Susie and I took the old 1940s Ilala Ferry from Metangula, Mozambique to Nkata Bay, Malawi. It runs once a week up and down the coast and it was a grand ol’ adventure!
Catching the Ilala from most ports means piling passengers and luggage (bed frames, bikes, chickens, sacks of maize, crates of beer, etc) into life boats then heading out to where the boat sits waiting in the harbor. No fancy docks or gang planks here at our lovely port in Metangula, Mozambique.
I’d heard from some Lithuanian girls that there was an American on the boat and we were lucky to met him in due time. Even better, Warner wasn’t just from the US, he was from the beautiful Pacific Northwest! We ended up taking and laughing for a good long while, and after the boat we ended up heading together to stay at Mayoka Village an amazing lodge with tons of great people. I’m not sure if I’ve ever met another world traveler with as many entertaining stories as Warner. We don’t know how he manages to make so many crazy trips, but we like to think it’s maybe drugs, porn, stripping, or perhaps travel writing. It’s probably none of the above, but it’s still fun to guess.
We thought we’d need to get a room for the overnight trip, but found about 50 backpackers lounging about on the deck. Sweet! We dumped our bags, joined them in jumping off the boat into the water far below, and commenced to have a great time! The rains in the middle of the night made sleeping on the open deck less than ideal (too bad we didn’t have a cabin), but Warner lent me his sleeping bag and I survived just fine.
David! We met David from Montreal a few weeks ago at Ilha de Mozambique and had a fabulous 24 hours together. He speaks great Spanish (and very passable Portuguese) and he gave us a thorough tour of the tiny island. He also nearly convinced me to shave my head, perhaps a first. (I didn’t do it, but I’ve never been more tempted). When I woke up on the Ilala after a restless, wet night, I was felt shocked disbelief and then elation to find David sitting just a few feet from my head! Super fun to have a little reunion, even if it was for just a few hours of catching up.
Read on for a lovely, and very accurate, article from Getaway Magazine!
Time travelling on the Lake of Stars
Each week, with the grace and style of yesteryear, the good ship Ilala steams out of Monkey Bay for the northern shores of Lake Malawi, village hopping all the way. One hot morning Don Pinnock jumped aboard.
There were five cows in the lifeboats. They hadn’t been there the previous evening so they must have been loaded from some lakeside village during the night. Probably Metangula. They didn’t look happy swinging there, brown eyes wide with terror and noses wet from spit and thrashing about.
Later that morning the two boats were lowered off Cóbué, cows and all. On the bow of each boat was stencilled MAXIMUM LOAD – 22 PERSONS so maybe it was considered okay to pack 11 goats, several hundred chickens, a puppy and a flapping duck plus 11 bags of maize, two beds and a heap of persons on top of the cows, which by then seemed to have swooned into a state of torpor.
Heaven knows how all that was landed on the beach, with no jetty and a nasty little chop on the lake. All I can say is that the lifeboat crew of the Ilala – Malawi’s floating peasant bus – are consummate boatmen. They yell a lot, and sometimes throw both goods and people ashore or onto the ship, but you never get a sense they’re out of control. Their boats, like the Ilala, are dented and scratched, but their motors always seem to start and they do wonderful things with ropes and hooks.
I’d boarded the Ilala – an ancient, interestingly bashed but undoubtedly enduring lake steamer – at Monkey Bay, down south, and had bagged a cabin with an en-suite bathroom and an armchair – by Ilala standards, pure luxury. The lower deck was dense with peasant farmers and small-time traders with their rolls, bags, children, goats, ducks, chickens and – as I discovered at Cóbué – even cattle. For many lake-shore Malawians, the ship is just about their only link to the outside world – a slightly tatty white angel which appears out of the lake with unfailing regularity and seems to have no restriction on who or what it is prepared to ferry between heaven and hell.
By all accounts, the peasants were starving just then – some eating green maize, others winnowing grass. It seems some government official had sold Malawi’s maize reserves to another country. There were rumours he had also pocketed the money and that he had then been promoted. About 65 per cent of Malawi’s 11-million people live below the poverty line. The busy trans-lake micro-commerce between Malawi and Mozambique was probably keeping a good many alive.
The names of the southern lake villages upon which the Ilala bestows its blessings roll off your tongue like quicksilver: Chilinda, Chipoka, Makanjira, Nkhotakota, Metangula, Likoma. Each had its huts, its canoes and its crowds.
Likoma Island, however, also had its cathedral, a building as out of place as a whale in a fish tank. Likoma is a few kilometres off the Mozambican shore and is only eight kilometres long. Oddly, though, it was the headquarters of the Anglican Church of Malawi until the 1940s. The reason had to do with Bishop Chauncy Maples who, with his friend the Reverend William Johnson, established a mission there in 1886 as a project of the Universities Mission to Central Africa – inspired and led by David Livingstone. Maples was drowned in Nkhotakota Bay on the way to his bishopric.
In 1903 work began on the huge cathedral dedicated to St Peter. It’s an extraordinary building for such a remote place – 100 metres long, 25 wide, with stained-glass windows and elaborate stalls. It was built on the spot where Maples witnessed suspected witches being burned alive. The crucifix above the altar is one of the few made from the wood of a tree beside which Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.
At Nkhata Bay we gained more steerage passengers and lost most of the deck and cabin passengers. I was rather sorry about that. The deck passengers were almost as colourful as those down below; travellers who pitched their tents on deck or curled up on the hard benches to brave out the night in the open.
There was a Belgian couple, Derek and Meika – nut brown with legs all scratched – who had been cycling the backroads of southern Malawi and were hitching a ride to explore more backroads up north.
Big Ben was an Aussie who ran a guesthouse in Cóbué, owned a bit of wild beach and was an expert on the commercial and social benefits of marijuana. Little Ben was from London. He’d met Big Ben, abandoned plans for a world trip, bought an expensive video camera and was making a video diary of his life in Mozambique plus helping around the guesthouse. The trouble was that, not long after Little Ben arrived, Big Ben decided he needed to head back to civilization. Little Ben looked a bit crestfallen.
Patrick ran a lodge and some community projects in Mozambique. He’d once cycled from Addis Ababa to Johannesburg, which took five months. Jan was a Hollander who’d driven from Amsterdam to Cape Town via Morocco, West Africa, Chad and Sudan – not the easiest route.
North of Nkhata Bay you really feel you’re in the Great Rift Valley. The lake is 585 kilometres long and 80 at its widest point, and while the shoreline of the southern half is rather flat, north of Nkhata the Kandoli Mountains rise up aggressively, backed by the Nyika and Viphya plateaus. This is high miombo-woodland country with villages wedged between steep slopes and the water’s edge.
When we dropped anchor off Usisya, the scene was so saturated with metaphor and historical allusion it was difficult to believe it was real – and that we were in the 21st century. If it were a movie shoot, the clapperboard would read: “First Arrival on Wild, Foreign Shore.”
David Livingstone had witnessed such a reception on the Lower Zambezi from the deck of Ma-Robert, and Captain James Cook from the bridge of Endeavour as he made landfall in Tahiti. Albert Schweitzer described it with delight on arriving at Lambaréné up the Ogooué River where he would build a hospital and capture the imagination of Europe, and Joseph Conrad imbued a similar scene with savage menace in Heart of Darkness.
As the ship dropped anchor hundreds of villagers flooded out of grass huts and lined the shore in a colourful, babbling throng. Dugout canoes were dragged into the water and arrowed towards us, their paddlers whooping. On the shore the crowd heaved and billowed like a single living thing.
Behind the human crush edging the beach, huge baobab and mango trees dwarfed rough grass huts. Beyond them thick forest cloaked the slopes of muscular mountains, dipping into valleys beneath snakes of morning mist and reappearing on distant, storm-topped peaks.
I gawped at the scene for a while, then hitched a ride on one of the lifeboats to see what Archangel Ilala looked like from the shore. As I jumped into the surf, a wave whacked me ashore into the arms of a yelling hubbub of mostly naked children who took up a ringing chant: “Photo, photo. . . .” Which of course made photography impossible.
The Ilala certainly looked magnificent, huge against the foreground of crude huts and startlingly white in a world of blues and greens. I dodged my young followers long enough to discover a backpacker place named Usisya Beach Lodge – basic grass huts, hammocks and heaven.
The lakeshore had a smell all of its own. It was drenched with the heavy linden-sweetness of flowering trees, compounded with the fusty, antique odours of bats, wood smoke and wet earth. It pulsated with a strange rhythm. The throbbing sounds of countless human voices rose and fell in time to the everlasting beat of drums and the thud of pestles pounding maize in wooden mortars, while to this was added the incessant contrapuntal zing of amatory cicadas.
The effect was trance inducing. Joseph Conrad had described such an experience as “being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams.”
The ship’s hooter sounded, shaking me out of my reverie, and I scampered back into the waiting lifeboat. To be stranded there, it occurred to me as the boat pulled away, would not be a great hardship.
North of Usisya everything goes under the heading Spectacular. Subtitles run to Awesome, Exotic and Romantic. It was the rainy season and as we weighed anchor at Nkhata Bay a storm slammed into the rising sun. A straight line of pinkish cloud appeared across the horizon about 1000 metres above the lake. Below it, streaks of rain were rippling like the legs of a millipede; above rose a massive thunderhead, stacked in layers of variegated grey to its bulbous anvil haloed in golden light. We sailed straight at the storm but, before we reached it, shafts of sunlight seemed to have blasted it to death, leaving a few tattered memories of the dawn performance.
Those who sail Lake Malawi know it to be a singularly alien and exotic thing, elemental and undisciplined, a sleeping giant liable at any moment to rage with aboriginal fury. From the decks of the Ilala the thrusting landscape of Eocene catastrophe trembled through the heat haze, reminding us of the red-hot world that had fashioned the rift.
Ungovernable storms are known to sweep suddenly from a clear sky across its waters and when certain clouds descend, battalions of dervish-dancing waterspouts leap hundreds of metres into the air to meet them, as though trying to escape some lake demon below.
As we puttered towards Ruarwe and Tcharo, clouds of lake flies in their nuptial flight seemed intent on emulating the waterspouts, looking exactly like the smoke from some hull-down steamer.
This is a lake of moods, sometimes spilling its banks for no apparent reason; at other times retreating, stranding boats and jetties. There is no tide to mix its deep waters, and at times the lighter oxygenated surface water skids to and fro across the useless, stagnant layer below, as though the lake was being rocked like a gargantuan bathtub.
We turned at Chilumba, just north of Mount Waller, and headed back towards Monkey Bay. Being the rainy season, the lake was shy with its colours, but near Likoma Island the clouds rolled back for the grand evening performance for which Malawi is justly famous.
As the sun sank westwards the waters became an enchanted mirror, tilted to reflect the languid artistry of a painted sky. In the strange silence of the dying day the waters glowed deep crimson, then almost reluctantly changed to silken, cyclamen purple as they waited for the evening breeze to caress their magic texture and set lines of amber ripples swimming slowly towards the farther shore. This signalled all the colours on the water to fade like courtiers from an audience chamber, until at last only an imperial presence of molten gold remained.
The loveliness of the mountains was scarcely less compelling. Theirs were pastel shades: on one side pale lavender melting imperceptibly into pearly grey and on the other into a luminous madonna blue.
Suddenly it was night. A layer of moon-silver spread over the mountains and the sky trembled with the myriad stars of Africa. The placid water reflected each shining point of light and as I turned to go below, it seemed we were moving through a watery universe, divorced of space and time. It was a sublime farewell.
Next morning the lifeboats were full of goats.