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Flowers found on the Shores of Lake Malawi - Cape Maclear
JUNE 16, 2007

The Ilala

Once a week, the magnificent old vessel - the Ilala, sails up and down Lake Malawi, from Monkey Bay in the south to Chilumba in the north. With a few days to kill before she set sail, we decided to have a look around the southern end of the lake. After a day in Monkey Bay we took the Matola (smallish trucks) an hour around the bay to the beach side town of Cape Maclear. So far on this journey we have moved around on all sorts of transport, from the Chappa's in Mozambique, ponies in Lesotho and luxury busses in South Africa. When I climbed down from the Matola at Cape Maclear I was bruised and battered. While Donna had been sandwiched between two local women, I had spent an hour and half hanging off the side of the vehicle, clinging on for dear life.

Whereas Monkey Bay is a very quiet fishing village, where we could walk through the huts to the sound of excited squeals from children sighting a M'zungu (white person), Cape Maclear is a tourist town to its core. Beach boys wander the sandy strip hassling any who stray from the confines of their lodge. Not yet sure of Bilharzia and its effect we decided to forego any water activities for the time being (Cape Maclear is a high risk area for the Bilharzia flukes which get into your skin and make their way to your bladder causing kidney failure and permanent bowel damage).

One of the wonderful things about Malawi is the price of beer, let me explain. Our costs have dropped dramatically since we left South Africa and while I am not yet comfortable spending hours on the beach (yes, my arms are now a shade or two darker though my legs are still as white as fresh snow), I have come half way to the party. While Donna spends her afternoons frolicking on the beach or reading a good book laid out on her sarong, I am more than happy sitting back relaxing in a deck chair with a icy cold Carlsberg or Kutche Kutche.

As in the previous post - in Africa, there is always room for one more, and the Matola ride back to Monkey Bay was no exception. Picked up at 5:45 am a group of us crammed our packs into the back of the truck, already laden with goods destined for the ferry. None of us were to pleased to discover that half of the load was bags of dried fish (very very smelly). As we proceeded through the town the Matola was slowly filled beyond capacity, to the point where the only way people could fit in the back of the truck was for everyone to stand up basically hugging each other. At least Donna was fully wedged in and could not fall out. I on the other hand was precariously balanced on the rail, with only a single hand hold to stop me tumbling out onto the road below. At least, unlike our other drivers so far, the Matola drivers were quite skilled at missing the pot holes. It is rides like this that I had seen on TV and in photographs and laughed at what people got up to on their holidays - I never thought it would happen to me. Only when we were climbing off the truck at the end of the journey did it hit me.

Sorry Mum and Dad, do not worry - we are both very careful and are not taking too many risks, and yes we are eating our vegetables and drinking lots of water.

Cabin's on the Ilala had been booked out weeks in advance and although we had tried on several occasions to get a berth, all that was left was the first class deck (second class aka slave deck was also available however for two full days of traveling we have decided a little comfort was in order).

Walking through the industrial docks we sighted the Ilala for the first time and she truly did live up to our expectations. She rose three stories out of the water - her white hulk glistening in the morning sunshine. With a skip in our step we strode up the gang plank, and ascended past the "slave" deck to the upper decks. Stowing our gear under the deck chairs we settled in for the mornings wait. After four months we are still adjusting to African time, as we had arrived on time we had a good two to three hour wait before the other passengers began arriving. By the time the Ilala pulled out of the harbour we were well behind the published schedule.

I think for western society, traveling has become more about the destination and less about the journey - more so with the advent of modern transportation like the jet plane. The Ilala is a pleasant step back in time to the grand old days, somewhat similar in fact, to our journey aboard the Bulawayo to Vic Falls train in Zimbabwe. Up on the first class deck we were kept away from the hustle and bustle down below. Meals were served in the saloon on white china and drinks held in the deck bar as the sun set over the distant Malawi mountains. Traveling was once again treated with the style it so deserved (however somehow sullied by the fact we were a group of backpackers rather than Olde English Explorers).

Home aboard the IlalaHome aboard the Ilala

We were joined on the trip by a broad mix of other passengers. In our traveling group was an Israeli, an Englishman, two German girls and a Swiss gentleman. As we steamed our way north up the lake it was easy to slip into thoughts of yesteryear. The early colonialists on their paddle steamers as they attempted to civilise the savages. In my head I imagined sun bronzed goddesses, paddling out to meet us with boatloads of fresh fruit, monkeys and trinkets. We would be fighting them off from the sides of the boat, the more persistent making it aboard to trade their wares. Minus the fresh fruit this was not far from the truth...

Life on the Ilala was an extremely laid back affair, as far as traveling goes it was some of the easiest miles we have covered so far and some of the most memorable. Sitting on the upper deck, a good book, a cold beer and plenty of sunshine. Our traveling companions were most agreeable and conversation ranged from life in Israel through to comparing traveling tales of woe. Our days were broken by meals served below deck, and the in-frequent stops along the lake.

As the sun set on our first day on the water, mattresses were pulled out of corners and laid on the open deck. The more prepared setup tents and rolled out sleeping bags. A few quiet beers set a perfect close to a fantastic day.

First Class Desk aboard the IlalaFirst Class Deck aboard the Ilala

Not everything aboard the Ilala was quite so serene. Sometime around 1am on the second day we drew close into the Mozambican shore. I was awoken by mad shouting and further inspection revealed that at this stop there was no pier, instead a small dugout canoe had pulled alongside and was in the midst of uploading cargo. This continued on for a good two hours as several boats plied back and forth between us and the shore.

Morning on the Ilala brought strong winds and rough water. More than one person awoke feeling a little sea sick. I on the other hand was brought to reality by ten kilograms of steel crashing down near my head. A fire cabinet had swung open caused by the rocking of the boat and the equipment inside spilled out around me.

Day two was very similar to day one. After a somewhat insufficient breakfast, we were back on deck, with a strong sun beating down, bikinis were revealed and relaxation was the order of the day. After a number of stops on the Malawian shore during the night, today we stopped along the Mozambican shores. These stops were long drawn out affairs, much cargo was loaded and with the immigration formalities we were pushed further behind schedule. Forgoing dinner as we were now scheduled to arrive at Likoma Island at 7:30pm may not have been a smart decision in hindsight.

Mozambiqan border

The relative serenity of two days aboard the Ilala was like the calm before a storm. Disembarking was, let's just say, an adventure! Instead of arriving at 1:30 in the afternoon as published, we were delayed by nearly eight hours and approached Likoma Island at 9pm with a blanket of darkness all around us. Grabbing our gear we moved down to the lower decks. We were met with a solid heaving mass of humanity. At our boarding only a few passengers had climbed onto the Ilala, over the subsequent stops she had filled beyond capacity with hundreds of people and piles upon piles of maize. Our first three attempts at getting to the side of the boat were repelled. With no clear organisation or leadership, passengers and goods were being loaded at the same time as those trying to disembark, completely blocking any attempts at exiting the boat.

Taking the lead, I waited till a gap appeared in the throng below, then charged, elbows and knees were utilised to push us down past the slave deck to the edge of the boat. Scaling down the side of the ship I scampered into the waiting life boat below, slowly joined by Donna and three other first class passengers. Once on board the life boat, it was rapidly filled with other passengers and their precious belongings. Before we were full to sinking, the driver pulled away from the Ilala, additional passengers leaping from the side of the boat onto the skiff much to the amusement of all on board. The final lady passenger took a death defying leap and was caught luckily on the edge of the boat. In all the madness one passenger was nearly killed by a swinging 100kg boat hook, brushing within inches of his head.

Disembarking from the Ilala at Likoma IslandDisembarking from the Ilala at Likoma Island

When we approached land a few minutes later things were no better. With no pier or lighting we landed on the nearest beach amidst a massive crowd of onlookers. Leaping over the side I waded ashore and deposited the first load, as others in our group also landed and stayed to look after our gear I headed back into the water, frothing with people already climbing into the life boat to head out to the Ilala. Donna by this time was freaking out, caught in the middle she was unable to get out of the boat. I grabbed one of our packs and headed back to the shore. On my third load Donna, with the assistance of some other passengers had worked her way to the side of the life boat and with my final load we both waded ashore.

Two days of serenity as we drifted up the lake were completed by one hour of absolute madness. Enjoyable madness but madness none the less. After gathering our senses we walked into the nearest village where we were able to hitch a ride across the island to our lodging for the week - Mango Drift.

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God, it sounds like disembarking from the titanic!

Lachie & Stella - July 02, 2007


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