The Ilala Ferry: Everything You Need To Know

Some say the Ilala ferry is a right of passage in Malawi; others say you should avoid it unless you truly have no other option. Personally, we found it to be a practical means of transport and it’s really nothing to be scared of!

This guide aims to cover the main questions most people have before travelling, such as which cabin to book, what the experience is like, the most up to date schedule information and how to buy tickets, as well as some top tips, and a handy packing list.

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Table of Contents

So what is the Ilala ferry?

Basically, as the name suggests, it’s a passenger ferry! It’s the oldest ferry in Malawi, and general feeling in the country towards it seems to be immense pride. You can learn more about the history of the Ilala here. Honestly, it’s a pretty sturdy ship (though we’d question if it truly is ‘unsinkable’, as some local guides claim…), and has multiple floors and cabin options to choose from.

Essentially it’s a means of getting from top to bottom of Malawi (or vice versa) in a Malawian version of comfort, and a way to get to the smaller lake islands as well, such as Likoma and Chizumulu.

A very blue photo, with the blue lake and a blue cloud with streaky clouds. There is a small island in the middle of the horizon.
Views of the Lake from the Ilala

Safety on board the Ilala Ferry

Much of the information we read before taking the Ilala ferry told us it was pretty dangerous, whereas some local guides, as we said before, seemed to claim that it was entirely unsinkable, and in no way dangerous at all.

We’d give a more balanced view. In terms of safety concerns on board the Ilala Ferry, there are a couple, but for the most part, particularly in comparison with most forms of transport in Malawi, there are very few. The main concerns would be:

  • Bad weather – when it’s extremely windy or rainy, there is, as with many boats, a possibility that you could capsize or have an accident.
  • Food safety – from what we saw (proximity to the toilets, cleanliness of the restaurants and kitchen facilities), we might question the health and safety of the food preparation on board. That being said, we ate on board a few times, and we had no issues whatsoever, nor do we know anyone else who has.
  • Cleanliness – the cabins and seats are not the cleanest. We’ll come back to this when we talk about the cabins

Basically, we’d suggest taking the below precautions if you have concerns:

  • Avoid taking the Ilala Ferry when the weather is very bad (for example very windy or rainy). Put your safety first and wait for another day if the weather is looking really unpleasant
  • If you’re not sure about the food, take your own before you go. You can also take any necessary medication just in case
  • Take anti-bacterial hand gel with you and perhaps a cover for your bag/clothes
  • Take out great travel insurance in case of any issues

Insurance for travelling through Africa

We always say that it’s totally normal to hope that everything will always go well on our trips, but there will be occasions where it doesn’t, and it’s important to have great travel insurance just in case. We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and genuinely love using them, since they are so straightforward (unless most travel insurance!).

You can use the pricing calculator below to check prices for your trip.

Ilala Ferry timetable FAQs

Where does the Ilala go?

The Ilala route goes bottom to top:

Monkey Bay > Makanjila > Senga Bay > Nkhota kota > Likoma > Chizumula > Nkhata Bay > Usisya > Ruarwe > Tcharo > Mlowe > Chilumbo

Then reverses and goes top to bottom:

Chilumbo > Mlowe > Tcharo > Ruarwe > Usisye > Nkhata Bay > Chizumula > Likoma > Nkhota kota > Senga Bay > Makanjila > Monkey Bay

Because of the timings, it will moor overnight in Nkhata Bay and Nkhota kota in each direction, but we advise staying on the ferry if not staying longer at these stops, for reasons which will become obvious later.

Does the Ilala go every day?

No, it does not. It runs once a week to each stop in each direction. The current schedule is here; as you can see it runs from Friday to Sunday at the moment (stopping in : Monkey Bay, Makanjila, Senga Bay, Nkhota Kota on Saturday, the lake islands Likoma and Chizumulu on Saturday and everywhere else on Sunday) South to North and Monday to Wednesday North to South.

A route map of the Ilala ferry route, going from Chilumba to Monkey Bay.
The route of the Ilala every week

Why does the Ilala ferry schedule have ‘estimated’ departure and arrival times?

When the ferry stops, it needs to unload and reload with passengers and luggage. This takes a LONG time. The schedule estimates an hour for most stops that aren’t overnight. At an underestimate, we never saw it take less than two, so these should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Does the Ilala ferry run on time?

Yes and no, and this relates to the question above. Generally (plus or minus 20 minutes or so), if the ferry is moored overnight (so, departures from Monkey Bay, Nkhota Kota, Nkhata Bay and Chilumbe), it will depart roughly on time, and the staff will be rushing you on board if you stepped off. For that reason we don’t advise getting off unless you really have to at the stopping points, and we do advise arriving nice and early. If they are offloading and reloading only, there may be some delay.

When should I arrive?

Aim for at least 45 minutes before the estimated departure time, especially if you haven’t bought your tickets in advance (in fact, in this instance, I would aim for an hour before or longer), as there is a lot of what I like to call queuing and hullabaloo’ing. It’s better to have plenty of time before you arrive too as it’s not always obvious where the Ilala ferry port/ticket office is, and make sure you ask locals for their advice. It’s better to be sitting around waiting than to miss the ferry altogether, given that it only runs once a week in each direction.

A beautiful lake sunset, framed by the window of a cast iron ship. The sunset is different shades of blue and orange
Sunsets from the Ilala

How do I buy tickets?

You can buy tickets for the Ilala ferry on arrival at the ticket office, or as you’re getting on board the ferry. If you enlist the help of a local it’s sometimes possible to get the tickets in advance the day before. We found asking our guesthouse hosts in each place to be very helpful (find out where we stayed in this guide to backpacking Malawi), but still weren’t always able to pre-purchase. The easiest place to buy your tickets early is Monkey Bay, as the ferry is moored there for two days of the week. You cannot buy tickets online yet or over the phone.

Where are the Ilala ferry ports?

I debated putting together a map for this, but it’s really just better if you ask the locals/your hotel/guesthouse. A lot of the ferry ports are not properly marked on Google Maps or, in some cases, actually don’t exist, so the ferry is moored off the lakeshore and is embarked and disembarked via local fishing boats. Where there is a port, the boat gets pretty hectic when you’re trying to get on and off. People tend to cram towards the exit without any real system, and there is a lot of pushing and shoving to get to the front.

You’re pretty rammed in but if you’re familiar with travelling East Africa, you’ll be able to cope with this. Just keep your belongings close and stay calm. If you’re at one of these non-existent ports (any apart from Monkey Bay, Nhkota Kota, Nkata Bay and Chilumba), you have two options for getting off the ferry.

A cluster of rowing boats, all stuffed with people, waiting by the side of the Ilala waiting for passengers to disembark
Unloading of the ferry where there are no ports

Disembarking the Ilala ferry via shared boat taxi

The locals have rowing boats running continuously from the ferry to the shore to empty the ferry. They will happily help you and your bags off the ferry into the boats, but it is expected to give a small tip if someone helps you. This is a super cheap way to do it, and you barely pay more than a couple of kwacha to get from A to B. You might not even need to pay on some of the boats.

You can get into the boats from the lower levels, and the locals will generally get you a metal ladder to help you on and off, but you’ll see them climbing up and jumping off the ferry – it’s a bit wild (kind of did take me back to the lifeboat scene in Titanic!). One thing to note is that in general, these ports are not accessible. You need to be fit enough to climb down the side of the ferry on a ladder at least, as there’s no possibility to put down a ramp.

If you choose the shared boat option, you will be with other people and lots of them, and there will be a lot of bags also competing for space. They definitely do overfill these boats, but luckily it’s never too far from the ferry to the shore, you just have to wait for them to fill up before you get going, and you’ll be dropped at a central location on shore.

If the fishing boats can’t get right into the beach, you might have to wade through very shallow lake-water for a couple of steps to get to land. Honestly we didn’t really find this as dramatic as most of the other online guides were suggesting. Just make sure you can easily get your shoes on and off for this part. It’s definitely an experience but hey, that’s all part of the adventure, right!

Disembarking the Ilala ferry via private Boat

Two options for this one – there will be locals in boats looking out for people who want a private boat and if you’re a tourist, you will almost certainly be one of the first people they look to. Both times we took the Ilala, we were the only white tourists on board to our knowledge, so we stuck out like sore thumbs.

It’s all a bit awkward because you’ll be haggling with someone over the side of a boat for a fair price, and it’s a bit embarrassing, especially when you’re watching locals who probably can’t afford this option clambering down the side of the ferry to ram themselves into shared boats. The price is about $1 or $2 dollars (in local currency roughly 3000 kwacha) if haggled effectively, but of course they’ll start with higher asking prices.

The much better way to do this, in our opinion, is to speak with your hotel or guesthouse in advance, let them know when you’re arriving, and ask if they can help you arrange a private boat. Our guesthouse actually did this for us totally free of charge in Likoma because they had their own boat and one of their staff was already on board, so it definitely pays to ask.

This saves you all the awkward shouting off the boat to haggle, and means everything is just arranged before you arrive.

Murray, a white English guy, wearing a cowboy hat, is standing resting his elbows on the decking of the Ilala, waiting for the rowing boats to fill up. He is smiling at the camera.
Waiting to get going again

What is the price?

The most recent price guide is here, but this is only for owner’s cabin fares only, so we’ve also put prices for each cabin below. There are four different levels of cabin on board the Ilala: cabin class, first class, second class and economy class. If staying on the ferry overnight, we highly recommend taking the cabin class, which is the only one with a bed. Otherwise, first class seemed fine to us, we probably would have preferred not to be in second class or economy. Here’s a little description of each cabin (we had a good look around all of them).

Economy Class

The economy cabin is on the bottom deck of the Ilala. After reading the online guides, we thought we’d be fine here (we’d been backpacking around East Africa for half a year at that point, we thought we were fine with a bit of discomfort) but when we got there, we were quite pleased we didn’t opt for this ticket.

It’s quite cramped and pretty smelly (it seemed to be where they were storing a load of old fish) – aside from discomfort, our main concern would have been if someone had the flu or something, the whole cabin would undoubtedly have caught it, as there’s not much fresh air. It’s also very hot and stuffy on the whole ferry, but you do feel it even more so down there.

I guess it’s doable if you’re really, really on a budget, but the heat alone would really put us off so, if in doubt, opt for a different class of service.

Price guide for economy class on the Ilala. The price ranges from 2000 to 8700 Kwacha
To read this guide: the price is in Kwacha and relates to the total amount to travel between each of the corresponding places. So pick your departure port from the list on the left and match it to the columns at the top – that’s your price.

Second Class

I couldn’t see much difference from economy class, except that they were one floor up, and I guess it was a little less stinky. I suppose the chairs were also a bit bigger, but they didn’t look especially comfortable.

Price guide for second class on the Ilala. The price ranges from 3250 to 13,400 Kwacha
To read this guide: the price is in Kwacha and relates to the total amount to travel between each of the corresponding places. So pick your departure port from the list on the left and match it to the columns at the top – that’s your price.

First Class

This is probably not what most people would think of as first class. There isn’t really any seating (which is, bizarrely, a luxury afforded to second and economy class), except a couple of hard backed chairs on the top deck, and there’s certainly no bedding. The whole cabin is spread over the top deck of the Ilala, which is entirely exposed to the elements (not a fun place to be in rainy season), and the second deck, which is where the cabins and restaurant are.

You can sit in the restaurant when eating, but otherwise you’re asked to move, so the bulk of the time, you’re just kind of sitting about on the floor (if you’re lucky, away from the toilets). What this cabin does have is a bar (on the upper deck), but seating is limited.

As you can tell, I wasn’t super impressed that the prices were so much more for this class when you didn’t really get anything extra. When this class would be great is if you were travelling with your own tent. We saw people pitching these on the top deck and sleeping in them and, given the description you’re about to read of the cabins, this is a pretty good idea as long as you don’t need plug sockets.

Price guide for first class on the Ilala. Prices range from 4800 Kwacha to 24,900.
To read this guide: the price is in Kwacha and relates to the total amount to travel between each of the corresponding places. So pick your departure port from the list on the left and match it to the columns at the top – that’s your price.

Cabin Class

If you want to travel in some degree of comfort on the Ilala (and don’t have a tent), book a cabin. There are five double cabins, including the captain’s cabin (which is the same but with a private bathroom apparently, we didn’t see it but can’t imagine it’ll be much more luxurious). There’s also a staff cabin, which we got shoved into at one point, which is a much smaller room, with a single bed and it seemed to be where one of the crew slept permanently, so it was full of their belongings.

Price guide for cabins on the Ilala. The price ranges from 8000 to 39,200 Kwacha
To read this guide: the price is in Kwacha and relates to the total amount to travel between each of the corresponding places. So pick your departure port from the list on the left and match it to the columns at the top – that’s your price.

It’s worth clarifying a few things about these cabins, as we haven’t really seen a fully accurate description on any other blogs. Space-wise, they’re fine but they’re pretty snug: two beds, a sink (no bathroom or toilet), a fan and not much space in between. I would say they are reasonably clean, in that I couldn’t see any obvious dirt, however there are bugs everywhere.

There were these sort of moth flies on the beds – they weren’t especially bothersome except when we were trying to sleep (I have to say I did fully cover my face before attempting to sleep, and put my head on my neck pillow instead of the one provided by the Ilala), and a good few cockroaches on the floor.

We also did see a rat in the staff cabin, which was just sniffing around in the sink (totally unfazed by people). Obviously this was pretty off-putting but we didn’t see them anywhere else. The ferry is stiflingly hot when you get going, so the fan doesn’t do much, since the whole boat is basically a metal tin and you just sit there cooking. Would recommend taking a hand-held fan.

Basically all of this to say: don’t expect much luxury in the cabins, but you do at least have your own space and somewhere to sleep if you can get past the bugs.

Murray is sitting in a cabin on the Ilala ferry. There are two single beds with tartan bed sheets, a small sink and a cupboard with a mirror. Murray's laptop is open and he looks tired.
A standard cabin

Are there toilets on board the Ilala Ferry?

Yes, there are toilets. They are on the cabin/first class deck (not sure if there are others on lower decks as well) and they are as expected for a toilet on board an old boat. There is a sink in the restaurant to wash your hands but there is no soap, so keep your anti-bac close. If you have a cabin you can use the sinks there and your own soap to wash your hands. You need to ask the chefs working in the kitchen for the key (which was one of our main concerns with food hygiene but anyway…).

What’s the food on board the ferry like?

It’s not bad honestly! There’s one kitchen/restaurant that serves the whole boat, and it’s pretty small, so they will kick you out at mealtimes if you’re not eating. They start breakfast around 8am, lunch around 12pm, and dinner is around 5pm. If you go in while they’re preparing the kitchen, they’re really nice about it, but sometimes ask you to pre-order and go away while they get ready.

It’s better to do this in our opinion, as you’ll guarantee you get what you want. On that note, we read a lot online about the food running out on the Ilala ferry, but actually we didn’t really see this happening. Towards the end of each trip, they definitely had more limited choice, but you could always guarantee you’d get something (to our knowledge they never ran out of chips!). If in doubt, it’s better to pre-order.

A closed dining room with several tables with chairs upside down on top of them.
The canteen on board

Below is an example of the menu – whether they change this regularly or not, we’re not sure, but it seemed fairly standard. What’s nice is that they do have vegetarian options and most of the food is served with rice so it’s generally gluten free. Every meal is served with a bottle of water – note: where they mention orange juice, it is orange cordial and of course coffee and milk are both instant.

There’s no problem with bringing food on board if you prefer to take your own. We would say that the tables could get a little dirty as the staff don’t have time to clean them while serving lunch, but you can also eat in your cabin if you have one.

A menu for the MV Ilala for breakfast. Examples of food are continental breakfast, shakshuka and African hot soup (hangover antidote)
Example Breakfast Menu on the Ilala
A menu for lunch on the Ilala. Mostly the food on offer is meat stew, with some vegetarian platters
Example Lunch Menu from the Ilala

Packing list for the Ilala ferry

Rather than a proper packing list, since you’ll probably have all of your belongings with you – here is a guide of things we’d suggest keeping close by in case you need them on the Ilala ferry

  • Anti-bacterial hand gel – you’ll know why if you read our bit about the toilets.
  • A small hand-held fan to stay cool.
  • A neck pillow or, if you’re sleeping on the top deck, a sleeping bag (and we’ve even heard of people taking tents up there for sleeping!
  • Food and snacks as needed
  • A couple of litres of water – it gets seriously hot! We had a full Camelbak, which can hold up to 3 litres, but of course it gets pretty warm and unpleasant after a while, so you can also try a carbon filter bottle, which can be refilled from anywhere.
  • Reef-safe/natural bug spray – we swear by this one from Incognito, which is honestly better than any deet-based spray we’ve ever used
  • A multi-socket adapter, or extension cable (with African plug socket) that can withstand power surges. That way you can unplug the fan if you’re in a cabin and plug in other things to keep you entertained like laptops, phones etc. We used this international adapter with multi USBs, but we also had an extension cable. They’re both pretty compact, so they were easy to transport and keep in our personal bags.
A plate of vegetables, including potatoes, peas and tomatoes, served with chips.
The only vegan meal served on board – it wasn’t bad!

Top tips

  • We definitely suggest wearing light clothes and having a change of clothing if staying on board for more than a few hours, it really is incredibly warm and you will get clammy quickly
  • If you have a tent, the best option for getting a good night’s sleep (in our opinion) is getting a First Class ticket and sleeping in your tent on the top deck. If not, get a cabin.
  • Turn up early to the dock and buy your ticket on the day, or ask a hotel/guesthouse host to help you arrange tickets in advance
  • Prearrange disembarkation with your hotel or guesthouse, who should be able to sort this out for you for (there might be a small fee)
  • Prebook your food with the serving staff in the restaurant before meal times, or take your own food on board
  • Take enough water with you (at least two litres)
  • Enjoy the ride – it’s pretty fun and the scenery is beautiful! Make sure you leave time to watch sunset (or sunrise depending when you travel).

Other ferries in Malawi

There are several other ferries that service Lake Malawi, the second best known after the Ilala is the MV Chambo, which is smaller and also goes to Mozambique. The Chambo goes more frequently than the Ilala (3 times a week), but does not seem to have as good as reputation. It’s apparently a lot faster and feels a lot less safe/sturdy, especially on a stormy/rainy day, and additionally the crew often stuff it quite full of people and cargo.

Our Airbnb host in Likoma also mentioned a couple of others but unfortunately we didn’t note down their names – all this to say, if you have to get somewhere sooner than once a week it is possible via a different company, but it’s best to ask a local for the times and booking information.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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