The Ilala ferry and Bua River bush walking


Published: October 22nd 2019

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6:30 in the morning and we’re on our way to Monkey Bay’s port. Here there are around a dozen ships docked, at least half are semi-derelict. They would probably sink if the water was a bit deeper. But our little ferry, MV Ilala, looks fine ,though she is showing her age. Three decks and a single yellow and blue funnel, the colours of The Malawi Shipping Company. She reminds us of the Clyde steamers built of heavy steel plate with rivets that have been painted over many times. All the decks are of well-worn hardwood planks.

The Ilala was built in 1949 in Glasgow and, like all the ships on the lake, dismantled before being shipped as a giant kit to Africa. The parts came by sea then river before being carried or hauled over land! She was launched in 1951 and has been in near constant service ever since.

We have booked one of the seven cabins on the middle deck so that we can lock our luggage away and for some rest tonight. The lower deck is much cheaper and crowded with people, goods, animals and chickens. The top deck is a first class and cabin class

only, with a bar with some shade and a large open deck.

The ferry is due to leave at eight but we leave 20 minutes late. Ilala is famous for two things – its great age and always running late. We cruise sedately in the early morning sun, heading north east across the lake to Makanjira, close to the Mozambique border. The water is too shallow to dock here and there is no pier. There are two options for those who wish to join or leave; the slow and overcrowded free service provided in the Ilala’s two lifeboats; or a faster and less crowded service provided by fishermen for a few kwacha. The shuttling to and fro seems totally chaotic, some boats full to overflowing, others practically empty. It is very entertaining but it takes forever. We leave 90 minutes late.

While we are loading a nasty fight breaks out on the deck between two Malawian men. The crew intervene to break it up, escorting the two bloodied men away. We find out that the brother of the attacker had died recently after falling from a boat but the body was never recovered. The brother believes that the

man he attacked stole the body for witchcraft, to cast a spell that would improve his fishing catch.

At the next stop, Senga Bay, the unloading procedure is repeated. By the time we leave, we are running three and a half hours late. The next port is our destination, Nkhatokota. We were due in at 9:30 pm but it is nearing 1 am when the hooter sounds to announce our arrival. Now it is our turn to board the lifeboat. We think of those leaving the sinking Titanic as we head away from the lights of the boat and into the pitch black African night.

Part way in to shore we meet a smaller, very full, boat coming out, in the dark. It becomes clear that here the water is too shallow for even our lifeboat to get to shore, we have to change boats! A tide of people clamber out of their boat into our lifeboat. We are stuck until the rush subsides, then we can clamber across. The second boat is not great , we are immediately ankle deep in water. Keeping our bags dry becomes our top priority and, when we eventually hit the beach,

we are pleased that a local porter grabs our bags and carries them, over his head, ashore.

It’s been quite an experience and we fall into bed, exhausted by the day.

The next day we are off to our lodge on Bua river in the Nkhotakota National Park. There are five beautiful lodges, each with a veranda overlooking the river, but we are the only guests staying. At the rear of our lodge is a huge outdoor bathroom with the best hot shower for many days.

Before we can walk to our lodge, we are given a safety briefing. There are elephants and buffalo roaming here and crocodiles in the river. We have to keep our eyes open and stick to the paths. And we must carry a two-way radio at all times, just in case.

Daylight creeps in at around five o’clock; bird song wakes us. We have a cup of tea on the veranda, just us enveloped by the river, rocks and trees of Africa. And, to start the day, there is nothing quite like an open air shower and drying off in a warm breeze.

The park specialises in game walks, morning

and late afternoon. We see buffalo, waterbuck and bushbuck and a few crocodiles. They plop into the water as soon as they are aware of us, just their eyes are above water and following our every movement. On land they fear us , but if we were in the river they would attack immediately.

We see and follow elephant tracks with fresh droppings but we don’t spot these elusive animals. This park was ravaged by poachers who killed nearly all the elephants. The park is now under new management who hope to have eradicated poaching. More than 600 elephants have been moved here during last few years but it is a park of 200 square kilometres. The elephants have plenty of room to roam and hide.

Nkhotakota National Park is a wonderful place to end our time in Malawi. It is a beautiful, untouched part of Africa where we have been able to live, for a few days, in the quiet of the real African bush.


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Publish date : 1970-01-01 00:00:00

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