Malawi: Sailing on the MV Ilala

24th April - 14th May 2002


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Graeme dropped me off by the lakeshore next to the port in Chilumba in the early afternoon on Sunday. He was continuing north with Ally and Victoria to Karonga before dropping them at the northern border with Tanzania. I arranged to meet Graeme again in Monkey Bay on Thursday, the day after the Ilala was due to arrive. The two of us were travelling through Malawi roughly in the same direction on fairly similar time schedules and we both planned to go trekking on Mt Mulanje 3,001m, Malawi's highest mountain. After lunch and a cold beer beside the lake we all said goodbye and the others drove off north. I was once again by myself, standing looking out over the lake with my backpack sat at my feet.

Chilumba is the northern port on the Ilala schedule. She used to sail as far north as Karonga but there was little demand on this section and the route was discontinued a few years ago. Lake Malawi is Africa's third largest lake, after Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika, and it's deepest point at 470m has been recorded southeast of Ruarwe. Chilumba appeared to be a very small town, just a collection of ramshackle buildings along the road that led to the port; I'm sure there must have been more to the town but I didn't explore any further. I had called in at the port the day before to make a reservation for a cabin on the Ilala; the clerk in the Lake Malawi Service office said he would radio the ship and let them know. It was just before 14.00 as I walked down to the waiting shed beside the lake in the port. There were two other passengers waiting, a few bags of luggage and a group of men playing a board game, that I never understood, outside in the shade of a large tree. The small kiosk that sold beer, soda and snacks was open, the stereo system blaring out music while the other two passengers dozed on the benches. The Ilala was due to arrive in Chilumba at 18.30 that evening and depart at 02.00 on Monday morning; I had a long wait ahead of me.

I passed the time writing this travelogue and reading a book between chatting to some of the other passengers as they slowly arrived in dribs and drabs during the afternoon. By late afternoon the shed was packed and buzzing with expectant passengers and their luggage. Just as the sun begun to set the Ilala was spotted in the distance sailing up the lake; a boy came and told me and I stood on the quay watching the Ilala sail past the Mpanga Rocks and slowly dock at the jetty. By the time she had docked it was dark and she was lit up by her own lights and the arc lights around the port. The ticket office opened in the waiting shed and I checked to see if they had received my reservation. They had and I was told I would have to pay for my ticket once I was aboard the ship. I waited on the quay outside what was now a chaotic scene in the waiting shed, the lighthouse on the Mpanga Rocks blinking in the dark. Some of the local lads began fighting as they became increasingly drunk on the endless supply of Carlsberg from the kiosk.

At 20.00 I saw the three other tourists in the crowd go and board the ship with their luggage. I hadn't heard any announcements that boarding had begun, in fact information was very thin on the ground. I went to the gate at the jetty and asked a guard if I could board yet. He said yes, so I went back to the shed, picked up my backpack and walked off down to the waiting Ilala. I boarded across a rather rickety wooden gangplank and onto the lower, economy deck. I saw the other tourists above me on the first class cabin deck talking to a steward; I went and joined them to find out what the procedure was to get a cabin. The steward was a young lad named George, who had been working on the ship since 1997. He took me down to the purser's office where I paid MK5,820 for my ticket to Monkey Bay and was then shown to cabin number four. I was surprised at how spacious the cabin was, especially when compared to the cabins on the MV Liemba that I had sailed down Lake Tanganyika on about a month ago. There were two large, comfortable single beds with sheets and blankets, a washbasin with towels, a desk and chair, a fan and bedside lights that worked. There was one small window and the door opened out on to the deck where there were a couple of green wicker chairs to sit on and watch the lake go by. I decided I would enjoy myself over the next three days voyaging down the lake.

Nothing was too much trouble for George, he was the most helpful person I had met for a long time. Once I had settled into my cabin I ordered dinner, beef stew and rice, which George brought to me on a tray to my cabin as the saloon was just closing for the night. I sat on my wicker chair on the deck for the evening watching life go by; it was almost like a social event for the town when the ship docked. The local people were allowed on board and to wander about the decks and drink at the bar on the sun deck above me. The ship appeared to be packed as the locals enjoyed a few hours aboard the Ilala while she was moored. Just after 23.00 I retired to my cabin and soon fell asleep for the night.

The MV Ilala, MV is an acronym for motor vessel, is named after the district in Zambia where Dr Livingstone died in 1873. She is a far newer ship than the MV Liemba on Lake Tanganyika which was built in 1914. The Ilala was built in 1949 by Yarrow & Co in Glasgow, Scotland and shipped in sections to Nacala in Mozambique and then transported by rail to the lake to be reassembled. She was launched at Monkey Bay, the largest port on the lake on 25th June 1951. She measures 172' in length, 30' breadth, 11' depth and weighs 620 tons; she was designed to carry 358 passengers, 63 crew and 100 tons of cargo and cruises at a speed of 10 knots. There are three decks, the lower deck being the economy deck, the middle deck the first class cabin and officers deck and the top deck being the first class deck or sun deck, where there was an open air bar situated behind the wheel house. There were six first class cabins, sharing a shower room and three toilets which were better than those at a lot of hotels I had stayed at. There was one self-contained cabin known as the owners cabin. During the colonial administration this cabin was used by colonial officials to travel in up and down the lake and it had it's own private toilet and shower with a view overlooking the bows of the ship.

The present day Ilala was not the first ship to bear this name. The original SS Ilala began passenger services in October 1875 and was the first steamer to sail on the lake. She was also built by Yarrow & Co of Glasgow but was a far smaller ship than the current Ilala measuring only 55' in length and weighing 21 tons. She was operated by the Livingstonia Mission until 1882 when the mission was renamed the African Lakes Corporation. In 1903 she was sold to the African International Flotilla Company who continued to operate the ship until 1922 when she reportedly sunk. I found it difficult to ascertain exactly what happened to the ship, from the various sources I checked I kept getting the answer that at sometime during 1922 she disappeared, presumed sunk.

During the night just after a heavy rain storm, as I slept peacefully in my cabin, the Ilala slipped her moorings and at 02.00 began her voyage south to Monkey Bay. As the crow flies it is about 450km to Monkey Bay, but we would be travelling a lot further as the Ilala crosses the lake to Likoma Island and also calls in at two ports on the Mozambique shoreline. I woke early in the morning as we dropped anchor close to the shore at Ruarwe and the lifeboats were lowered to ferry passengers and cargo to and fro from the beach; it looked like the whole village had turned out to watch the ship drop anchor. Local people paddled from the shore in dug out canoes carrying a couple of passengers or some cargo, the majority of passengers used the ships lifeboats. It was a far more orderly procedure than that on the MV Liemba where local boats fought for space alongside the ship to ferry people and cargo between the ship and the shore. Once everyone and everything had been ferried ashore the lifeboats hooked up to the Ilala and were slowly winched up as we recommenced our voyage. Unfortunately one dug out canoe was late arriving alongside us to unload some cargo, as we began to sail they frantically tried to paddle to keep up with the ship but were soon broad sided by a lifeboat. The winch was very slow and the lifeboat was still being dragged through the water and the canoe was caught in front of it. The three man crew of the canoe dived into the water as the canoe was dragged under the lifeboat, much to the amusement of all the passengers on the deck. Luckily for them wooden canoes don't sink and the last I saw of them they were swimming and pushing the partly submerged canoe ashore as other villagers paddled out to rescue them.

A free breakfast was included in the cabin class fare and was served in the small saloon next to my cabin between 07.30 and 09.00. George was in charge of serving breakfast, which was the best breakfast I had had so far on this trip. It included a bowel of cornflakes, eggs, chips, sausage, tomato and a large plate of toast, jam and butter washed down with fresh juice and tea. It was almost enough food to see me through to dinner in the evening. After breakfast I settled down in my wicker chair to watch the lake go by as we cruised at a steady speed south. The steep escarpment of the Great Rift Valley runs right down to the shores of the lake in the north, it's impossible for a road to cling to this steep slope and the only way to get to the precariously perched villages is by boat.

We arrived in Nkhata Bay over two and a half hours early at just past midday and moored at the jetty for the day. The ship was not due to depart until 20.00 that evening, which gave me nearly eight hours to explore this small town. The jetty was a hive of activity as the majority of passengers disembarked and went ashore. A tractor began hauling trailer loads of cargo, mostly maize flour, up the jetty, which was craned into the cargo hold in the bows of the ship; it took four and half hours to load all the maize aboard. During the afternoon a couple of army trucks arrived on the quay and they began loading all their supplies on board that included a huge pile of firewood. I went to explore the town. It was very picturesque set around the bay and hills with the Ilala moored majestically in the bay. The main road went around the shore of the bay where there was a busy and colourful local market; there was also a craft market that catered for all the tourists and travellers that stay in this town. The town is very popular amongst travellers with some splendid beaches nearby and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. As soon as I walked along the main road I attracted a lot of attention from the local young lads, all of them trying to sell me some Malawian Gold, apparently the 'national crop'. I decided to have some fun and tried to score a couple of ounces of Blue Stilton. No one was quiet too sure what Blue Stilton was but after an hour or so they finally worked out that it was a cheese and not an exotic herb. There was no black market for cheese in town, which didn't surprise me, it was hard enough to find legitimate sources of cheese in Africa.

While I was sitting down to a late lunch of rice and beans at a restaurant, a lad came past and told me that my friend had arrived in town and had just checked in to the Connection Backpackers. Suspiously I asked him to describe this friend and he came out with a remarkable description of Graeme. I finished off my lunch, waited for my ice cold Fanta to thaw out and then walked back around the bay to the backpackers hostel where I found Graeme's Toyota parked in the car park and Graeme at the bar. It was a bit of a coincidence to meet up with each other again like this, I still couldn't believe that these young lads managed to find the two of us. We walked down to the port and I invited Graeme aboard the Ilala to take a look around. Whenever the Ilala moors at a jetty in a port for a few hours, the whole ship appears to be taken over by the local people who wander about the ship and sit at the bar on the top deck drinking a beer or a soda. Graeme and myself sat by the bar drinking a couple of beers until the sun had set and Graeme decided to walk back to the hostel before it got too dark. At 20.00 the Ilala slipped her moorings and once again sailed south down the lake. I now had a cabin mate for the rest of the voyage, Niall from Dublin in Ireland who boarded the Ilala at Nkhata Bay. We would be stopping at one more port in Malawi during the night before crossing the lake to Likoma Island, a part of Malawi, just off the Mozambique shore. We should dock at Likoma in the middle of the night around about 03.15 if we stayed on schedule.

There is quite a lot of history connected with shipping on Lake Malawi. There has only been one recorded battle on the lake that took place at the outbreak of hostilities during World War One. At the time Malawi was a British colony and the colonial authorities, as a show of force in 1899 launched the largest ship on the lake, the HMS Guendolin, weighing 340 tonnes and equipped with two powerful guns. She was built by G Rennie & Co in Greenock, Scotland and reassembled at Mangochi. There were two other rival colonial powers with colonies bordering the lake, the Portuguese in present day Mozambique and German East Africa in present day Tanzania. The Germans also had a gunboat on the lake, the Hermon von Wisseman, and the two captains were reportedly the best of friends, often meeting up somewhere around the lake for a drink. In 1914 when war was declared the Guendolin was ordered to destroy the Wisseman. The British captain knew were the Wisseman would be because the two captains had arranged to meet up for one of their regular drinks. The German captain was unaware that war had been declared and was completely caught by surprise as the Guendolin steamed up and opened fire, putting the German ship out of action and taking the crew as prisoners of war. The Guendolin remained in government service until 1940 when she was sold to Nyasaland Railways and converted to a passenger ship; she was broken up for scrap four years later.

The worst shipping disaster on the lake happened on 30th July 1946 when the Vipya sank during a terrible storm. The Vipya was built by Harland & Wolffe and shipped out to the lake in 1943 where she was reassembled and launched in 1944. She weighed 470 tons, was 140' in length and had a top speed of 12 knots. She did not begin passenger services until the end of World War Two and made her first scheduled trip on 28th June 1946. On her fourth voyage in 1946, the Vipya set out from Mbamba bay; a strong wind blew which made the ship roll enough to alarm the crew and first officer. The captain disagreed about the unsafe conditions and ordered the crew to continue on the voyage. The ship began to take in water, but the captain ignored the increasing perilous conditions. Eight miles from their destination of present day Chilumba, the captain ordered the cargo hatch to be opened to prepare for disembarkation. By now the third class passengers had water at their feet. All of a sudden, a huge wave crashed onto the Vipya, capsizing the ship; most of the passengers were trapped below decks and drowned. Only three of the crew survived by climbing out of the engine room window before the ship turned over; they floated to land on wreckage. Thirty-three African passengers who were on the deck survived, none of the first class passengers did, who were mostly Europeans. The survivors made it to Livingstonia on shore. Altogether 145 people drowned in the disaster. There is a simple memorial to those who lost their lives beside the clock tower in Mangochi beside the Shire River. The present day Ilala was ordered as a replacement for the ill-fated Vipya.

I woke up early the next morning to find us anchored in a sheltered bay at Likoma Island near the main settlement of Chipyela, which means 'Place of burning'. Europeans first settled on this island in 1882 when the Universities Mission to Central Africa set up a mission here. They chose the island as defence from the warring Ngoni and Yao people and built the huge Cathedral of St Peter that measures 100m by 25m and is allegedly one of the most remarkable buildings in Malawi. We had been there for a few hours already and most of the cargo had been unloaded, which included all the troops and their supplies of firewood. The island measures only 17 sq km and has a population of approximately 6,000. The bay where we were anchored looked fairly dry and sandy with some large rocky outcrops and baobab trees growing amongst the scrub. The south of the island is flat, the north slightly hilly, although on an island this size, none of the hills looked huge. At around 07.00 we departed and crossed the short distance to the town of Cóbuè, on the Mozambique shore. From there we followed the Mozambique shoreline to Metangula, which is the district capital, where a huge crowd of people were gathered under a large shady tree waiting for the arrival of the Ilala.

We departed at 14.30 and sailed back across the lake to Malawi and to the town of Nkhotakota. As we crossed the lake there was quite a swell, especially for a lake and the bows of the ship crashed through the waves. As we neared the shore the sun began to set, the sky to the west above the hills of Malawi glowed orange and red. During the night as we continued south along the Malawian shore the swell on the lake grew bigger and bigger, tossing the ship around like a child's toy. I woke in the morning with my stomach feeling unwell and that combined with the heavy seas kept me confined to my bed in my cabin. In the saloon next door I could hear crockery and cutlery crashing to the floor; I imagined George was having a bad morning and his bowls of cornflakes were being scattered about on the floor. I gave breakfast a miss and instead made a few trips to the toilet. I had trouble standing on the deck, as the ship was tossed around by this strong wind and large swell. Finally I was seasick, if you can get seasick on a lake, and threw up over the deck. Unfortunately for the locals on the economy class deck below me the wind blew my vomit straight back onto their deck splattering a few innocent people. I quickly walked to the other side of the ship thinking that at last I had got my revenge for the kid in Tanzania who was sick over me on a bus.

We arrived in Monkey Bay an hour early at 13.00 on Wednesday, a very unusual event as the Ilala is infamous for running hours late. As we passed a peninsular and into Monkey Bay we reached calm waters. George told me that this was the start of the rough season, which runs from May through to July. We had been sailing all day under clear blue skies, now I understood how a ship like the Vipya could sink on this lake during a storm. We moored at a jetty alongside the MV Mtendere, the only other passenger ship on the lake. She is a new ship built in 1979 by Schlicting Werft of Travemunde and launched in 1980, measuring 167' in length and weighing 924 tons. She had none of the character of the Ilala and looked fairly ugly and modern; she was currently undergoing repairs at Monkey Bay, I was glad I had sailed on the Ilala, she was a beautiful ship and looked like your classic African lake steamer. After sixty-five hours aboard the Ilala I was happy to be back on dry land again.

Continue reading this journey: Zomba & Blantyre