Ilala Ferry – 2 October

The drive to Nkhata Bay had its moments (photo credit Marcia Brunner)

We left Senga Bay on 1st October and headed to Nkhata Bay. The plan was to stay 1 night at Mayoka Village where we would leave the cars and get the Ilala ferry the next day that will take us to Likoma Island (also referred to as paradise by some tripadvisor and lonely planet guys) where we would have to stay for 4 days and then catch the ferry back on its trip north. For once we actually stuck to the plan!

Arriving at Mayoka

Nkhata Bay, or more accurately Mayoka Village, was one of those places I never wanted to leave. The lodge/backpackers was built along the side of hill into which the buildings seamlessly morphed. It was unbelievably beautiful with crystal clear waters welcoming you as you enter through the gate at the top of the hill and large trees giving much needed shade from the heat. The entire setup screamed creativity and as an added bonus the food was excellent. When we arrived Gary, the owner, came running out of the water to greet us and upgraded us from tent to a lovely en-suite cottage.

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Mayoka Village


The Ilala was supposed to arrive at 17:00 on Monday afternoon, load for 4 hours and leave for Chizumulu Island where it would load for another 2 hours before leaving for Likomo Island. If all goes according to plan we should reach paradise early Tuesday morning. This schedule however meant that we would need to spend a night on the ferry – not an issue if you have a cabin but since they were all booked we would spent the night on the upper deck (first class).

Our honeymoon suite

Catherine, Gary’s wife, was kind enough to offer us a mattress to take with on the boat. M3 opted for the mattress while Clayton and I decided that the extra mattress will just complicate things. Besides, how bad can it be on the deck?

It started off good when the Ilala arrived just after 17:00. At 19:00 the taxi came to collect us at Mayoka and fortunately did not arrive with 2 passengers already inside – which seemed to the Malawian trend. However, we still had to squeeze 5 people with their luggage and a mattress into the Corolla. Just our luggage consisted out of:

X2 bags for clothing (medium size)
X1 handbag
X1 backpack (small)
X1 bag with the snorkelling equipment (small)
X1 bag with food (small)
X1 gascooker
X1 camera bag
X1 Tupperware holder with dodgy spaghetti in (which Clayton refused to leave behind because he will eat it on the ferry and we cannot waste food)
X2 rolled up blankets

We managed to get most of the luggage into the boot with some of it and the mattress joining M3 in the back and the rest with Clayton and me in the front. I had to literally stick my head out of the window (Ace Ventura style) because there was just not enough space inside the car.  

We made it!

The Ilala ferry is big with 3 levels starting with economy at the bottom, the cabins; restaurant and toilets in the middle and the upper deck with the bar (first class) at the top. The ferry docks about 100m from shore so that meant we had to take a lifeboat to get to it. Cramped with 43 other people and their luggage (the lifeboat can only take 22 people according to the sign which no one seemed to take notice off and it was quickly hidden from sight with more bags) we slowly made our way over to the ferry. The luggage the locals had were not backpacks, it was massive bags nearly my size, filled with potatoes, cassava and anything else that they cannot are aren’t growing on the islands. This is in addition to the large plastic containers used for water and food storage. That we did not tip over while getting on the boat with the other 43 people is a miracle in itself.

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Snug as a bug!

When we eventually made it to the Ilala we had to climb up a rope ladder with our bags while pushing through hundreds of people already on the boat. Easy if you have 1 bag, challenging with 11 loose items. Holding onto our first class ticket and the hope it gave of at least some level of comfort, we battled our way to the upper deck.

In addition to all the other obstacles, Marcia and I also had to deal with Clayton and Matt. While we have the natural instinct of survival that drives us to get from A to B in a chaotic situation, Clayton and Matt are wired differently. While we pushed and squeezed to make our way to the deck through a sea full of people, the guys would let EVERYONE in front of them, standing back to see whether there is not another lost soul that would like to pass or might be thinking of passing them. In normal society and situations this would not be an issue and knowing that you are married to one of the few gentlemen left in the world is a comforting feeling. However, when travelling it is excruciatingly annoying especially when you need to use public transport where missing a ferry would mean waiting a week for the next one, or having to sit in the dirty, dodgy corner of the boat because all the good spots are taken.

When the guys eventually joined us on the upper deck we had to figure out where we would set up camp. First class did not mean comfort or luxury, it just meant a less crowded area where you are not crushed by bags and people. We claimed a piece of deck near the end of the deck, far away from the bar, and settled in: M3 on the mattress and Clayton and me on the deck. With our blankets and bags we created a surprisingly comfortable nest for ourselves while we waited for the ferry to be loaded.

This was at 20:00.

3 hours later the ferry was loaded but the captain was missing. He apparently went home.

1 hour later he made his appearance and we left Nkhata bay at 24:00.

Clayton trying to get a bit more sleep in before we get off the ferry (yes, he is in there somewhere)

Marcia asked the captain whether there were any empty cabins when she got onto the ferry. There weren’t any but he said that he will call us should one open up. Just after 24:00 he came to wake us up – a 2 bed cabin was available. Since Clayton and I were actually rather comfy on the deck, M3 took the cabin while we upgraded to the mattress.

We eventually dozed off again when another crew member came around an hour later to ask for everyone’s tickets. Why they did not do this while we waited for the captain goes beyond my understanding but after showing our tickets we again fell into a disruptive sleep.

The sun rising over Mozambique

We made it to Chizumulu Island at 04:00 where our arrival was announced by a deafening airhorn that seemed to be located right next to where Clayton and I were sleeping. With sleep out of the question we watched the sun rise over the island while more bags were loaded onto the ferry. 4 hours later we left for Likomo where we eventually arrived at 09:30 – 14 hours after we left Mayoka. It felt like a lifetime ago.

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The Ilala – arriving at Likomo (photo credit Marcia Brunner)

We still had the Tupperware holder with the spaghetti…

One thought on “Ilala Ferry – 2 October

  1. Hi Karien,
    I do hope you guys are well. Been following your blog the whole, it looks like you are having the most amazing time. Enjoy and all the best.
    Lots love
    Gailynne and Mark


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