Aboard The MV Ilala Ferry | on Lake Malawi, to Likoma

In 2017, the “My Malawi” TV Show team travelled to Likoma Island via the MV Ilala to shoot an episode for the Show. We started off from Lilongwe in the morning and were in Salima around 2 in the afternoon .

We got a bus from town to Chipoka (est 20Kms out of town) for boarding – only to be told that the dock had changed to Sengabay, as the water was now shallow on this end of the lake.

The My Malawi Show Team

We made a U-turn to Sengabay – which costed us an extra MK30,000. I remember being so nervous that we might miss the ship. We were lucky enough to get there before the Ship arrived and managed to capture its arrival.

If you do not know this about me – I grew up in Mangochi District by the beach because my parents are Mariners. My father is a Marine Engineer and my mother was the first Female Ship Captain of Malawi. They both started out working for Malawi Lake Service – where my father eventually moved on to be the Chief Engineer for Maldeco Fisheries; and my mother became a lecturer at the Marine College. She was Principal when she stopped working for the College to start her own schools.

Given my background, ships are nothing new to me – but I still recall being extremely excited as I watched the ship approaching. It took quite a while (est an hr) from the time we spotted it to the time it came to a stop for boarding.

The MV Ilala

About The MV Ilala

The MV Ilala, formally Ilala II, is a motor ship that has plied Lake Malawi in East Africa since 1951. She is operated by Malawi Lake Services and based in Monkey Bay, Malawi(on the southern end of the lake).

Lake Malawi, is a pretty big lake – third largest in Africa, around 560 – 580 km in length and up to 75 km in width in some parts. It touches Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique and is so big, it looks like the ocean, with beaches and tides and incredible wildlife. It holds est 1000 different species of fish in it.

Every week, The Ilala crosses the lake all the way north to Chilumba, Malawi, near Tanzania (about 480 km from Monkey Bay) and then returns to Monkey Bay. She carries both passengers and freight, and calls at major towns on both the Malawian and Mozambican Coast, as well as at the two inhabited islands of the lake (Likoma and Chizumulu). While the ship is often late (reportedly by as much as 24 hours or more) and has sometimes broken down she remains the most important means of long-distance transport for the people living on the coast of the lake. She is 52 m long overall, has a gross tonnage of 620 tons and can accommodate up to 365 passengers and 100 tons of cargo.

Boarding The Boat

Boarding the MV Ilala is such an extreme sport, to say the least. The Ship stops at least 500m into the lake due to the shallowness of the bay, and the boats are lowered to pick people up from the beach.

First, people fight to get on the boats (for whatever reason). Then the boats are packed with both people and cargo. When you get on water heading to the ship, it is not the most calm experience either; and offloading onto the ship is much worse. Think trying to get on the ship and some is pushing you with a 20kg bag of Usipa (fish) to get on the same boat.

However, being on the ship eventually makes up for the tough boarding. It is quite a calm experience. If you are on the higher decks, and it almost feels like a vacation.

Aboard the MV Ilala

One thing you want to do before boarding the Ilala is to pre-book a cabin. It doesn’t cost much, but is so worth it – especially if you are going to be on board anymore that 6 hrs (which is really the standard duration from any bay). They are not fancy cabins, but they are efficient. You get a place to rest, store your valuables, refresh and just enjoy as the cruise is in session.

The cabins can be quite difficult to get as there aren’t that many of them and they have no proper booking system, so they don’t know whether they will have any free until the ferry turns up at a specific destination.


There are other packages at different rates you can also enjoy if you want to cruise without being in a cabin.

There are 4 types of ticket you can buy – Cabin, 1st Class, 2nd Class and Economy Class.

Cabin Class: Twin beds or bunk beds, with a sink (I think there is only 1 with a shower, the Owner’s Cabin). The cabins are on the middle deck.

1st Class: Sleeping on a bench or the floor of the top deck under the stars.

2nd Class: Sleeping on the floor of the middle deck. I think there are some benches too.

Economy Class: Sleeping on the floor, on sacks of fish or sitting on a bench on the bottom deck.

Sunset on the MV Ilala captured by @cricky_juster (IG)

The ship has bathrooms and toilets on deck. There is also a restaurant with quite an impressive menu, plus a loaded bar on the top deck for your pleasure.

The ship makes 6 stops coming from Monkey-bay at Salima, Nkhotakota, Nkhatabay, Likoma, Chizumulu and Mozambique. You can board and get off the ship at any of these points. I am not very sure about the rates to and from each point. We booked a two-person cabin from Salima to Likoma and it costed us MK20,000 per person.

Photo from Helen in Wonderlust Blog

The waves are sometimes known to be bad on some travels (which can cause sea-sickness if you are prone to that), but we were lucky to have travelled both to and from on some calm days.

We arrived in Likoma around midday and were happily picked up by Kaya Mawa staff to the Hotel which made our movement from there on a breeze.

Shot by Bishop, My Malawi Show Team

History about the MV Ilala

Yarrow Ship-builders at Scotstoun near Glasgow, Scotland built Ilala for Nyasaland Railways in 1949. I remember growing up, our residential area was called “Nyumba za ku Railways”.

As Ilala was the second boat to be built for service on Lake Malawi (the first being built in 1875 at Poplar), and her predecessor was called Ilala, the ship was formally named Ilala IIShe is now commonly called just Ilala and this is also how the name is painted on the hull. In turn, the first Ilala was named after the Ilala region of Zambia, where David Livingstone was first buried.

Once built, the ship was dismantled and transported to Malawi (then Nyasaland) in pieces, first by ship to Mozambique and then from Beira, Mozambique by rail and road to Chipoka. She began operating in 1951, and has run continuously since then, except for periods of maintenance. She also survived several groundings. Some steel panels have been repaired over time, and she was re-engined in the 1990s.

When Ilala has been out of service for maintenance, she was usually replaced by a companion, newer ferry called MV Mtendere (which means “peace” in Chichewa), which otherwise only cruises the southern part of the lake. Mtendere is the Ship my mother was the Captain for when I was a child. She still cruises from time to time.

As the Ilala does not meet current international requirements for passenger ships, there are plans to build a replacement (who knows when).

Ilala Ferry Schedule

The ferry starts in Chilumba in the north on Monday at around 2AM and ends in Monkey Bay in the south on Wednesday. It then makes the return journey from Monkey-Bay on Friday, reaching Chilumba on Sunday. You can find an idea of the Ilala schedule here.

Please note that the ferry is often early or late/delayed (depending on how long it takes to load/offload) and so you can’t really guarantee the time. If you’re on a super strict schedule, it probably isn’t the mode of transport for you.

That is, briefly, about the MV Ilala and water transportation in Malawi.

On arrival in Likoma

What was your experience like cruising on the MV Ilala?

All my love,


History Thanks to Wikipedia

More details taken from Helen In Wonderlust Blog

Photography by @cricky_juster

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