DESTINATIONS Malawi Solo Travels

Solo Backpacking In Malawi – My Mv Ilala Tales

Boarding MV ILALA- Malawi’s Oldest Ferry


How do you not get titanic vibes upon boarding a motor ship that has been in operation for 66 years?
In November 2017, I spent three nights on a motor ship that has been operating since 1951, the MV ILALA motor ship. The experience left me looking like crap by the time it docked to my final destination. I experienced the worst seasickness on planet earth, cried at some point and the bags under my eyes looked like they were designer. Let me tell you; it is not always a vacation.

She is named the MV ILALA, commonly just known as the ILALA by the locals. I had read stories about the MV ILALA “cruise” online. The cruise is in quotes because that motor ship does not offer anyone on board any luxury so do not go for this experience with high hopes. At the ILALA, you sit down (on the open deck or floor) and be humble!
The MV ILALA sole purpose is to meet the basic need of locals that live along Lake Malawi that is, providing transport. It is the only motor ship that cruises from the southern Monkey Bay to the Northern, Nkhata Bay. Imagine the economic hardships Malawians whose livelihood depends on this motor ship would go through if the ILALA were to break down? It is why a return trip from South to North will take seven days. A whole damn week!

Incredible Views of the islands

In my opinion, the MV ILALA is a unique traveler experience. This experience opens up a side of Malawi that most people miss. Do not get me wrong, it is a long journey, and I dare say it’s not for the fainthearted. However should you decide to board the ILALA, then you are bound to make friends regardless of how much an introvert you are because you will spend at least 36 hours on a motor ship. That is unless you plan staying locked up in one of the cabins. I, on the other hand, had the pleasure of interacting with travelers and locals alike.
My favorite thing about the MV ILALA is the spectacular views of the Islands that you get while aboard. Here is how the MV ILALA works. It usually has various stops, and once she makes a stop, she will take a couple of hours before moving on to the next stop because offloading goods takes a while. Here is where you get smart and use this few hours to explore places such as Likoma Island and Nkhotakhota.
I got the chance to explore Likoma Island which is a few kilometers from Mozambique because the ILALA docked at Likoma for 6 hours during my trip. So you might have around 5 hours to explore this Island that is home to St. Peter’s Cathedral, one of the largest Cathedrals in Africa.
Likoma Island is so close to Mozambique that once I set foot in Likoma, I got Safaricom texts welcoming me to Mozambique and highlighting roaming rates in Mozambique. Yeah right! Safaricom but why were you trying a budget traveler?

What You Need to Know About the MV Ilala

Currently (as of 2017), it sails every Friday from Monkey Bay and docks at Nkhata Bay on Monday. She will then leave that same day but later in the night to proceed back south. Let me put this fact out here if you are planning to take the MV ILALA, know that she is always late. It is not a trip to book if you are pressed on time because she will never arrive on time. Please make sure that before traveling, you are well aware of the updated MV ILALA schedule because I heard it keeps changing.

Food & Drinks
There is a small café that serves decent food and a bar on the upper deck that serves beer and spirits. I would advise travelers to carry some snacks and enough drinking water just in case.
Malawians are conservative, so it’s important to be decent. Finally, getting in and out of that boat is something else so wear sandals just in case your feet get wet in the process. Avoid closed shoes.
Sleeping Arrangements
If you want a bed and privacy while sleeping, book a cabin online in advance. Booking should be made a few days earlier; otherwise, you will miss a cabin considering the cabins are few, and their system of reservation is just horrible. In the cabin, you might need a sleeping bag if you do not trust the sheets on the beds to be clean.
Another option will be sleeping on the deck of the cabin. I saw travelers sleeping on the floor, but they had either roll on mats, mattresses and sleeping bags. Some even had extra blankets because it tends to get super cold. Sleeping on the deck means sharing space with other travelers so you might wing it if you are an extrovert. If you choose to sleep on the deck, carry a mattress and warm clothing. However it goes without saying that should you choose to sleep either on the deck or in the cabin, never ever leave your valuables unattended.

I bought my ticket in advance at the dock, but I saw others paying on board. There are four types of tickets:

Cabin tickets mean it includes beds and showers that may or may not work
1st class tickets mean sleeping on the uppermost deck of the ferry under the stars. It’s fun if you have the right gear.
2nd class tickets I did not visit the 2nd class, so I am not sure how it works.
An economy ticket means sleeping on the floor and sometimes next to sacks of sardines, and it is usually very crowded.
Would I ever ride the ILALA again? I honestly do not know, but I still believe it was an okay experience. I sure hope this post will help you survive should you choose to board this boat.

Would you dare ride the ILALA?

Let me know below!

Here’s a video of my MV ILALA experience


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