Malawi 1997: A three-day ferry cruise on Lake Malawi



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Happy Achewa children, bathing in Lake Malawi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



“Let go aft!” shouts the captain, a big, black man in a snow-white uniform. The stern-fast goes, then the bow-fast. Slowly, the M/V Ilala drifts out of Monkey Bay, a small natural harbour, surrounded by huge, round rocks, in the south-western corner of Lake Malawi, southern Africa.


A huge lake
Lake Malawi is the third-largest lake in Africa, 575 kilometres long and up to 85 kilometres wide, covering an area of c. 23,000 square kilometres. The deepest point is 704 metres below the lake surface. Fourteen rivers enter the lake, but only one, the Shire River, drains it, in the southern end. Lake Malawi is widely known for its incredible number of fish species, of which more than 350 (mainly cichlids) are endemic.

The first European to see this lake was the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, in 1859. He named it Lake Nyasa. A Christian mission was established near Cape Maclear, in the south-western corner of the lake, as early as 1875, but it was abandoned a few years later, as the missionaries died of malaria. Another mission, called Livingstonia, was established in the high, malaria-free mountains northwest of the lake. The work of the missionaries was very efficient indeed, and today almost the entire population of Malawi are Christians.



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Evening sky at Otter Point, near Cape Maclear, on the south-western shores of Lake Malawi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97 
Fisherman in his canoe, near Cape Maclear. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Fish, spread out to dry in the sun, Chembe, near Cape Maclear. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



On board the M/V Ilala
The M/V Ilala is one of two ferries, cruising on Lake Malawi. Leaving Monkey Bay every Friday morning, it calls on numerous small towns and villages along almost the entire length of the lake. Last call is at Chilumba, on Sunday evening. Monday morning, the ship is south-bound, reaching Monkey Bay on Thursday morning. This schedule is employed throughout the year. Ilala’s sister-ship, the M/V Mtendere, takes over, when Ilala has to be overhauled, and vice versa. If both ships are navigable, there are two weekly departures, one going all the way up to Tanzania in the northern end of the lake. On board the Ilala are seven First-Class cabins on the upper deck (of which only one has attached bathroom). The rest of the First-Class passengers must spend the night in the open. Most passengers travel on Second Class, on the lower deck, which is rather crowded. The ferry can carry a total of 500 passengers.

Shortly after our departure, the ship comes to a stop. A passenger – presumably a VIP – has missed the ferry, and one of Ilala’s small motor boats, attached to the side of the ferry, is sent ashore. When it returns, the ship glides out between the rocks, bound for the village of Chilinda, on the eastern lake shore. The coast here is low, and we are quite close to it, before we are able to distinguish great baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) and fishermen’s huts from the surrounding landscape.

Ilala anchors some distance from the shore, whereupon its two motor boats are lowered into the water. Passengers jump into the boats, bringing all sorts of luggage, such as suitcases, boxes, huge bunches of unripe bananas, flower-pots, and cages containing chickens or ducks, tied together by the legs, two or more in a bundle. The boats depart in a dense cloud of diesel smoke, only to return a little later with new passengers. Several trips must be made, before all passengers, bound for this village, have been brought ashore. Some passengers are picked up by small canoes. Other canoes approach the ship, loaded with mangoes, and a furious haggling over the price begins. When the two parties have come to an agreement, the fruits are handed up, and coins are tossed into the canoe.



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
On board the M/V Ilala, the lower, Second Class deck is rather crowded. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97 
Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Numerous canoes, gathered around the M/V Ilala to bring passengers and goods ashore. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
This boy has paddled his canoe, laden with a few mango fruits, out to our ferry, and now a furious haggling over the price will begin. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tropical storm
After having called at another fishing village, Makanjira, near the border to Moçambique, the ship heads towards the town of Chipoka, on the western lake shore. At dusk, gigantic black clouds, with lightning and thunder, pass over Cape Maclear. The storm approaches Ilala which – in this type of weather – is not able to go alongside the quay in Chipoka, but is forced to anchor offshore. Heavy rain is pouring, enormous gusts of wind causing the ship to roll. Without pause, the sky is illuminated by lightning. In this inferno, the crew is trying to get people into one of the motor boats. It is thrown back and forth by the waves, hitting the side of the ship with a tremendous crash. The crew members try to hold the boat close to the ship, while people, drenched to the skin, jump into it, risking being crushed between the ship and the boat. People shout and scream, babies cry on their mother’s back, and luggage is thrown helter-skelter into the boat, where people tumble about, trying to get foothold. Amazingly, nobody is hurt.

The boat is only half loaded before taking off towards the shore to await more suitable weather conditions. And soon the rain diminishes, the gusts of wind are less fierce, and the lightning ceases. The passengers on the upper deck are drenched to the skin, and they face a very uncomfortable night. I am happy that I was able to seek shelter in my tiny cabin during the worst part of the storm.

In the dark night, we head north. At dawn, the weather is pleasant, although the waves are still quite high. We approach the village of Nkhotakota, named after the numerous sand bars found in this part of the lake. Drumbeats announce that breakfast is served on First Class. The rolling ship causes a single passenger to lose his appetite, and he must leave the table before getting his fill.



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Rain storm over Chipoka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Likoma Island
We are now on our way towards two tiny, rocky islands, Likoma and Chizumulu. Despite being situated in Moçambique waters they belong to Malawi. This fact is a result of the Berlin Act of 1885, which drew boundaries according to the influence of the various colonial powers. As the two islands harboured an important Anglican mission, it was decided that they should be a part of British Nyasaland – today Malawi.

The islands bear the stamp of a long period of human habitation, the present population numbering about 5,000 souls. Apart from a few fat baobab trees there are hardly any wild trees left on the islands – they have all been felled to be used as timber or firewood, e.g. for fish-smoking. Today, a number of eucalyptus trees have been planted to supply firewood, but not nearly enough to cover people’s need.

The pride of Likoma is its great cathedral, an impressive building, which was inspired by the cathedral in Salisbury, England, and almost as large. Construction began in the late 1800s and was completed in 1911. It is beautifully crafted in stone and has fine stained-glass windows, depicting e.g. the twelve apostles. The roof is new and rather ugly. A great building like this seems rather out of place on this tiny island – perhaps fulfilling the ambitions of a bishop rather than the need of the inhabitants. The cemetery is unique. Because of the rocky surface of the island, most graves are above ground, covered by numerous small rocks, sometimes with a stone or iron cross squeezed between the stones.

White-breasted cormorants (Phalacrocorax lucidus) rest on rocks around the island, and a large, red-and-white fish-eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) is soaring over the lake. Suddenly, it plunges into the water, emerging with a fish in its talons, while its mate, sitting in a nearby tree, emits a penetrating call. Supposedly, Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) occur here, but we don’t see any. Out on the lake, birds are surprisingly scarce. I only observe a few grey-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus) and white-winged terns (Chlidonias leucopterus).



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
The interior of the large cathedral on Likoma Island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97 
Because of the rocky surface on Likoma Island, most graves are above ground, covered by small rocks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
A pair of African fish-eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer), resting in a tree on the lake shore. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Further north
At dusk, the ship heads north in the dwindling light, bound for Nkhata Bay – the only larger town on our trip, where we stay for most of the night. Another tropical storm passes over, and I am awoken by a tremendous crashing sound. A large tree near the harbour has been hit by a lightning. At 5 a.m., it is still raining. We are now anchored some distance from the village of Mangwina, which is surrounded by forest-clad mountains, partly hidden behind clouds.

While the landscape around the eastern and southern lake shores mainly consists of low, rolling hills, steep mountains rise several hundred metres along the north-western shore, between Nkhata Bay and Mlowe. These mountains are densely inhabited, most villages situated along small streams, which make their way between the hills, down to the lake. Only the most inaccessible parts of the mountains are still forest-clad. Elsewhere, the forest has been cleared for timber and firewood, fields now stretching most of the way up the slopes. A depressing sight, but only too common throughout the Tropics.

This area is almost devoid of roads. Narrow and winding, one road leads to the lake shore, running from Mzuzu through the mountains, then steeply down the slope through a number of hairpin bends, ending abruptly at the village of Usisya. Villagers along the lake shore connect with the outside world via M/V Ilala or M/V Mtendere, in small canoes, or on foot. If you don’t own a canoe, you must hike up steep trails to reach the road, from where you can continue your journey by bus.

North of Mlowe, the mountains have retreated inland, and sand bars are stretching far into the lake. In the afternoon, we reach the harbour in Chilumba. My three-day trip on Lake Malawi has come to an end.



(Uploaded February 2016)


(Revised October 2017)