A True African Experience, Malawi

Words & Photos: Dawie du Plessis

My wife, Catt, and I were about three months into our trip across Africa when her parents, Pete and Annie, flew to Malawi to join us of three fun-filled weeks. Part of this time was to be whiled away at the Mango Drift Lodge, situated on the west side of Likoma Island, a small island in Lake Malawi that’s off the coast of Mozambique, and where we were headed.

A True African Experience, Malawi

I had not worn a watch since primary school, but on this day I had my dive computer on, doubling as a watch. I heard what sounded like a fog horn in the distance, and opened my eyes to see 04:38 staring back at me from my wrist. The ferry was four-and-a-half hours late.

The trusty night watchman knocked on our door about 15 minutes later and informed us that the ferry had indeed arrived, and that we should make our way to the beach. We got up, dressed and simulated pack mules while walking the 200m to the crowd line. The watchmen helped us to the front of the queue, pointed at some boats and said, “There you go.” The ferry was about 500 metres offshore at this time. We had been warned that some wading was likely, so this wasn’t a total surprise.

Some young men offered us a lift in their boat, giving us obvious and expressionistic preference over the locals. The charge was MK2,000 ($13) for the four of us, which we agreed on and climbed aboard without even getting our feet wet. About 15 seconds later we found ourselves side-by-side with a life raft from the MV Ilala, a 620-ton steamer, which we were ushered onto - a free service to get onto the ferry in the first place. I could only smile at the entrepreneurial skill of these young Africans at 04:50, and as we were still blissfully dry we didn’t really feel ripped off.

I counted 49 people getting into the life raft before loosing interest. The sign on the side clearly warned that it was a 22-person vessel. The ride to the ferry was dealt with in less than 10 minutes and after queuing for another 10 minutes, our raft docked along side the mighty MV Ilala and the people started filing off it and spilling onto the middle deck. There were another two informal vessels docked on our outside and those passengers simply traipsed across all the boats to get to the ladder. We eventually pushed in and found a ladder pointing to the first class deck upstairs. This all happened under the watchful eye of a musungu. We had discussed booking a cabin as we would spend the night onboard, but as there was only half an hour until sunrise, we decided to check out the top deck first.

Anyone who knows me will know how bad my memory is concerning names. I can meet someone at 14:00 and forget their name by 14:01, get reminded of it 20 times in the next half hour and still have no inkling as to what it might be at 14:32. I’m sure the Musungu on the deck told us her name, but I can only remember her as Florida Cuckoo. She looked like she heralded from Florida and was definitely a little insane. She told us about her life in China, her travels in Mozambique, the coldness of the night she had just had, when she took her 14-year-old son scuba diving and how the Ilala differed from the ferries between Seattle and Alaska before either one of us managed to say, “Good morning.” She then went on to explain the way the Ilala worked, where we could get food, find a seat, buy some beer and chill out before any of us had a chance to say, “What is your name?”

A True African Experience, Malawi

So here was the score: The top deck was pretty much where the Musungus hung out. A cabin would cost us $56 per person and the deck only $25 per person. We were offered breakfast, accepted and called to the first class dining room where it was being served from. We even managed to score some boiling water to make our own coffee. It was 08:42 when we set sail, only six hours and forty-two minutes behind schedule. Pretty good for Africa I thought, we must have left on the right day. Breakfast was $4 each, we hired mattresses for $1 each and after the sun came up, we found a comfortable place out of the wind and went back to sleep. The constant drone of the big diesel engines was barely audible under the non-stop chatter from Florida Cuckoo.

By mid morning, the temperature had risen considerably and I was baking! I shed some clothing and worked on my suntan until I became uncomfortably hot. I then decided to go meet the other members of the ‘Top Deck Family’, as described by Florida Cuckoo. We had the Beach Boys, two bearded fellows in their mid twenties who were having an absolute ball and cracked open their first beers at 10:30. They had very cleverly pitched their tents on deck and slept in their comfortable cocoons until an hour or so after sunrise. I wished I had thought of that! Then there was Dutch Chick, I almost remembered her name, but alas … She was two months into a round the world backpacking trip and clearly enjoyed the African sun, a lot, and was loathe to get out of it despite her sunburn. Lastly I met California Man and his girlfriend.

He was building low-cost housing for medical professionals in Malawi, while his girlfriend had done some teaching in Malawi and was on a short holiday before returning to Washington and starting Law School. I liked them and stuck around. Our discussions soon turned to going for a swim at the ferry’s next stop. The one stop in-between us embarking and disembarking was on the Mozambique side of Lake Malawi. The timing was perfect, it was midday and lunchtime. We packed some bread and tinned meat, but the ride on the open water was so rough that eating was not an option. Not because the lake was rough, even though there was a bit of wind around, but because this tub was over loaded to the max and not equipped with stabilisers. I also didn’t think it was fast enough to break the surf without violently swaying from side-to-side. By now the sun was hiding behind some cloud and the temperature had dropped significantly by the time we made port, so swimming for me was out of the question.

California Man made good on his promise and, to the entertainment of the rest of the clan, he and one of the Beach Boys leapt into the water from the top deck. The drop must have been about 10 metres and you can imagine the surprise of the second class passengers as the two musungus flew past their balconies and into the clear blue below. They did get into a bit of trouble for jumping into Mozambique waters without clearing customs, but were back on board in no time. Our Top Deck Family was joined by yet another musungu, a Dutch doctor who had been doing his thesis on Tuberculosis in some little Mozambican village. He was immediately attacked by a fresh bout of verbal diarrhoea from Florida Cuckoo and so adopted the name of ‘Fresh Bait’.

Just an hour and forty-five minutes later we set sail again, a rare 15 minutes shorter in port than planned. Our next stop was the isolated and beautiful Likoma Island, our planned abode for the next three nights. I was hoping that we’d still make it on the same day, as I was eager to experience the island’s delights. At 17:00 we were approached by the chef for dinner orders and on explaining that we were leaving the vessel at Likoma, he agreed to have our supper ready half an hour earlier. The meal was of phenomenal quality and ridiculously cheap, which meant that we were four happy travellers with full tummies. By 19:00 we were back on the upper deck, admiring a star-studded sky as we waited for the fog horn to signal our arrival at the island.

The fog horn came at 20:20, a mere six hours later than the timetable’s scheduled arrival time. We quickly realised that disembarking was going to be as interesting as getting into the boat.

This crossing had turned into a true African experience, even though it only was about 15 hours and three meals later. We managed to squeeze our way past the hordes of people and into the lifeboat, with me having to stand as the seats were all taken. I didn’t bother counting the people on the 22-person certified craft, as I knew I would shudder at the total anyway. We made it to shore within 20 minutes and were met by masses of eager faces, who anticipated the end of their long wait and were desperate to make their way aboard. Our boat stopped some five metres offshore and passengers with rolled up trousers started climbing off. They were met by fervent helpers, carrying sacks of maize and bags of vegetables, cardboard boxes and all sorts of unexplainable shapes and objects. We patiently waited our turn, but soon realised that the boat was filling up again from the land.

The new patrons from Ilala would not give us a second to get off before clambering into the limited spaces, so I simply rolled off the side and landed feet first in waist deep water, with my camera bag on my head. I grabbed two bags from our group, was joined by Fresh Bait, and made my way to dry land in search of the Mango Drift vehicle we had booked to transport us to the lodge. My idea was to leave my bags with them, fight my way back through the rowdy crowd and help the family get to shore, with the minimum of moisture on their luggage and persons. Failing to find the booked vehicle, I had to return. This time I saw Catt standing in the water trying to help the folks down. Eventually, I got her to dry land and asked her to guard our belongings while I went back. Pete had managed to get off the boat, but the crowds had blocked all viable exits for Annie. There was only one thing to do … I got her to sling an arm around my shoulders, slide sideways off the boat and I carried her like a knight, in shining armour to the great delight and applause of the watching fan club, until we reached our bags and reunited with the Top Deck Family of five, who were also heading in the same destination. There was still no sign of our transport and as it was dark, we had no idea where to go.

I walked to a few parked vehicles and loudly announced that we were in need of transport and was there a willing supplier. My request was answered by a friendly local who had a pickup. He offered to transport us to the lodge for half the price of what the lodge was charging. I saw this as a great success, as the island only had nine vehicles on it and we had managed to secure one in record time. We gladly accepted and hopped on with our luggage in tow. Halfway to the lodge we came across the Mango vehicle on its way to port, with a full payload of customers. Josh, the one manager, explained that they’d had a hard time rounding up their passengers and then promptly hopped onto the pickup and accompanied us back to the lodge. The end of our very long travel day was near and we could smell the ice cold beer waiting on the beach!