Maverick Life


Time travelling on the Lake of Stars

Dugout canoe with a small captain. Image: Don Pinnock.

Almost every week for 70 years the good ship Ilala has steamed out of Monkey Bay for the northern shores of Lake Malawi, village hopping up the lake and back. One steamy tropical morning I jumped aboard.

There were five cows in the lifeboats. They hadn’t been there the previous evening so they must have been loaded from some lakeside village during the night. Probably Metangula. They didn’t look happy swinging there, brown eyes wide with terror and noses wet from spit and thrashing about.

Later that morning the two boats were lowered off at Cóbué, cows and all. On the bow of each boat was stencilled MAXIMUM LOAD – 22 PERSONS so maybe it was considered okay to pack 11 goats, several hundred chickens, a puppy and a flapping duck plus 11 bags of maize, two beds and a heap of persons on top of the cows, which by then seemed to have swooned into a state of torpor.

Heaven knows how all that was landed on the beach, with no jetty and a nasty little chop on the lake. All I can say is that the lifeboat crew of the Ilala – Malawi’s floating peasant bus – are consummate boatmen. They yell a lot and sometimes throw both goods and people ashore or onto the ship, but you never get a sense they’re out of control. Their boats, like the Ilala, are dented and scratched, but their motors always seem to start and they do wonderful things with ropes and hooks.

I’d boarded the Ilala, an ancient, interestingly bashed but undoubtedly enduring lake steamer, at Monkey Bay, down south and had bagged a cabin with an en-suite bathroom and an armchair – by Ilala standards, pure luxury. The lower deck was dense with peasant farmers and small-time traders with their rolls, bags, children, goats, ducks, chickens and – as I discovered at Cóbué – even cattle.

Cows, goats, furniture and people, all in a day’s work for the Ilala’s crew. Image: Don Pinnock.

The Ilala is old. She was built by Yarrow Shipbuilders for Nyasaland Railways in 1949 in Scotland and was named after the Ilala region of Zambia, where David Livingstone was first buried. Once built, she was dismantled and transported in pieces to Malawi, first by ship to Beira in Mozambique, then by rail and road to Chipoka, in the south of Lake Malawi. Her first journey on the lake was in 1951 and she has been sailing almost uninterruptedly, except for maintenance periods.

For many lake-shore Malawians, the ship is just about their only link to the outside world – a slightly tatty white angel which appears out of the lake with unfailing regularity and seems to have no restriction on who or what it is prepared to ferry between heaven and hell.

The names of the southern lake villages upon which the Ilala bestows her blessings roll off your tongue like quicksilver: Chilinda, Chipoka, Makanjira, Nkhotakota, Metangula, Likoma. Each had its huts and its crowds.

Likoma Island, however, also had its cathedral, a building as out of place as a whale in a fish tank. Likoma is a few kilometres off the Mozambican shore and is only 8km long. Oddly, though, it was the headquarters of the Anglican Church of Malawi until the 1940s. The reason had to do with Bishop Chauncy Maples who, with his friend the Reverend William Johnson, established a mission there in 1886 as a project of the Universities Mission to Central Africa – inspired and led by David Livingstone. Maples drowned in Nkhotakota Bay on the way to his bishopric.

In 1903 work began on the huge cathedral dedicated to St Peter. It’s an extraordinary building for such a remote place – 100m long, 25 wide, with stained-glass windows and elaborate stalls. It was built on the spot where Maples witnessed suspected witches being burned alive. The crucifix above the altar is one of the few made from the wood of a tree beside which Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.

The Ilala. White angel of the lake. Image: Don Pinnock.

At Nkhata Bay we gained more steerage passengers and lost most of the deck and cabin passengers. I was rather sorry about that. The deck passengers were almost as colourful as those down below; adventurous travellers who pitched their tents on deck or curled up on the hard benches to brave out the night in the open.

North of Nkhata Bay you really feel you’re in the Great Rift Valley. The lake is 585km long and 80 at its widest point. While the shoreline of the southern half is rather flat, north of Nkhata the Kandoli Mountains rise up aggressively, backed by the Nyika and Viphya plateaus. This is high miombo-woodland country with villages wedged between steep slopes and the water’s edge.

When we dropped anchor off Usisya, the scene was so saturated with metaphor and historical allusion it was difficult to believe it was real – and that we were in the 21st century. If it were a movie shoot, the clapperboard would read: “First Arrival on Wild, Foreign Shore. Mobilise 1,000 extras.”

Livingstone had witnessed such a reception on the Lower Zambezi from the deck of Ma-Robert, and Captain James Cook from the bridge of Endeavour as he made landfall in Tahiti. Albert Schweitzer described it with delight on arriving at Lambaréné up the Ogooué River where he would build a hospital and capture the imagination of Europe. Joseph Conrad imbued a similar scene with savage menace in Heart of Darkness.

As the ship dropped anchor, hundreds of villagers flooded out of grass huts and lined the shore in a colourful, babbling throng. Dugout canoes were dragged into the water and arrowed towards us, their paddlers whooping. On the shore, the crowd heaved and billowed like a single living thing.

Behind the human crush edging the beach, huge baobab and mango trees dwarfed rough grass huts. Beyond them thick forest cloaked the slopes of muscular mountains, dipping into valleys beneath snakes of morning mist and reappearing on distant, storm-topped peaks.

I gawped at the scene for a while, then hitched a ride on one of the lifeboats to see what Archangel Ilala looked like from the shore. As I jumped into the surf, a wave whacked me ashore into the arms of a yelling hubbub of mostly naked children who took up a ringing chant: “Photo, photo… ” Which of course made photography impossible.

The Ilala certainly looked magnificent, huge against the foreground of crude huts and startlingly white in a world of blues and greens. The lakeshore had a smell all of its own. It was drenched with the heavy linden-sweetness of flowering trees, compounded with the fusty, antique odours of bats, wood smoke and wet earth.

It also pulsated with a strange rhythm. The throbbing sounds of countless human voices rose and fell in time with the everlasting beat of drums and the thud of pestles pounding maize in wooden mortars. To this was added the incessant contrapuntal zing of amatory cicadas. The effect was trance-inducing. Joseph Conrad had described such an experience as “being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams”.

Traditional village on Lake Malawi’s Llakeshore. Image: Don Pinnock.

The ship’s hooter sounded, shaking me out of my reverie, and I scampered back into the waiting lifeboat. To be stranded there, it occurred to me as the boat pulled away, would not be a great hardship.

North of Usisya everything goes under the heading Spectacular. Subtitles run to Awesome, Exotic and Romantic. It was the rainy season and as we weighed anchor at Nkhata Bay a storm slammed into the rising sun. A straight line of pinkish clouds appeared across the horizon about 1,000m above the lake. Below it, streaks of rain were rippling like the legs of a millipede. Above rose a massive thunderhead, stacked in layers of variegated grey to its bulbous anvil haloed in golden light. We sailed straight at the storm but, before we reached it, shafts of sunlight seemed to have blasted it to death, leaving a few tattered memories of the dawn performance.

Those who sail Lake Malawi know it to be a singularly alien and exotic thing, elemental and undisciplined, a sleeping giant liable at any moment to rage with aboriginal fury. From the decks of the Ilala the thrusting landscape of Eocene catastrophe trembled through the heat haze, reminding us of the red-hot world that had fashioned the rift.

Ungovernable storms are known to sweep suddenly from a clear sky across its waters and when certain clouds descend, a battalion of dervish-dancing waterspouts leap hundreds of metres into the air to meet them, as though trying to escape some lake demon below.

As we puttered towards Ruarwe and Tcharo, clouds of lake flies in their nuptial flight seemed intent on emulating the waterspouts, looking exactly like the smoke from some hull-down steamer.

Awaiting the arrival of the Ilala. Image: Don Pinnock.

This is a lake of moods, sometimes spilling its banks for no apparent reason; at other times retreating, stranding boats and jetties. There’s no tide to mix its deep waters and at times the lighter oxygenated surface water skids to and fro across the useless, stagnant layer below, as though the lake was being rocked like a gargantuan bathtub.

We turned at Chilumba, just north of Mount Waller, and headed back towards Monkey Bay. Being the rainy season, the lake was shy with its colours, but near Likoma Island the clouds rolled back for the grand evening performance for which Malawi is justly famous.

As the sun sank westwards the waters became an enchanted mirror, tilted to reflect the languid artistry of a painted sky. In the strange silence of the dying day, the waters glowed deep crimson, then almost reluctantly changed to silken, cyclamen purple as they waited for the evening breeze to caress their magic texture and set lines of amber ripples swimming slowly towards the farther shore. This signalled all the colours on the water to fade like courtiers from an audience chamber, until at last only an imperial presence of molten gold remained.

Battered lifeboats are essential because the lake villages have no docks or jetties. Image: Don Pinnock.

The loveliness of the mountains was scarcely less compelling. Theirs were pastel shades: on one side pale lavender melting imperceptibly into pearly grey and on the other into a luminous madonna blue.

Suddenly it was night. A layer of moon-silver spread over the mountains and the sky trembled with the myriad stars of Africa. The placid water reflected each shining point of light and as I turned to go below, it seemed we were moving through a watery universe, divorced of space and time. It was a sublime farewell.

Next morning the lifeboats were full of goats. DM/ML


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All Comments 6

  • Aijajaaai, now I simply have to go and experience the Lake. And dive to see the cichlids, and, and, and… Don, what a pleasure to read your vivid reports of Africa as she is lived by her people!

  • Wonderful story, thank you.
    As a former travel agent who used to promote “cruises” on the Illala in the ‘70’s, it’s wonderful to see that she’s still going full steam ahead! Lovely!

  • Thanks, Don. Entrancing. If I recall correctly the first Ilala was carried in pieces past the Murchison cataracts up to the Shire river, about 1875, by the African Lakes Company. It was part of the Scots mixed religious and business mission to replace the slave trade with ‘free’ trade.