Bored with cruising to the same old places? Try Lake Malawi

By | Category: Travel destinations

the Ilala

If you sat down and thought about a cruise would it be through the Mediterranean with stops off in Barcelona, Rome and Venice? Would you prefer one along the Norwegian fjords or to Alaska? Perhaps the Caribbean takes your fancy or one around the South Sea islands of the Pacific?

How about a six day cruise on Lake Malawi?  I’d be prepared to bet that 99.9% of readers had never even considered or knew that such a possibility existed.

The Ilala is even older than me and has chugged up and down Lake Malawi each week since 1951. On your six day round trip you’ll travel over 400 kilometres from Monkey Bay to Chilumba near the lake’s northern end, with thirteen stops along the way taking you to villages with different cultures, different habits and different histories.

Moored offshore, the quayside has locals waiting for the vessel

Some stops are only thirty minutes, some will be for a few hours and one or two will be longer. (Click here for her timetable.) It’s still long enough for you to get off the ship and look around without having to pay an arm and a leg for an excursion or guide! Souvenirs will be available like any other cruise you’ve been on but you might have difficulty finding a fridge magnet to join the others that show your travels!

The Ilala reminded me of my youth when you would see films about steamships servicing some of the small ports of Africa. Disreputable characters like a Humphrey Bogart figure would skipper some vessel – ship was too proud a word to use – which would be kept going by the care and skill of a Scottish engineer who was the only person alive who knew the cantankerous nature of the engines. And why are all the engineers Scottish even to the point that the Star ship Enterprise had a Scottish engineer as well?

You don’t need to worry about the state of the engines on the Ilala. A refit just a few years ago saw her get new engines. That is why she can speed along at ten knots, fast enough to fit the time table and slow enough for passengers to imbibe the scenery and sounds of a country that most people will only ever visit once.

Lake Malawi isn’t small. At 365 miles long, 52 miles wide and up to 700m deep you can’t see land on some parts of the voyage. Yet this freshwater lake is home to dozens of different marine creatures and, when you get close to shore, you’ll see the beaches are as sandy as many you’ll see, for example in Mombasa or Zanzibar.

scuba diving off Likuma island

There will be time for you to swim off Likoma Island or watch the sun go down over a beach as you try a local cocktail before heading off to the next port of call. You can even stop over on Likoma and pick up the Ilala next time as there are few sources of accommodation and, I’m told, there are even reliable internet connections for those who cannot say goodbye to the office. You could just enjoy yourself on this rather busy island, one of the most populous on the lake and walk around the sandy shores venturing inland to grasslands or swamps collecting fresh mangoes from the trees to keep you watered and fed on a mini-exploration. Mbabmba, the largest town on the island, also houses one of the lagest Christian churches in the whole of Africa. It won’t surprise you then to learn that this was missionary country in the days of David Livingstone and those victorian zealots whose mission was to convert Africans.

Likoma is one of the largest places that the Ilala serves. Another is Nkhata Bay that is about as close to being a tourist destination as you are likely to see. There is accommodation overlooking the lake and thus providing fantastic views as well as a number of restaurants and bars – certainly enough for you to try a different one any day of the week until the Ilala returns to collect you.

The other main island at which the Ilala stops is Chizumulu. The main crop here is cassava from which tapioca is derived. It is part of the staple diet of the locals so expect to see it in a variety of forms as you eat. The island is much smaller than Likoma and the population is less than  half as many. Listen to them speak and you will realise that, in just the three places I have mentioned, you will have heard three dialects and at least two languages.

in the Nyika National Park

At Chilumba, the northernmost port on your journey, yet another different culture greets you. In days gone by, this was a place for human sacrifice so that the fishing would be plentiful. Today you are more likely to head out the area to view Lake Malawi from the Nyika Plateau, today a national park with a landscape unlike much of the country. Here there are pine trees for example and over a couple of hundred species of orchids if you are a plant enthusiast. All are protected so restrain yourself to souvenirs sold in the villages or expect stern treatment!

By now you’ll have seen many different sides to Malawi so much that you will be surprised that one country can contain so many differences. Compared to s a standard cruise, you’ll never see so much change.

and back to the Ilala

Cruises to the Norwegian fjords will probably set you back between £800 and £1,200. A four or five day jaunt around the Caribbean might cost under £700 whilst a Far Eastern one could run into the thousands. A six day cruise on Lake Malawi in the most luxurious cabin on the Illala will see you have change from £100. But then you won’t be dressing for dinner, you won’t have different restaurants to go to or a lecture by some expert that makes you wonder why you signed up for it in the first place.

What you’ll have is a journey reminiscent of a bygone age when tramp steamers roamed the world collecting a cargo here, dropping of another there and being a welcome sight for the local inhabitants. It is so different that until you try it, you won’t realise that such an old-fashioned romance with boat and sea still existed.

For more about Malawi, click here.

All images © MalawiTMC


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