MV Ilala Ferry – the Terrific Boat of Lake Malawi: the Ultimate Guide

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Last Updated on 22 June 2024 by Cycloscope

Ilala ferry malawi

Authentic adventures on Lake Malawi:
the Mythical Ilala Ferry and the new and frightening Chambo MV
Everything you need to know to travel around Malawi by boat

Prices, schedules, cabins, classes, and route around Lake Malawi

The MV Ilala is the only passenger ship connecting the whole Lake Malawi, transporting goods and people from the south to the north of the country, including the islands.

Of course, it is famous for being often late due to maintenance, sometimes even a few days, and it seems not to be the safest ship in the world, but what Ilala is able to offer is an unparalleled perspective on the life, the reality, the enchanting landscapes and lights of Malawi.

The arrival of the Ilala is always an event for the inhabitants of the “harbor” villages… Only three stops are equipped with a real pier, for all the other places the ship stops near the coast, the distance depends on the water depth, usually a few hundred meters.

Landing and boarding are entrusted to the boats of local fishermen and to the two small boats of the Ilala is a poetically daring manner.

A continuous coming and going of boats and canoes reach the Ilala to accompany passengers and transport the precious freight goods to shore, while young eclectics devise creative ways only to get on the bridge and take a selfie, and maybe a Chibuku at the bar.

We sailed on the Ilala from Monkey Bay to the island of Likoma (about 27 hours) and it felt great, we didn’t have mechanical problems and we left and arrived on time.

The Ilala is like a blood cell, bringing the human life stream, across the lake, day by day, night by night, since 1951. (read more…)

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History and Route of the Ilala

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The MV Ilala has crossed Lake Malawi from north to south and vice versa since 1951. Every week it leaves from Monkey Bay, in the south of the lake, and reaches Chilumba, near the border with Tanzania, to then trace the same route back.

It carries passengers and goods stopping by the main towns on the west coast of Lake Malawi – plus one on the east coast a few kilometers from the border with Mozambique – as well as on the two islands of Likoma and Chizumulu, in Mozambican waters but belonging to Malawi.

Yarrow Shipbuilder, built the Ilala for Nyasaland Railways in 1949 in Scotland, the boat was named after the Ilala region of Zambia, where David Livingstone was first buried.

Once built, the ship was dismantled and transported to pieces in Malawi, first by ship to Beira, Mozambique, then by rail and road to Chipoka, in the south of Lake Malawi.

The Ilala thus began to sail the waters of the lake in 1951 and since then has continued to operate uninterruptedly, except for maintenance periods.

The British historian, traveler, and writer Oliver Ransford describes life on board the MV Ilala in his book “Malawi, Livingstone’s Lake“:

Every day onboard, amid the exciting bell that rings, cries of sirens and shouts that seem inseparable from all maritime arrivals and departures, the laughing crowds of Malawians line up on the Ilala bridge to disembark, cluttered with baggage that includes bicycles, cages full of birds, sewing machines and even tied goats. They are transported to the ground to return after about an hour later crammed with another group of passengers who quickly settle in the narrow spaces to sing and sleep and prepare meals in small pots. (from Wikipedia)

Read our full article about Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear

Detailed itinerary of the Lake Malawi Ferry – MV Ilala in 2024

Most of the places where the Ilala stops indeed have no jetty. Folks and stuff is moved pretty acrobatically from the ferry to smaller boats… Even boats themselves are moved from the big boat on to smaller but yet bigger boats – if that does make sense ???? – and then hens, goats, bicycles, baskets of dry fish/fruit/vegetables, and crates up crates of beer.

At the time of writing these are the Ilala stops on Lake Malawi. In the past, the ship arrived in Karonga and then in Tanzania but now this route is suppressed. It is not certain that it will not be restored in the future. Check the official website for updates, even if the real-time update is not absolutely guaranteed.

malawi ferry ilala route map
  • Monkey Bay, Malawi
  • Makanjila
  • Senga Bay, Malawi
  • Nkhotakota, Malawi
  • Likoma Island, Malawi
  • Chizumulu Island, Malawi
  • Nkhata Bay, Malawi
  • Usisya, Malawi
  • Ruarwe, Malawi
  • Ncharo, Malawi
  • Mlowe, Malawi
  • Chilumba, Malawi

Timetables of the MV Ilala on Lake Malawi

Ilala Ferry Lago Malawi

???? In its one week round trip, this kind of mythical boat brings people and goods in the most remote corners of this huge lake. It’s arrival is always a sensation, all the village is excited and busy, many come on board sailing towards it with any means available, even broken surfboards and wooden planks, just to have a drink on the upper deck of this ferry full of symbolic value. (read more…)

Monkey Bay – Chilumba (from South to North)

Monkey BayFriday08.00
Senga BayFriday13.3014.30
Nkhota KotaFriday21.30
Nkhota KotaSaturday04.00
Nkhata BaySaturday23.55
Nkhata BaySunday05.00

Chilumba – Monkey Bay (from North to South)

Nkhata BayMonday14.30
Nkhata BayTuesday01.30
Nkhota KotaTuesday22.00
Nkhota KotaWednesday15.00
Senga BayWednesday12.0013.30
Monkey BayWednesday20.00
The boat leaves Monkey Bay on Friday at 8.00

Cabins and Upper Deck Passage on the Ilala Boat

On the Ilala there are two possibilities for sleeping, there are double cabins, clean and equipped with a fan, and one of them, the “owner’s cabin” has a sink inside. Showers with hot water and bathrooms are shared but only for those with higher class tickets (cabin or deck).

If you do not want the cabin, you can take the upper deck ticket, deck crossing, where you can sleep by placing your tent or simply with a mattress and sleeping bag. The cheapest place is the one with no solution for sleeping but you will be forced to stay under the bridge, only those who have the upper deck ticket can go there (a little Titanic style).


In the tables below you will find the ticket prices depending on the route and the chosen solution. Prices are in Kwacha, which is also the only currency with which you can pay for a ticket. You cannot pay by credit card. If you do not have enough cash and the ATM does not work (even not at all rare) there are always people available to change dollars near the ticket offices.

Rates Ilala – Economy Class (without a bed or deck passage)

ilala boat ticket price economy

Ilala Rates – Second Class (without a bed or deck passage)

ilala tickets price deck

Ilala Prices – Upper Deck Passage (possibility of camping with your own tent)

ilala boat prices

Ilala rates – Standard Cabin

ilala boat price

There is also the possibility of booking the first-class cabin at a price not much higher than the standard cabin. The prices shown in the table are per person, children up to 12 years pay 50%.

Services on the MV Ilala

chambo boat lake malawi

On the ship, there is a bar with fresh beer and other drinks and a restaurant with simple and acceptable food. The service, on the other hand, is of other times, recalling how this ship must have been in the fifties when it was served by waiters with white gloves and the cabins were luxury.

MV Chambo Boat: Mozambique – Likoma – Chizumulu – Nkhata Bay

The MV Chambo is a new ship, 32 meters long and 7 meters wide, which connects the coast of Mozambique to the islands of Likoma and Chizumulo and arrives at Nkhata Bay. Sail 3 times a week, much more frequently than the Ilala, and for the inhabitants of these islands, it is a nice progress.

We took the Chambo from Likoma and we have to say though, that although it is certainly newer than the Ilala, it did not give us a feeling of security.

Lake Malawi is more like a sea, we encountered rough water, and the ship, too small for this type of crossing, swayed terribly. Furthermore, the maximum capacity would be 100 people and 10 tons of load, but we would transport at least twice as much.

If you are sure that the waters of the lake are calm, it is certainly a faster way to reach the islands, around 4 or 5 hours. On the internet, there is news about a connection between Mozambique and Tanzania but it is not active at the moment.

Moreover, on the Chambo Wikipedia page, it is reported that it is possible to transport vehicles on the ship but this is absolutely not true, the only vehicles that can be transported are bicycles and maybe a couple of scooters.

Conclusions and advice

Before buying tickets you have to keep in mind a couple of things, first: the delays can be counted in days (even if this rarely happens), therefore, you should have at least 3 days of margin if, for example, you have a flight to take.

This should be taken into consideration even more if you plan on going to the island of Likoma, if the Ilala gets stuck there you may have to wait days without many other options to leave.

Also, check the weather conditions, especially the wind which could cause rough water and a journey that is not too pleasant. Apart from this, the Ilala is a great way to explore Lake Malawi and especially the lives of the people who live on its shores.

The Ilala is a window through which gaze around the whole of Lake Malawi, at sunset we see dozens and dozens of fishing boats rolling away towards the horizon, with their loads of human emotions ready to face yet another night in the vast solitude of the lake. (read more…)

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Backpacking Malawi – The best travel guide about Malawi on the web
Mzuzu – 7 Unusual Things To Do & Experience Like a Local

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