Taking the Ilala to dreamy Likoma is one of my personal Malawi highlights!
Looking for an adventure off the beaten track in a country most people have never even heard of? Get on the Ilala ferry on Lake Malawi! Once again, this journey is not for those who wish to get from A to B as fast and comfortable as possible. If you are down for living a very local travel experience, and don’t mind getting your feet wet, this is an adventure to your taste!
The Ilala, a 68 year old lady, formerly steam ship, now running, well, swimming, slowly, on a diesel engine, and its time table are a mystery well worth discovering. Some years back, she underwent serious refreshment and is now cruising up and down the West shores of Lake Malawi. Normally, the journey takes her from Monkey bay to Nkhata Bay, then she crosses over to dreamy Likoma Island, and then up North, or something like that. I know as a fact, that in February 2017, I left Nkhata Bay on a Monday night around 10 pm to arrive on Likoma Island on Tuesday morning around 7 am. On Sunday, we left Likoma Island around 10 am to arrive in Nkhata Bay around 7 pm. To confirm travel days and times, I recommend checking with one of the hotels in the town where you want to get on the Ilala. There is also one other ship, newer and faster. But it’s about taking the Ilala, right?
Luckily, my friend lives close by Nkhata Bay, so she could investigate and find out the ferry’s time table. After having spent a couple of days in her village, we hung out at our favorite spot in town, Mayoka Village. If you are in town for a couple of days, that’s the place to be! Their bungalows are scattered out on a cliff, dropping into the crystal clear, turquoise waters of Lake Malawi. They offer rooms for every taste and budget. The team is incredibly fun and friendly. Mayoka’s breakfast is famous, for good reason! Pizza night and evening specials are delicious and fun. They grow a lot of the produce they use, they have a great schooling project and a fantastic compost toilet with a view! It’s a super social, lively place and the swimming platform out in the lake is great. Also, their boat trips to go cliff jumping, seeing fish eagles and cruise around is super fun.
In the afternoon, we went to the ticket office in the harbor and tried to book a cabin, which was confirmed, our names and numbers written down and everything. We were told we would get the ticket once on board.
Around 9 pm, we returned to the harbor. We were told to get on a small boat as the pier has been destroyed in a storm, so the Ilala is anchoring in the bay. You probably have never been on a boat so crowded, the water almost came in! But hey, we made it to the Ilala! A few pushes, a short climb on a ladder, which is a proper balance act with a backpack on, and on we were! You can purchase a ticket right there, 1st class is 7,300 MWK. Obviously, all the cabins were booked, but none in our name. Well, a night on the upper deck under the stars doesn’t sound too bad! We snacked on some food we brought, had a Malawi Gin and Sprite (no tonic at the ship’s bar, sorry), and rolled out camp for the night. Yoga mats, sleeping bags and hoodies were super useful! Countless shooting stars and drunk men’s brabble accompanied us throughout the night.
You’ll probably wake up early and it’s so worth it! Seeing the sunrise on the lake, the colors changing, is an incredible experience! A stop at the shores of Chizumulu island was fascinating. Everything and everyone gets on and off this boat, from grandma to baby, chicken, glass (actually, it was grass to hatch roofs), fish, just everything imaginable. And then, we landed on Likoma! Repeat: pointy elbows and a big smile are very useful to make it through the crowd, down the ladder into a small boat, almost sinking again. Once close to shore, you have to jump into the shallow water and walk to reach dry land. Shoes off and wrapping up electronics waterproof are highly recommended!
Then we were just chilling in the small town of Likoma, and trying to organize transport to get to Mango Drift on the opposite side of the island. With only a couple of cars on Likoma, it was quite a wait, but at some point we could jump on a bucky and slowly made our way over the island. Baobab trees never fail to impress me with their royal size. Here, they seemed to radiate an even bigger calmness than on the mainland. Also, the lake seems bluer, people friendlier. Is it just the island vibe?
The last few steps have to be walked down a foot path and then along the beach. Mango drift is a super sweet spot! The team is extremely friendly, the dorm nice and spacious (bring lots of mosquito repellant), the furniture and decoration are so pretty and the food is delicious! Camping there is also an option. Communal dinner is served on the beach. As almost everything has to be shipped there from the mainland, prices are higher than you might expect, so be prepared. Obviously, there is no ATM on the island.
Besides chilling hard, swimming, kayaking, reading, looking into the blue and eating, you can go out and about to discover the island. Walking across to Likoma town to visit the massive St Peter’s cathedral is definitely a nice adventure for one morning. Bring water and a hat! And climb up the tower to check out the bells. The glass windows of the cathedral, the marble and brick work and its size are quite impressive. A guide will be happy to show you around and tell you some of the history for a small donation. For lunch, we had rice and beans at the Hunger Clinic, a local place in town.
A great spot to check out is Katundu, a local workshop where interior decorations, furniture and jewelry is crafted. They make really pretty things and even if they are out of your budget, it’s cool to see what they make.
We were lucky as the luxurious Kaya Mawa was closed while we were on Likoma. So we sneaked in and discovered what surely is a fantastic place to stay. Outdoor bathrooms, just saying!
The ferry ride back to the mainland is during the day. The light is great to watch the busy loading. It’s fascinating to see how much people rely on the Ilala as meaning of transport, as life source. We also tested the ship’s kitchen, rice and vegetables were delicious!
If you travel in Malawi, a trip to Likoma island on the Ilala is definitely a must!
Enjoy the journey!