The steamer, Ilala, is a vital lifeline for people living on the edge of Lake Malawi. And, as Jack Barker discovers, tourists can jump on board. It's a nifty way to visit the area and its great little lodges

Pan-flat turquoise waters, a deserted beach of golden sand: I have just been snorkelling among shoals of kaleidoscopic fish. I could be in one of the Indian Ocean's most exclusive island hideaways, but I'm not. The water is too clear; there isn't any salt to wash off, and the wooden fishing boat creaking along the shore, barely floating, has sails patched with countless mismatched fabrics. I am on Lake Malawi.

My plan was to catch the Ilala, one of Africa's last great tramp steamers that ferries maize, bicycles and fridges around the lake. It also has five passenger cabins for cruising, African-style, providing a link to small but outstanding lodges. Yet when I arrived at the port at Monkey Bay, the Ilala wasn't afloat. It had hit one of the lake's submerged rocks and was in dry dock being welded.

So I dumped my bags and flagged down an elderly man on a bicycle taxi, who pedalled me precariously to the scatter of bars. I stopped off at a shack made of reeds for a haircut: quickly clipped with unexpected skill. And I spent a constructive afternoon mastering the rules of Bao, the fiendishly complicated bead-game that is a Malawian obsession.

Twelve hours after its scheduled departure, the Ilala was pronounced seaworthy. My cabin, complete with en suite filled with pipes and rivets and a bathtub cast in Glasgow, was the "Master's Suite". It had a certain charm. Even passengers in steerage have a bar and restaurant serving nsima (maize). Go first class for the bar on a huge sun-deck of polished wood and small à la carte dining room.

The day passed gently, cruising and stopping to shuttle travellers and cargo to shore. As the sun painted vivid colours in the wet-season clouds, the barman on the top deck, an elderly hobbit with a blissed-out smile, carefully measured out tots of Malawi gin.

My destination was Likoma Island, far to the eastern side of the lake. Small enough to walk its length even on the hottest day (you'll probably have to: there are only two cars and a single dirt road), with a population of 6,000, the island boasts the second- largest church in Africa, a cathedral the size of Salisbury's, built when this little piece of paradise was chosen to extend God's reach into Bechuanaland, Nyasaland, Rhodesia and beyond. Its clock is frozen at 3.35.

I was adopted by an elderly priest with bat ears. "Would you like to see the tower?" he asked, and disappeared up a spiral staircase buried in the wall, shot up two rickety wooden ladders, planted his foot on the clock mechanism and heaved himself through a hatch in the roof. I tentatively followed on to a glaring sheet of corrugated iron.

I stayed outside the island's one village, at Kaya Mawa - a small lodge where guests stay in thatched, stone-built villas moulded into the rocks. With cuisine up to the highest standards of South African game lodges and a fully equipped dive school, it's a perfect beach hideaway. But the next day was Sunday and I wanted to see how so small an island could fill so large a church.

Easily. Hymns echoed from every public building I passed on the way to the cathedral's three-hour service - andevery seat was taken. Schoolgirls, boys and mothers' unions coalesced into individual choirs; happy-clappy gospel songs interspersed with people leaping to their feet to make speeches and announcements. If televisionever comes to Likoma, the church will still be the best show in town.

The Ilala will take you on to Mozambique, which is so close that dhows sail across with firewood every day. But the steamer wasn't due for days. So I hopped in Kaya Mawa's speedboat, which zipped across in 15 minutes to clear immigration at a sleepy border control - chickens pecking in the shade of a bombed-out church. Ten minutes later I reached Nkwichi.

This is probably one of the loveliest of all the lodges on the lake, with a beautiful white-sand beach framed by slabs of rock half-buried in massive sloping shards. Guest cottages, built from local materials, are completely hidden in the bush.

These days most African lodges support local communities, but Nkwichi runs a huge project, across 12 remote communities, sending mentors on foot, or on a single donated bicycle, to re-teach agricultural skills lost over years of conflict. In this remote corner of Mozambique, cut off by rain from the rest of the country for six months a year, central government aid projects are impossibly distant. Their main contact with the outside world is the Ilala.

Good enough for me, and to my surprise it turned up on time. I made for the upper deck to toast my last lake sunset. Forget wildlife safaris or expensive long-haul resort packages. Lake Malawi's beach lodges are Africa at its best.

Jack Barker travelled with Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris .com). Nine-nights on Lake Malawi in Lilongwe, on Mumbo Island, the "Ilala" and at Kaya Mawa and Nkwichi Lodges costs from £2,475 per person (two sharing). It includes internal and international flights, transfers, accommodation, most meals and some drinks

Mua Mission

On your way to the lake, stop at Mua Mission, just off the main M5 road. Founded in 1902, this Catholic outpost was researching the traditions and beliefs of central Malawi's six major tribes through years when the Malawian government was trying to eradicate such "primitive" beliefs. An excellent museum has a collection of more than 200 ceremonial masks, and cultural immersion courses lasting a day or more are available, staying in charming chalets overlooking a riverfront village.

CONTACT: Mua Mission, PO Box 41, Ntakataka, Malawi (malawitourism.com).

Cape Maclear

A traditional overlander's stop, Cape Maclear is the best known of all the lakefront settlements, and is consequently tout central. Get well away from them on Mumbo Island, a 30-minute boat ride (or 90-minute kayak paddle) offshore. Set on a bouldery outcrop, this island wouldn't be out of place in the Seychelles, and nor would its idiosyncratic lodge, with a teetering timber walkway leading to a few beautifully designed and totally private guest villas with stunning lake views.

CONTACT: Kayak Africa (00 265 9 942 661; kayakafrica.net).

Monkey Bay

Monkey Bay is the terminal for the "Ilala" and is a good place to board the tramp steamer, because there are facilities here in case of delay. Though Malawi Lake Services does run a basic guesthouse, better accommodation can be found 5km up the coast at Venice Beach Backpackers (there's a handy VHS cinema operating from a palm-leaf shack next door). Bicycle taxis are a useful way of getting around. For a skilled haircut, the "Time Mark Barbar Shop" is by the Hakuna Matata bar, which has the only pool table in town.

CONTACT: Venice Beach Backpackers (00 265 852 5334; venicebeachbackpackers.com).

Ilala

The 520-tonne MV "Ilala" is operated by Malawi Lake Services, which has a spare ship, the "Mtendere", for cover in emergencies. The timetable is best regarded as a guide because it often runs late: African cruising won't suit travellers on a tight schedule - it's best for those happy to kick back by the bar on deck, and watch the sun set, with a Malawi gin in hand. Go first class and there's a small à la carte dining room too.

CONTACT: Malawi Lake Services, PO Box 15, Monkey Bay, Malawi (ilala@malawi.net) and Malawi Tourism (0115-982 1903; malawitourism.com).

Kaya Mawa

Kaya Mawa is carved out of the rocks of a spectacular promontory on Likoma, with beaches on either side. This is Malawi at its most colonially luxurious, with excellent food, speedboats, a Padi dive school and swimming pool. The same owners run the charmingly laid-back Mango Drift Backpackers; a sensible choice for "Ilala" travellers because you risk wasting an expensive prepaid night at the luxury lodge if there are delays with the boat.

CONTACT: Kaya Mawa (00 871 761 684 670; kayamawa.com).

Likoma Island

Five miles by three, Likoma Island is a great place to catch the pace of African life without the hassle associated with life on the mainland. Even the children didn't ask for money, seeming more interested in making spectacular leaps into the lake for my camera. The usual way to get there is by charter flight, taking an hour from Lilongwe. Of the island's two cars, Kaya Mawa has one. The island is small - you could walk its length even on the hottest day.

CONTACT:Your tour operator or lodge.

Nkwichi

Winner of the 2005 Tourism for Tomorrow award, Nkwichi is a barefoot-luxury beach hideaway to rival any in the Indian Ocean. But it is also at the heart of the Manda Wilderness Community Trust, working to restore an area that was, before Mozambique's civil war, one of the most diverse game areas in the country. If you can't afford to stay there it's still worth giving them a donation.

CONTACT: The Manda Wilderness Community Trust (00 265 9 216 108; mandawilderness.org).

Diving

Lake Malawi is said to have more than 80 per cent of the world's freshwater fish, and is without doubt the planet's finest freshwater diving destination. The water is a clear turquoise, with shoals of fish of many, many colours. Stay safe and take a course at a Padi dive school, they are available at Kayak Africa at Cape Maclear and Kaya Mawa on Likoma, while all good lodges will provide you with a mask and snorkel.

CONTACT: Kayak Africa or Kaya Mawa.

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