“This is the reason I’m not doing what you’re doing. Fancy one?” It was shortly after sunrise and I was being offered another beer by my neighbours. They’d arrived in a mud-splattered 4×4 the previous evening and set up camp next to me. I wasn’t sure then if the red face that had first greeted me with a cold can had forgotten to apply sun-cream or was just drinking an excessive amount of alcohol. As I sat beside my tent and waited for the water to boil on my Primus stove for morning tea I decided on the latter.

He loves his beer. Packed eight crates for the trip”, boasted the blonde girlfriend, emerging from the roof of their vehicle where they’d slept the night. “How long are you travelling for?” I asked. Just 10 days. Drove up from Joburg with these guys.

Parked close by was a similar vehicle owned by another Afrikaans speaking couple. With two young kids and a whole catalogue-ful of what looked like new camping equipment to unpack they made my sun-faded tent look somewhat inferior. “That’s seen better days”, remarked the red-faced beer drinker. “But it’s a hubba hubba. A lakka tent.” When several more 4x4s arrived later in the day with Afrikaans being shouted back and forth across the campsite I realised that Cape Maclear, on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, was going to be busy with South Africans for Christmas.

Christmas day for me on the other hand began onboard the Ilala, Malawi’s most distinguished colonial survivor. In continual service since 1951, shortly after it had been transported in parts from the Mozambican coast to be assembled beside the lake, the MV Ilala services a dozen or so ports on Africa’s third largest lake. It chugs its way north once a week from Monkey Bay, the southern most terminus, and one of only two ports with a dock. This mattered to me. Transporting bike and bags from shore to boat is never easy when alone. The bike needs to be lifted awkwardly, bags often get separated and it’s hard to keep a watchful eye on ones belongings, particularly when it’s dark

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Leaving the Ilala

Experience with boat travel in other parts of Africa had me prepared for a chaotic, heavily delayed and potentially dangerous journey. Part of me wishes to say it was thankfully none of these. The Ilala was altogether the most civilised and uneventful boat I’ve used to travel on in Africa. Second and third class passengers sat calmly on the lower deck and those with a mostly paler complexion occupied the upper deck. It was very colonial. There was no shouting or drama. Where were the arguments about seating arrangements, the livestock falling overboard, the collisions, break-downs and overcrowding? – basically all what one expects from boat travel in Africa. On almost every other boat I’ve used in Africa I’ve been the only foreign face. On the Ilala there seemed to be as many foreigners getting onboard at Monkey Bay as there were local Malawians.

Onboard the Ilala

The biggest drama might well have been that a passenger with an economy ticket spent most of his time on the first class deck. I used the well-stocked bar and the white faces up here as an excuse. They had all paid several times what I had and were entitled to be sitting where they were. I occasionally popped down to the lower deck to eat (rice, beans and beef) and greet those I should have been sitting and sleeping alongside, but there was far more room and fresh-air up above. It was wrong and I knew it. At first I had the idea that I’d settle things the African way by buying the ticket inspectors a few beers, but it never came to that after I got talking to them on a friendly basis. After hearing I was alone and not married, one of the ticket inspectors took it upon himself to find me a wife on board.

The Ilala took on more passengers and cargo as she docked at new ports and headed north, but where I had expected local boats and dug-out canoes to paddle out with produce for sale, I found none. The Ilala even had its own passenger boat with engine to transport people ashore

Docking at Metangulu, Mozambique

The other foreigners onboard were a range of ages and nationalities and the open-air bar area made for a lively scene much of the day. There was a time on this journey where foreign faces were so rare that conversation would usually occur when you met someone clearly as far away from home shores as yourself . Now mzungus, as we continue to be known, are so common at times that a mere nod of the head seems to suffice. At least this ensures one doesn’t have to answer and ask the same ‘where are you from’? and ‘where are going’? kind of questions. Most foreigners disembarked at Likoma island, which is actually within Mozambican waters on the lake, but I continued to Nkata bay, arriving in good time to find a goat being barbecued on the beach for Christmas day lunch.

Xmas company by Lake Malawi

Like many other foreigners who pass this way I eased myself into the relaxed lake-side atmosphere. The camping was scenic and cheap and the company an eclectic mix of characters. With the inevitable talk of New Year parties it became easy to stay for a week. And when the hangover cleared, people started leaving and I found myself feeling restless I did what I’ve done so many times over the past few years– pack the panniers, load up the bike and start spinning those pedals.

Camping by Lake Malawi