70 years on Lake Malawi: the Unsinkable Ilala Ferry

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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2 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!

      Reply

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