Ferry, across Lake Malawi

Posted: October 25, 2010 in Africa
Tags: , , , , ,

To assuage the desires of my jani, I had agreed that we would exit Malawi via boat to avoid yet more mind numbing bus journeys, suffering from high volume religious music and cramped leg room with 3rd degree burns from the sun. We booked our tickets for the Ilala Ferry on Thursday 21st ready for a 10am departure the following day. We opted for 1st Class Deck (a snip at $60pp) which sounded better than the 2nd class lounge that was below deck and nearer the engine room. The ferry, much revered by the workers (“it’s a beautiful vessel that one” – direct quote from a wily old man), had not yet arrived and was 12hrs behind schedule yet we were assured it would leave on time. Guess what? Yep, we got to the ferry on time for a 10am sailing and then sat on deck with the other gringos for 3 hrs as the staff made trips into Monkey Bay to buy supplies. In Africa there is an inability to tell you the truth about delays – instead of setting expectations, they have an innate desire to simply tell you what you want to hear. It’s not malicious, just a case of ´Africa time´.

So let’s set the scene for the 1st class deck. Whilst it is a deck, calling it 1st class is like calling a prostitute a sex education worker. It is somewhat polishing the proverbial. The deck at least had a bar, though it served only luke-warm water and beer. There was limited seating space with 6 benches. There was nowhere to sleep despite the fact that the boat sails for 3 days and 2 nights. There was a scramble for any debris that could be adapted to serve as a bed. Italian and English couples nabbed life floats that could serve as a flat bed. Muneeza spied a threadbare old reed mat tucked behind the stern so I grabbed it and proudly laid down our new bed with my day bag on top to secure our rights. There were no mattresses anywhere.

The toilet facilities were spectacular. Spectacularly abysmal. I shared a drink with some chilled out Americans, some spicy local fire water, and then had the sudden need to visit el bano. Muneeza told me she had found the cleanest toilet and ushered me there forthwith. Left to my own devices by my darling, I opened to door to be confronted by the grottiest excuse for a toilet I have ever seen on any form of transport. Holes in the ground are more inspiring. There was no toilet seat, the basin was grimy, the floor filthy and the walls I can’t find words to describe. The door had no handle so I was forced to balance precariously above the rim whilst maintaining a grip on the handle. To add to my misery, the toilet was like an oven and whilst I purged my sins, my whole body dripped with sweat. I emerged like a drowned rat, sore and emotionally damaged. I then discovered that round the corner the toilets had proper seats and basins in which to wash hands as well as vents to keep you cool. I have no idea how Muneeza could have picked the worse toilet on the ship and told me it was the best, unless she decided I needed punishment for something. The offer of marriage lies in the balance!

The boat did eventually leave dock 3 hrs late. The day passed well with good conversation with the Italians and the Americans. The English rocked over every now and then from their side of the deck and we all exchanged travel stories. The bad news for us was that we could have got our Malawi exit stamp at Monkey Bay to avoid having to go all the way to Likhoma Island as planned. The good news, having spoken to the security officer, was that we could get off at Nikhatakota, 2 further stops, and get a stamp at the immigration office. That meant we could now set foot on land at Metangula in Mozambique and save anywhere between 12-18 hours of journey time. To say we were happy would be a big under-statement.

We set to our improvised bed early at 9pm as we had to be off in the early hours to sort the passports. We expected to be ashore around 3am so set the alarm for 02.30. The bed was not comfortable. We had little underneath us to shield from the hard deck and with no sleeping bags, had to rely on our silk liners for warmth. Add to that the incessant pounding of the engine room that vented less than 10ft from our spot and you had a heady cocktail for insomnia. We drifted in and out of sleep, unable to rest in one position for more than 20mins due to discomfort and cold. Eventually we rose with the alarm and then waited a further 2 hours for the ferry to reach the destination. The ferry was going much slower than scheduled – it had so much cargo it was incredible it could stay afloat.

The task that awaited us at Nikhatakota at 5am was more than we had expected. Due to shallow waters, the Ilala Ferry can’t dock; instead it anchors about 150m offshore and the lifeboats are lowered and sail to the shore to pick up passengers and goods. However, the currents are so strong and the water so shallow near the shore that even the lifeboats can’t make it all the way due their outboard motors. Instead, 2 old wooden, oar powered vessels are pushed out by some exceptionally strong men to meet the lifeboats. These vessels are full of people and goods to be loaded to the lifeboats. The lifeboats are full of people and goods to be loaded to the vessels. What follows is down to luck and random outcomes. It’s every man for himself, no rules, no structure and no order. Some jump ship into the water and wade ashore. We thought it was too deep and had to take our chance. Having first pushed Muneeza into the awaiting vessel, with her nearly being stacked into the water, I jumped and crossed my fingers. Luckily we both made it ashore, quite wet but glad we weren’t injured.

The immigration office comprised a single wooden shack with 1 laid back officer in there who stamped our passports without really looking and waved us goodbye. We had to repeat the boat drama to get back to the ferry. The men do this every day and it is dangerous – the tide washes ashore with such force that the boats are often hurled together violently and the men must jump aside to avoid being injured. I take my hat off to them for enduring these conditions. I bet the Ilala Ferry owners could afford to build a proper jetty for them; instead I’m sure they choose to pocket any profit they make for their own benefit. Call me cynical but that’s how life works everywhere, just here the implications are so much starker.

So we got back on the ferry and took a cold shower to remove the grime of our adventure. The remaining hours dragged by so slowly but eventually we reached Metangula and the Mozambique coast. There we had to face the same boat journey to land to disembark though this time it was much smoother as the tide was gentle.

Safe on land again, we had expected an easy transition into Mozambique but were asked, on the beach, to open all our bags and show them what was inside. Our bags were padlocked and covered by bin bags so it was a painstaking process to unsheathe them. For some reason, the male immigration officer took umbrage with Muneeza’s bag of disposable contact lenses and solution. Having filled out our arrival forms and got passports stamped, I had to sit down in an office with a police officer and answer questions about the lenses. At first he tried to tell me we need to pay import duties but I politely explained that the goods were neither to be sold nor to remain in the country. He seemed unconvinced and carried on the questions. As I speak minimal Portuguese and his English was basic, we struggled to understand each other. Eventually I got it. They had never seen disposable contact lenses before and the Immigration officer was concerned we were trying to sell them inside the country. Having been a bit annoyed, mainly due to lack of sleep, that the officials were trying to sting me for a bribe, I relaxed and clarified that Muneeza simply needed them because she has poor eyesight. Eventually the police officer smiled, said there was no need to pay anything but warned me we might in future need a proof of purchase as these things don’t exist in Mozambique.

With yet more faffing waiting for a chiappas bus (“We are going now now yes” = “We might leave in the next hour or two if we feel up to it”) that left and then came back to the beach 5mins later, we set off for Lichinga where we would stay overnight. It was too late to get to Cuamba, our ideal destination to link with the 5am train on Sunday to Nampula.

We arrived in Lichinga about 18.00 exhausted and feeling a little bit fed up with the constant journeys. I was feeling rough and had the start of a fever so we agreed that we would stay an extra day in our hotel to catch up on sleep. When we next pick up the story we’ll be filling you in on life in Mozambique.

First impressions are ok, people seem friendly and the hotel Girassol we are staying in has air con and a swimming pool which is a welcome break.

Take care, love james & muneeza x

  1. G says:

    Hi guys,
    Been catching up on your blogs on my train journey to work, it’s beats reading my book!!
    Sounds like your having such an amazing time, i have to keep reminding myself it isn’t fictional!!
    Take care and keep them coming!

    Ps- Muni, hi5 on the toilet choice hehe

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