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The Ilala ferry chugs passengers and cargo up and down Lake Malawi once a week in each direction. Travelling between Monkey Bay in the south and Chilumba in the north, it makes nine stops at lakeside villages and towns in between, as well as at Likoma and Chizumulu Islands. Many travellers rate this journey (or a leg of it) as a highlight of the country, although there are occasionally nasty storms. If you’re unlucky, be prepared for some pitching and rolling. The boat dates to 1949 and is certainly no cruise liner, so it's better to regard it as a practical method of getting from A to B than an experience in itself.

When the Ilala stops at lakeside towns or villages, the water is too shallow for it to come close; the lifeboat is used to ferry passengers ashore. In both directions, the ferry docks at Nkhata Bay for seven hours and traders come aboard, selling food, drinks and newspapers.

The whole trip, from one end of the line to the other, takes about three days. The official schedules are detailed in the table below, although note that the Ilala often runs late and timetables do change. You can normally download the latest schedules from Malawi Tourism.

Northbound portArrivalDeparture
Monkey Bay8am (Fri)
Makanjila10am (Fri)11am (Fri)
Senga Bay1pm (Fri)2pm (Fri)
Chipoka4.30pm (Fri)5.30pm (Fri)
Nkhotakota4am (Sat)7am (Sat)
Likoma Island2pm (Sat)5pm (Sat)
Chizumulu Island6.30pm (Sat)8.30pm (Sat)
Nkhata Bay12.30am (Sun)7am (Sun)
Usisya10am (Sun)10.30am (Sun)
Ruarwe11.30am (Sun)noon (Sun)
Tcharo1pm (Sun)1.30pm (Sun)
Mlowe3pm (Sun)3.30pm (Sun)
Chilumba6.30pm (Sun)

Southbound portArrivalDeparture
Chilumba-2am (Mon)
Mlowe5am (Mon)5.30am (Mon)
Tcharo7am (Mon)7.30am (Mon)
Ruarwe8.30am (Mon)9am (Mon)
Usisya10am (Mon)10.30am (Mon)
Nkhata Bay1.30pm (Mon)8pm (Mon)
Chizumulu Island12.10am (Tue)2am (Tue)
Likoma Island3.30am (Tue)8am (Tue)
Nkhotakota3pm (Tue)5pm (Tue)
Chipoka3am (Wed)4am (Wed)
Senga Bay6.30am (Wed)7.30am (Wed)
Makanjila9.30am (Wed)10.30am (Wed)
Monkey Bay12.30pm (Wed)

Classes & Reservations

The classes are the exclusive Owner's Cabin, Standard Cabin, Upper Deck, Second and Economy. The standard cabins were once luxurious, and are still in reasonable condition. This class and the upper deck are popular with travellers, due largely to the sociable bar. There are also seats, a shaded area and mattresses for hire on the upper deck. Second and Economy classes are not recommended; the latter covers the entire lower deck and is dark and crowded, with engine fumes permeating from below.

Cabin and Upper Deck class passengers can dine in the ferry’s restaurant, which serves beef curry, peri-peri chicken and the like. Dishes such as beans, rice and vegetables are served from a galley on the economy deck.

Reservations are usually required for Cabin class, and are recommended to ensure a comfortable journey.

Sample Routes & Fares

The following are sample fares from Nkhata Bay.

DestinationOwner's CabinStandard CabinUpper Deck2ndEconomy
Monkey BayMK44,800MK34,440MK20,450MK11,860MK8120

Chilembwe Ferry

A newer ferry, the Chilembwe, sometimes replaces the Ilala. It was out of action at the time of writing but expected to be back on the lake by mid-2017. The Chilembwe follows a similar timetable to the Ilala and stops in the same places (apart from Senga Bay) but is faster.