Published: July 5th 2010May 4th 2010
The next leg of my rather meandering Malawian travel is dominated by a ferry down the length of Lake Malawi, from the northern "town" of Chilumba all the way to Monkey Bay close to the southern tip of the lake. The Ilala Ferry is about sixty years old and like all nautical colonial relics it was actually built back in Britain first (in this case Glasgow in 1949) before being taken apart, shipped to Africa, carried a few hundred kilometres overland piece by piece and finally reassembled. Since then the boat has barely changed at all - the state of the toilets certainly suggests so - but its in fairly good nick compared to other elements of Africa's colonial inheritance that I've encountered (i.e. it still floats).
Cost being of greater importance than comfort J and I opt for economy class. This means the lower deck and rather hard wooden benches. Neither is really a problem at this stage, especially as the benches are long enough for us to stretch out fully when lying down on them and for the first part of the journey there are few passengers so we get plenty of room to sleep when the boat
Economy class on the Ilala ferry
departs at 1am.
I awake with the sun though J continues to snooze long into the morning - once again I find myself with a travel partner whose ability to sleep well just about anywhere is irritatingly enviable. Having been roused so early I soon succumb to the boredom of boat travel. There's nothing to do apart from gaze at the pretty but repetitive scenery and I can only concentrate on my book for so long. Opposite us sits a young girl with a loose, dazzlingly white, toothy grin who commands the attention of J's camera and a smartly dressed older man accompanying her. His English is fragmented so he shows us a piece of paper about the founding of his own Church. In contrast to his demure demeanor, in print he claims to be able to channel the powers of Jesus to cure those with AIDS and to control the weather. I look up at him a couple of times with a raised eyebrow to see an utterly calm face benevolently staring down at me with polite expectation. Nutter.
About lunch time the ferry docks for the afternoon in Nkhata Bay and we hop ashore to relax
for a few hours and grab supplies. We are totally unprepared for what awaits us when we return to the jetty. In our absence the hitherto sparsely populated Ilala has completely filled out with passengers and produce. Any hope of returning to our previous spot is quickly abandoned. Not that we'd want to now anyway. The inside of the ship is so packed you can barely move, let alone find somewhere to sit. It's not so much the volume of people as the enormous quantity of baggage they're transporting. I've never seen so many bunches of bananas. It's all destined for the islands of Chizumulu and Likoma, where we'll be getting off, and the Mozambican border at Metangula. Obviously there's money to be made supplying these places with goods from Nkhata Bay, which is the closest point on the western shore. The density of bodies suffuses the stifling internal air with an insufferable heat and soon J and I are gasping for breath outside at the front of the boat. We manage to find quite a bit of room until at the last minute a number of oil drums are loaded around us before the dock hands unsympathetically dump vast
coils of wire in the scant deck space that's still vacant. We are forced to fight tooth and nail for a tiny fissure of floor. Again J is out like a light.
Unable to sleep with two heads digging into my side and another doing its best to cut the blood flow to my left leg I decide to go for a little wander. In doing so I almost kill two sleeping people by nudging a badly stacked sack of maize from its elevated perch onto the ground. Only a last minute warning bark saves them from a nasty case of squashed skull syndrome. Things are a lot more entertaining now that the ship is crammed full, with so much chattering and activity to observe. I sneak up onto the surprisingly empty second deck; apparently the lifeless purgatory between the heaven of first class on the floor above and our punishment below. From it I can command an excellent view of the water. Lake Malawi is nick-named the Lake of a Thousand Stars and I've heard two explanatory theories behind this, both of which seem to be in effect tonight. The name comes from either the numerous paraffin lamps
used by fisherman who scour the lake in large numbers by night, or the reflection in the rippling surface of the millions of stars that fight more keenly for space in the unpolluted sky than even the passengers on the Ilala do for deck space.
At about 6am we weigh anchor just off Likoma Island, our residence for the next week until the Ilala once again passes by on its journey south. There's not really much to say about this place other than it's serenely beautiful and chilled to the core. Neither is their much to do and I know by the end of the week J is a little bored. I however manage to fill my time with a PADI scuba course (with the exception of Honduras, Lake Malawi is supposed to be the cheapest place in the world to do this) which keeps me thoroughly entertained for the first few days and then leaves me more enthusiastic to utterly relax for the couple I still have spare at the end of it. We don't achieve much otherwise - reflected by a third of my rather substantial tab being accounted for by the hostel bar's deliciously cheap alcohol.
Diners on Likoma you have been warned
The island is only 17 square kilometres so I do manage to summon up enough energy for one good explore towards the end of our stay. Likoma is referred to as the 'Island of the Boababs' and it isn't hard to see why as these colossal trees - capable of storing up to 120,000 cubic litres of water (cheers wikipedia) - are everywhere. Beaches, beer and baobabs. That's pretty much Likoma in a nutshell.
A week later and we're back on board the Ilala. Because there are no proper jetties apart from Chilumba, Nkhata Bay, and Monkey Bay at the end, the ship must be loaded at most stops by the only two lifeboats (God help us if we begin to sink). Consequently we sit around for four hours before moving anywhere. It's rammed once again and there is the typical, pointless chaos as people frantically and furiously scramble to get off first. To what end I don't know, it's not as if little Likoma or life on it is going anywhere fast.
All other travellers slink up to first or cabin class but J and I again settle ourselves down in economy. It's not QUITE as busy
this time and we can at least pillage enough bench to sit down on. The density of people provides us with some enjoyable company to help pass the 36 hours - which seem to get progressively longer as the journey goes on - it takes to cruise down to Monkey Bay. Few are as entertaining as the group of guys who set themselves up by the hole in the wall bar by the toilets at the back then proceed to get royally smashed for the entire day, and who greet me with increasingly slurred geniality each time I pass to relieve myself.
We arrive in Monkey Bay with barely thirty people still left on board and the fun begins. There's an immigration official waiting and he brings bad news with his passport inspection. Although the standard, free visa for Malawi issued at the border is for one month and every source of information I've checked confirms this, for some reason (particularly baffling because I insisted on receiving one month!) the man who issued mine has scrawled '21 days' above the stamp. I am not a little peeved by this, although my predicament is also my own fault; I should
have paid more attention and triple-checked it. But Malawi's relaxed and hospitable atmosphere has lulled me into carelessness. My visa therefore expires in 30 minutes (!) and I've got to pay $30 for a month's extension when I only plan on staying in the country for a few days more.
It could be worse. I could be J. Her passport has '14 days' written on it. Why?! Why would they think anyone would ever request less than the maximum? Why not just give out 30 days as you're supposed to. Is this a deliberate scam to catch out unwary travellers such as ourselves. In Zambia you can pay $50 for a 7 day transit visa or $50 for a month long visa. Why would anyone choose the former? Sometimes - actually, most times - African officialdom really is incomprehensibly illogical in its idiocy. Regardless of the reasoning J has unintentionally overstayed her visa and of course this immigration chap begins to smugly spout dire prophecies of police, prison and trial. Yawn. Guess where this is leading up to... Having not had to so openly bribe someone before, we are both a little hesitant in articulating what we know he
Loloload your boat
This takes only about 4hours
wants to hear. We need not worry though because he is all too eager to raise the issue himself with a simple, "How much will you give me?" When he demands almost $150 dollars to backdate J's visa extension we both burst out laughing - probably not the wisest move - but we are soon able to agree on about $20. Despite all the annoyance involved, especially as I'm desperate for some sleep, I can't help but find the experience quite exciting. And although for $20 I could live comfortably in Malawi for three days, if not longer, in reality it's a small price to pay. A little perspective is necessary. In 2002 the World Bank estimated that corruption cost Africa one quarter of it's GDP: a cool $148billion.
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