for it! It’s absolutely insane, and you just have to jump into the chaos and go with it.

2.     The Ilala’s two dinghies are free to ride on, but also really crowded. The private boats will charge a small fee to take you (around 500 kwacha per person, which is about 60 cents), which we found totally worth it.

3.     Pack as light as humanly possible, and wear shoes that can get wet and won’t fall off like Keens, Tevas, or Chacos. Our oldest daughter almost lost a flip flop getting onto the dinghy when we were getting off, and Josh and I both got our tennis shoes and socks wet having to wade into the water to board at Likoma.

4.     Have some kwacha on hand to pay the boat guy when you arrive.

5.     Wear sunscreen, especially when boarding from Likoma Island! We didn’t think about how long we’d be waiting in the sun to board, and the light-skinned among us got pretty burnt.

a family waits on the shore of Likoma Island amid a crowd of other people waiting to board the MV Ilala boat on Lake Malawi

Have you ridden the Ilala and have other tips for prospective adventurers? Or do you think this is a kind of adventure you’d be up for? Let us know in the comments!

three images of the MV Ilala boat in Lake Malawi and fishing boats with passengers boarding and disembarking the guide to getting on and off Malawi's Ilala adventurologists