70 years on Lake Malawi: the Unsinkable Ilala Ferry

UPDATED January 9, 2024–After retirement rumors, groundings and 70 long years chugging around Malawi Lake, the Ilala ferry Malawi on Lake Malwai remains unsinkable. Learn why sailing aboard the historic MV Itala Malawi is on UNSTOPPABLE Stacey’s adventure bucket list.

Malawi Lake Steamship

White steamer boat sits in calm harbor of blue water. Hills rise in the background behind the Itala ferry Malawi
MV Ilala ferry Malawi at anchor in Likoma Island, Malawi | Malawi Shipping Company photo

It was 70 years ago that the MV Itala finally felt water beneath her bow. In 1951, the steamer launched at Monkey Bay into the clear, fish-filled waters of Lake Malawi in remote southeastern Africa. She’d been built in Scotland two years before, but it took that long to take her apart, transport her pieces by sail and rail, and then put her back together in Malawi. But more on that later.

Ever since her 60th birthday, rumors and announcements of her retirement flood the media. (OK, not exactly “flood,” but the word makes me smile while writing about the old ship.) Younger boats are sent to take her place, but yet MV Itala ferry continues to be the workhorse of Malawi Shipping Company that delivers people and freight to remote places along the great lake.

In 2008, BBC said about the Itala Malawi

Her future rests with the International Maritime Organisation, which is trying to phase out single-bottom boats like the Ilala for safety reasons.

In 1991 the US proposed a phase-out of single hull tank vessels to reduce oil spills. Although MV Itala ferry is not a tanker, she does carry diesel to fuel her steam engines. I’m not sure how the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) endorsement of the phaseout of single-hull tankers by 2015 was thought to affect Itala Malawi, but be assured, the lady still floats.


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Historic MV Ilala Ferry on Lake Malawi

white sided ship with black smoke stack steams up lake Malawi
The Ilala ferry Malawi steams up Lake Malawi from Nkhata Bay | Photo by Lukecf via Wikimedia

In early 2014, Malawi Shipping Company announced that a much younger ship would soon swap places on some of the runs made by the historic Ilala Ferry Malawi. The MV Ilala had run up and down the 350-mile-long / 560 km-long great lake for the previous six decades. The company was building the new ship in the same drydock where the MV Ilala was reconstructed—Monkey Bay on the south shore of Lake Malawi—at a cost of $8.5M.

The MV Chilembwe, named for freedom fighter John Chilembwe, was said to be twice as fast the older vessel at full tilt. The nimble youngster would carry 120 passengers and 20 metric tonnes of cargo once it launched in May.

Hardly a fair race compared to MV Ilala’s capacity of 365 passengers and 100 tonnes of cargo.

More Retirement Rumors for the Ilala Ferry Malawi

birds eye view of Ilana ferry Malawi surrounded by merchant boats on Malawi Lake which is deep teal in color
MV Ilala on Malawi Lake | Photo by Davidktorza via Wikimedia

Later that year and five years after the BBC’s report, Ilala Ferry still sailed. But this time a local news agency, The Nyasa Times, announced that the old timer was to be replaced by MV Chambo, a new vessel from Mozambique. The young hopeful, MV Chilembwe, was still not out of dry dock.

Yet only four days later, Malawi Shipping Company announced that they would revive the MV Ilala Ferry. They reported that the steamer lost power in one of its two recently installed engines three miles from the Nkhata Bay port on her hop to Chizumulu and Likoma islands. The company assured the public that the technical malfunction did not put their passengers or cargo at risk in terms of safety.

Why Ilala Malawi is on UNSTOPPABLE Stacey's Adventure Bucket List?

Malawi Shipping Company fleet with smaller boat, MV Ilala, MV Chilembwe and MV Chambo (L-R) | Courtesy photo

MV Ilala Malawi is on my adventure bucket list because of several reasons. First, after all these rumors of retirement, I think you can call the old vessel “UNSTOPPABLE.” I’ve always been for the underdog, and i would be very disappointed if I sailed Lake Malawi and missed the chance to cruise UNSTOPPABLE MV Ilala.

Secondly, she reminds me a bit of myself. Besides, the UNSTOPPABLE moniker, I, too, can sometimes be underestimated. It’s probably the age thing. I’m nearing the age of 70 myself and am a little rough around the edges. However,  look forward to many more years of travel.

Finally, I’ve been a fan of the movie, The African Queen, and even named it to my list of 8 Best Travel Movies. The MV Ilala reminds me of the boat that Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn sailed as they filmed the epic tale.

Of course they are not exactly alike, but you get the idea. I could read the book while I sail up Lake Malawi watching the ever-changing scenery go by. I’d be looking for crocodiles between turning the pages.


Reservations Required for Cabins on MV Ilala Malawi

looking down bridge deck with cabin doors to the left and open balcony to right
Cabin Class on MV Ilala Malawi | fffriendly via Flikr and Wikimedia

Most recommend that you choose the Standard Cabin class, and I would be happy with that. There are five double cabins which share bathrooms. Although if the Owner’s cabin were available, I’d be tempted. It has a private bathroom, but don’t expect any of the accommodations to be like a cruise ship. Most report that it is more like taking an African bus.

Both Cabin and Upper Deck class passengers dine at Ilala’s restaurant, which may serve dishes like beef curry and peri-peri chicken. More simple food such as beans, rice and veggies can be had on the Economy Deck.


Although common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was not provided with accommodations, meals or other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active. 

Further, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for reading.

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14 thoughts on “70 years on Lake Malawi: the Unsinkable Ilala Ferry”

    • Thanks for sharing your experience on the Ilala, Stacy! Thanks for the invite to come to Zomba. Tell us more about Zomba with another comment, please!

  1. Wen I was Young my father bought a painting of ilala and hung on wall inthe sitting room.
    It’s still hanging there now 30 plus years… And will continue just as MV ilala continues floating on Lake Malawi
    And apparently my daughter Stacey found it when she joined us on this earth. And am sure she will also write about it in future like you.
    So sure that it will continue hanging 4 generations to come.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this interesting story about generations of your family being interested in Lake Malawi and the Ferry Ilala. I would be interested in reading your daughter’s story – maybe she would allow us to publish it on this travel blog. Blessings! Happy New Year!

  2. I am glad to hear about Ilala survival and unstoppable, I started my maritime career on it and sailed to become marine engineer. Although no longer a sailor but I gained my unstoppable and resilient attitude to work and solving problems, in other words soldering on from my experiences on Ilala. I would urge all to visit and sail on it you will never forget it. What an experience. Daniel

  3. Dick Allum saw the Illala shipped out in crates from Glasgow to South Africa where it was taken by trucks to what is now Lake Malawi. This was I think in 1953 and Uncle Dick, as we used to call him, saw the putting together of the Illala. Uncle Dick I think is a cousin once removed – sorry not very good on such things. But his children, now 91 and 89 (I think) and my brother and I share the same Grandfather!!!
    I had the pleasure of being given 15 minutes to look around the ship when people came off and before the next lot went on. Amazing and quite emotional!

    • Penny, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with the Illala. Do you have any family photos of Uncle Dick or you during that time period? it would be so fun to post here! Thanks again, Stacey

  4. As a VSO teacher in Southern Tanganyika, I travelled on The MV Ilala in 1963 from Itungi Port at the Northern end of the lake down to Nkhata Bay in what was then called Nyasaland. The thing I remember most vividly about travelling down the lake was the frenzied activity at each village we stopped at. Long before we had anchored, dozens of dug-out canoes, aluminium skiffs and other small boats came out to meet us, and milled around waiting for the inevitable trading to start. The Ilala’s life-boat was swung down to the water, and all manner of goods were hauled up or thrown to and from the decks of the ferry down to the smaller boats. The derricks were also used for the heavier items such as building materials. I saw a net full of dried tilapia fish break open, and most of the small silvery items spew out onto the deck where eager passengers gathered them up. I also saw a crate of bottled beer fall from the side of a dangerously overloaded dug-out and sink immediately with no chance of being recovered. All the activity was accompanied by shouting, whistling, and music from transistor radios.

    I was lucky enough to go on the bridge as darkness came down, and was amazed to see that the only navigational aids were a compass, a very simple radar set, and a silent ship to shore radio. There was a long cord hanging down through the wheelhouse ceiling, and by pulling on this, the crew at the wheel could operated the vessel’s horn. Although the lake was calm on that trip, the captain (who was Scottish, and thus maintaining the link with Malawi’s own history as well as that of the Ilala) said that violent winds could produce quite high waves, and it was sobering to think what might have happened if the vessel had got into difficulties. There were no rescue services here, or even any other sizable boats. It was, nevertheless, a wonderful two days.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us, Richard. You really painted the picture for us! What was the purpose of your MV Ilala voyage? Tell us more!


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