Cross Lake Malawi on the Ilala Ferry

Small and beautiful Malawi is divined by it’s lake, a huge fresh water lake which separates Malawi from Mozambique and even touches a bit of Tanzania in the north. Many of the must visit places are on the lake, or even in the lake… You can, for example, go kayaking (on a multiple day tour!), stand up peddle boarding and snorkeling or even diving (check out Aqua Africa’s night dive in Nkhata Bay).

My biggest highlight on the lake, was taking the Ilala ferry for 2 nights from Nkhata Bay all the way south to Monkey Bay. After a lovely 2 week stay at the Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay, my travelbuddies and I made plans to head south to Cape Mclear. Instead of sacrificing one day of traveling in over crowded mini-buses and perhaps a touring bus, we’ve decided to go on the Ilala ferry that goes once a week.

Ilala Ferry

The Ilala is a mini Titanic that can host around 250 people and has a 3rd, 2nd, 1st and cabin class. I highly recommend traveling in first class. Frist class means that you get to sleep on the upper deck, under the stars and with loads of space. Out in the open, laying on the deck in your sleeping bag. Magic. There is however one tiny thing that they don’t mention.
How to get on the ferry.

Since several years the water has been too shallow for the ferry to get to shore, so you have to take a smaller boat from the dock, where you’ll most certainly get wet feet in a cramped refugee like experience. Trying to keep your backpack dry and staying safe from falling into the water when stepping onto the tiny wooden stairs on the Ilala itself. We made it safely between the massive bags of flour and who knows what. Even my friend who is traveling on a bicycle, arrived dry. His bike incl. bags simply got lifted onto the ferry by the shipper of the refugee boat.

I was very much impressed by the boatman with his steady feet and strength when he effortless lifted the bike out of the small boat onto the ferry… A day later I wasn’t surprised anymore, when they managed to get an entire motorbike and a dug-out local canoe through the small entrance of the Ilala.

If you are planning on doing this awesome adventure, think about taking some snacks with you, there are plenty (cold) drinks and food (warm dinner!) on board. But that is until they run out of drinks and snacks. Breakfast and dinner was even after the 2nd night still available.
It’s affordable and actually really tasty food! Find the snacks (Coconut Cookies!) in 3rd class on the bottom deck.

The other options besides sleeping on the deck are:

  • 2nd class, this is the floor below and has a restaurant + shower, but not a lot of space nor seating.
  • 3rd class is very crowded, especially because this is also the deck where all the cargo is stored
  • Cabins, which are small, but have their own shower + you can lock them. They are all the way to Monkey Bay a lot more expensive though.

Practical info
Ferry leaves every monday at 8PM from Nkhata Bay

From Nkhata Bay to Likoma Island the costs are:
3rd: 3.500 KW | 2nd: 4.100 KW | 1st: 8.000 KW | Cabin: 14.000 KW
You will arrive (very) early the next morning.

From Nkhata Bay to Monkey Bay (from where you can get a mini-bus or motorbike to Cape Mclare) the costs are:
3rd: 8.120 KW | 2nd: 11.860 KW | 1st: 19.000 KW | Cabin: 44.800 KW
It arrives somewhere mid-afternoon after the 2nd night.

You can only book your tickets the same day from the ticket office across from Aqua Africa (the diving center in Nkhata Bay, where they btw have amazing nachos).
$ 1,- is about 750 Kwacha.

Top deck (first class)

Top deck (first class)

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