A trip of unpleasant surprises

At sunset, Sam and I wobbled up to the ferry stop, back packs slung low. The Ilala was a fifty metre, three story hulk; the pride of the Malawi Shipping Company. On the wharf a swarm of shouting shirtless men; mothers carrying grain sacks on their head, babies swaddled on their backs; piles of wood, giant  canvas bales, hawkers, traders, fishermen, and the odd mzungu wandering aimlessly about. Noise, energy, and a rare sense of bustle and haste filled the shadows away from the ship lights.

Sam and I walked up the gangway, through the lower second class deck, where most of the locals and all of the cargo filled the corridors, and up to the first class deck, occupied by businessmen, wealthier families and crew filing around the engine room, dining room and cabins. Up another steep flight of steps to the upper deck; worn grey timber boards, lifejacket bins and lifeboats.

The boat was meant to get to Likomo Island at 1am, stopping at the smaller Chizumulu Island an hour or so prior. Well, according to the timetable it was. I thought it wasn’t worth getting a cabin; we would just stay up and then sleep when we got to Likomo.

I got talking to three older travellers, Andy, a retired pig farmer from Victoria, his wife Malee, and his sister Margaret, who had joined them from Scotland. I noticed a guy hovering fairly close to Sam, looking at his DS game over his shoulder.

Andy had already met this guy. ‘He is fairly odd. Maybe you should go check things out.’

I went and sat next to Sam and started to read my Kindle, keeping a watch on the fellow out of the corner of my eye. He was certainly odd. He was having a one-way conversation with Sam, talking  incessantly about vague religious allegories and riddles, half in English and half in Swahili, that I and certainly Sam didn’t understand.

Sam was playing a game that had a giant white hand bouncing up and down on top of a dodging Mario.

‘Is that the hand of God? Is God a mzungu?’

He got a little close to Sam, pointing at the console, and Sam noticed him for the first time.

‘Go away, you.’

‘You are wholesome.’

‘Go away. ’

Sam went back to ignoring him.  When he nestled in closer, I decided to step in. ‘We want to be alone. We don’t want your company.’

He didn’t budge.

‘Look leave us alone. Do I have to call the crew?’

He ignored me again.

I stood up and leaned over him. ‘Go away, now!’.

He smiled inscrutably at me, but eventually wandered away glancing back occasionally and muttering to himself.

A crew member came around checking tickets, and asked Sam for his before I stepped in and explained the situation.

‘He is with me, he is my son. Here is our ticket.’

‘Why is he ignoring me?’

‘He, ah, has special problems. He has trouble talking to people, but he’s OK.’

The crewman looked at me dubiously.‘Can you just wait here a minute, I want to check with my boss.’


He shortly returned with a white-uniformed officer. I shook the captain’s hand.

‘Your son will be OK? This is an open area,’ he said. We must make sure everyone is safe.’

‘Yes, sure. I will keep a very close eye on him. He will be fine, I guarantee it.’

He looked at me dubiously, but smiled and walked away.

I debriefed with Andy. He told me that he had heard the arrival time at Likomo was meant to be 4am, not 1am. Oh no! It was going to be cold on the open deck at night, and we didn’t have sleeping bags. It was proving to be a trip of unpleasant surprises: weirdos, wary crew, and wayward timetables.

After dinner, up on the deck, the temperature dropped and the wind from the lake whipped across us. It was then I realised that I’d lost Sam’s padded vest, his only warm piece of clothing. Another unpleasant surprise. He refused my jacket; no long sleeves. All he had was a sleeping bag liner for warmth.

He lay on a bench on the deck, wiggling around uncomfortably, using a daypack as his pillow. I considered moving us down to the second deck out of the wind, but the corridors were now filled with blanket covered bodies, the air thick with diesel and body odour.

The Ilala chugged on, lights from distant shores disappeared, the wake of the engines abaft lit up by the soft deck lights. The lake was huge, and ran a swell deserving of open ocean.

I couldn’t sleep, paranoid about our bags getting fleeced,  the odd guy returning from below, and Sam’s discomfort. Around midnight we reached Chizumulu Island, but then the engines cut and we stayed in port. I eventually drifted asleep.

I awoke before dawn to the blaring fog horns of the Ilala as she prepared to leave port. It was nearly five, and we still hadn’t moved!  I spooned Sam to give him extra some body warmth.

Finally, after six and the light of day well established, we approached the port at Likomo. Sam emerged from his sleeping bag liner like a chrysalis out of the cocoon. Why was there no wharf?

‘We land on long boats on the beach.’ Another bloody unpleasant bloody surprise.

I scrambled to roll up our pants over our respective knees. Tumbling down the galley ways to the lower deck, longboats hovered along side, we gingerly climbed into the crowded open boat, packs thrown down from above.

I handed my daypack  containing valuables and the computer down to a crewman. ‘This is very fragile. Please be careful.’

He smiled. ‘No problem.’

With the long boat filled, he yelled out to me from a few metres away.

‘Hey, mzungu!’

I turned to see him about to throw the bag up to me.


It was a feign. Half the boat burst into laughter at my anxiety, but I struggled to see the humour. I squeezed out a tepid smile as the bag was handed up to me.

We were rowed to shore, the overloaded boat having a grand ten centimetres of freeboard. Jumping into the shallows as we crunched the sand, jeans wet to mid thigh, we held backpacks above heads and plonked them onto the beach.

Sam punched the air. ‘Yes, we’re here!’