Although she is reliably late, the Ilala ferry is a stalwart of lakeshore life in Malawi.
Overworked engines, (possibly) drunk captains, questionable weather, the economy, people falling over board, a rusty hull and broken steel, pontoons being sailed into and sunk, and loose animals on board could all be blamed for a schedule which, at best, runs half the time that it should. Nevertheless, she’s a geriatric old swan that is the lifeblood and soap opera for the entire Malawian Lake. It’s fair to say that since she began operating in 1951, she’s brought the rural lakeshore closer to the modern world, more than anything else.
Originally built in Scotland near Glasgow, the Ilala (she’s actually the second Ilala to be constructed), was shipped out to Malawi in pieces by boat and then by rail across Mozambique. She was rebuilt in Chipoka and I imagine, then hobbled out of the boat yard for her duty since.
The old but determined steamer pulls onto a few pontoons on it’s journey (Nkata Bay being one of them) and also anchors off the beaches of various lake shore villages. It’s a hectic experience trying to board her with her overworked and normally overloaded support boats low in the water.
Many of the locals congregate on the beach, not only to wave their loved ones and consumables cheerio for a short while, but to watch the spectacle and hopefully see someone fall off a boat. It’s their weekly soap opera and everyone seems to be loudly involved. As if slowly dithering into the bay with the help of some watery zimmer frame strapped to her hull-handles; markets spring up and the number of streets sellers swell at the sound of her announcing horns. It’s a comforting sound, one which fills the air with tradition and nostalgia.
The Ilala covers over 480km (over 300 miles) from Monkey Bay in the south to Chilumba in the north and back again once every week. She carries EVERYTHING needed for everyone that lives or works on or near the lake shore. Right now chickens, goats, massive smelly bags stuffed with small dried fish, and the nation’s maize stores are being distributed due to the poor crop yield. Drought in the north and flood-storms in the south mean that 2014 was a sorry year for Malawian farmers. The many months following are a massive struggle for the entire country. The boat carries a few hundred people and even has a few cabins for those going all the way, so to speak. Those of us travelling for just a day or two will sleep on the deck, and maybe cuddle up to a perfumed sack of eau de soleil poisson! It’s a lovely ride.
The top deck is “first class” but even though there used to be staff dressed entirely in white uniform and apparently, 5-star dinner service, it’s now a little more “relaxed”. There is a cafe for any passenger on board serving basic lunches and breakfasts. It’s worth the wait for what comes out of the kitchen as a surprising, huge omelet-sandwich is both tasty and well underpriced! However, the barman on the top deck has decide to take a nap on the bar while we are enjoying the full range of “Carlsberg one-choice”. Although there is always a sense that this passage used to be an extra classy occasion, I’m simply reminded that “This Is Africa”….and a welcome substitution to pompous pampering, is a bit of disorganised savour-faire.
The Ilala still boasts a colonial stiff upper lip, and on the lake, she is the only operating sizeable ship. She is a lifeline to many remote villages which would otherwise, either be a multiple-day and dangerous walk from an inland town, or almost cut off from the world altogether. There are a few local boats which operate the same channels as the Ilala but as I’ve experienced, they can take over 13 hours to flounder a quarter of the way up the lake. The Ilala may be only few hours faster and just as unreliable but she is infinitely more comfortable with (occasionally) a well stocked bar. Some delays can often be pinpointed to specific events, such as liberated livestock causing havoc or losing cargo or people over the side of support boats. I think people often feel obligated to also allow the hard-working captain some well-earned breaks, where he re-familiarises himself with local feminine traders….apparently. I also haven’t mentioned the rumours of the his regular “hydration” stops. I hear he is very much a fan of taking on as much liquid as possible in the heat of the day, and indeed “hydrating” himself through the night as well. It’s possibly the reason why the pontoon in Nkata Bay is currently under extensive reconstruction.
No amount of misconduct, malfunctions, rumours about the management, misleading schedules or every day confusion over the “tootling white-cormorant of the lake” seems to take away the charm and affection every single person has for this Scottish Belle. Colonial times may be over and so too seem the luxury-style top-deck eruditions, but there are reminders everywhere we look. When she turns up, when she honks her massive hooters at the crowds that flock to her arrival and wave endearingly at her departure; the Ilala reminds us all of what endurance is needed to survive here, what unanticipated and spasmodic plans we need to constantly make, and what patience and humour we must carry with us to make it through every eventuality that is thrown at us.