Accidental Tourist: A ship and a lake of stars
A kind heart brings light to the darkness on a boat ride on Lake Malawi
THE MV Ilala appeared on the horizon as the crowd gathered on the banks of Likomo Island, Lake Malawi. The sun was only just up and people were awaiting supplies or embarkation on the smaller boats that would take them out to the ferry.
Thus the scene was set for her grand entrance - a formidable-looking vessel set against the backdrop of the serene lake, looking like something straight out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Ilala comes this way only twice a week, once northbound from Monkey Bay and then again on her return journey as she heads south, laden with supplies, which are manoeuvred from the ferry with a precision that denotes years of practice.
Timing is everything as the ferry has a schedule to keep, though this often proves challenging. Theoretically the schedule allows three hours at each stop but, as few of the ports are deep enough for the Ilala to dock, passengers and supplies are transferred by smaller boats. Barrels and wooden poles are left to bob ashore.
There are first, second and third classes and a couple of private cabins . First class is usually full of travellers and army personnel, who can be found in the bar area on the upper deck, where one can rent a mattress on which to sleep under the stars.
One of the benefits of being inclined towards an ice-cold beer at the bar is that one gets talking to the ferry's crew, including the captain himself.
Two full days' and one night's journey from Nkhata Bay to Monkey Bay passed without incident and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, sprawled out in my little corner of first-class comfort. Fortunately, I am a deep sleeper so the revellers at the bar a few metres from my head posed little disturbance. I devoured my book and enjoyed a sunset and a sunrise and people came and went.
In the back of my mind, the little question of what time of day we would be arriving at our destination began to be of concern - I would need to find a backpackers' for the night, an activity I would rather do in daylight upon arriving in a new town, and by now I was certain that it would be nightfall by the time we arrived in Monkey Bay, long after the scheduled lunch-time arrival.
The captain came to my rescue . Sensing my growing concern, he offered to let me stay a board the Ilala that night when she docked . W hile d elighted at not having to face the night in Monkey Bay vulnerable and alone, I wasn't quite sure which would be the more sensible of the two options - share the captain's cabin or head off into the darkness to find the only backpackers' in the guide book.
While the rest of the passengers disembarked, I debated - get off, stay on, get off, stay on? And still, as the last people to leave the ferry milled about, I stood undecided. The captain's reassurances did little to allay my fears. How wrong I turned out to be - and how awful I felt to have even doubted him.
In the morning, I rose early from my bed in his cabin, thanked him profusely and made my way into town to find a ride out to Cape Maclear.
Cape Maclear proved somewhat disappointing and overrun with fellow South Africans and local people so intent on selling artefacts that peace and quiet proved elusive.
Three days later, I passed by Monkey Bay again, but the ferry was nowhere to be seen and I thought fondly of her and her captain, sailing northwards again on the Lake of Stars. © Belinda Gillespie