Lake Malawi Ferry - The Ilala

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Lake Malawi, Malawi

Lake Malawi Ferry - The Ilala Reviews

Makuzi Makuzi
3 reviews
The ancient old lady of Lake Malawi - MV Ilala ferry Jun 04, 2011
A lot of people would like to cross to the islands of Lake Malawi, or just use the ferry to see more of the lake. But, as is often the case in Africa, information is a bit vague. I have used the ferry many times, having lived both near its departure point in Monkey Bay, and on one of the islands in the lake (Likoma). The ferry runs from Monkey Bay harbour on a Friday morning and travels northwards up the lake, zig-zagging to Mozambique and the islands, before returning to Monkey Bay on Wednesday afternoon. What you have to realise is that the ferry is on African time and the schedule is never 100% certain. It has often lagged behind by up to 10 hours, so have a little patience and you should be fine. If you are looking at going to the islands from the south (Monkey Bay), it will take you about 30 hours to get there. You go as follows:

Monkey Bay (depart 10am Fri) to Chipoka (arrive 1pm dpt 4pm Fri) to

Nkhotakota (arr midnight dpt 2am Sat) to

Metangula Mozambique (arr 6am dpt 8am Sat)to

Cobue (arr 12 pm dpt 1pm Sat) to Likoma (arr 1:30pm dpt 6pm Sat)

Now you're at Likoma after arriving from the south. You can also get on at Chipoka if you're in that part of Malawi. The ferry carries on to Chizumulu Island from Likoma (dept 6pm arr 8pm).

To get to the islands from the north, the most popular port is Nkhata Bay. The ferry leaves from N Bay on a Monday night after returning from it's northern stops - ie. it is now heading south. To get to the islands

Nkhata Bay (dept 8pm Monday) to

Chizumulu Island (arr 11pm dept 2am) to

Likoma Island (arr 3am dept 6am)

It then carries on with its trip in reverse, ending in Monkey bay on Friday around lunchtime. You can also get on at Nkhotakota in the north, which will then give you the cruise along the Mozambiquan coast.

There are awesome backpacker's on both Likoma and Chizumulu (Mango Drift and Wakwenda Retreat respectively). I will write separate reviews about these. The ferry pulls in directly in front of Wakwenda on Chizi, and you can either hop on the ferry tender boats, or look out for Wakwenda's boat which will row over and pick you up. On Likoma, the ferry arrives on the opposite side of the island to Mango Drift, but they have a boat to collect you with, and a car in bad weather. Best to give them a call or pop them an email to let them know you're coming.

The tender boats can be quite terrifying, as the crew allow them to be completely overloaded and this is horrifying in rough weather. Most ports do not have a dock, so you will use the tender boats ion these cases. There is a dock in Monkey Bay, Chipoka and Nkhata Bay.

There are 4 types of "accommodation" on the ferry. You can book a cabin, which is normally 2 single beds with a basin and a desk. (or the Captain's cabin, which is airconditioned with a bath and a fridge and lots of space). Most people opt to go for First Class, which is basically access to the top deck. Everybody camps out under the stars and it's quite festive as the bar is also on the top deck. Mattresses are available for hire at around $3 a mattress, but there often isn't enough to go around and there are some really dodgy ones which you'd have to cover with something else before lying on them!! But it does make the overnight trip better... 2nd class is on the benches in the lower deck spaces - bus-style, and surrounded by all sorts of cargo and tons of people and very uncomfortable. 3rd class is basically in the passages outside. Only take either of these options if you are on an EXTREME budget! A few extra Kwacha will be worth it, I swear!

You do not need to buy tickets in advance. You can board the ferry, and once it has disembarked, a crew member will come around to ask you for your ticket, or to buy one. When you buy a ticket, HOLD ON TO YOUR STUB, as you will be asked for it when you disembark.

I have only taken the ferry from Nkhata Bay to Likoma recently, and I stayed on the deck, and you are looking at approximately $20 for that trip. I am unsure of other routes. If that is too much for you, the other classes are much cheaper, but as mentioned, not really worth it.

There is a basic restaurant onboard and somebody will normally come around to you to take orders for meals. You will then be called when your dinner is ready. I normally have chicken and mashed potato - not bad. And it is only a few hundred Kwacha. There are hot showers on the cabin deck, so you can get that road dirt off you.

WORD OF WARNING: DO NOT LEAVE BAGS UNWATCHED IF YOU ARE STAYING ON THE DECK. AND SLEEP WITH VALUABLES UNDER YOUR PILLOW/BODY. I have had money stolen out of my bag while I slept on the deck, as well as some perfume and chocolate. My bag was a foot from my head and I didn't hear a thing. I then slept with my arm through my bag strap and my leftover valuables tucked up with me.

There is, of course, lots more about the ferry and its other stops, but feel free to email me at for any advice on the ferry and Malawi in general.

Check out this website for a detailed ferry schedule (you don't have to book through them, as explained):
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