The MV Ilala II has been chugging up and down the lake for the last 50years, replacing the original vessel which unfortunately sank. Leaving weekly from the southern end of the lake, the ageing cargo vessel heads north, stopping along the way at designated ports along the Malawian and Mozambican lake coast.For us, the Ilala was more about the journey than the destination, it was never going to be luxurious, but we had imagined the amazing sunsets and relaxing days on the water and were excited about the journey ahead. It was Friday morning and Karen, Friso and I were given a lift to the port at Monkey Bay. We did not really know what to expect from the Ilala, but were unsurprised when we caught our first glimpse of the old girl, a heavy old no frills cargo ship consisting of 3 decks. The 3 of us had passed on the overpriced option of a 1st class cabin (located on the second deck) and opted simply for the cheaper 1st class deck. We boarded the ship and headed straight to 1st class ( I use the term 1st class very loosely as it is all relative) which was on the top deck of the ship, along with the bar. The top deck had minimal cover from the elements and given that we were travelling in wet season we were a little concerned, but given our budget the only other option was to spend 36hours amongst the overcrowded masses of locals, chickens and stinking dried fish on the lower deck - something not even recommended to the most hardened of travellers.With plenty of room on the upper deck and concerned at being exposed to the elements Karen and I decided to float the idea to the staff or erecting out tent on the top deck. In any other place, the idea of doing such a thing in 1st class would never have even crossed our minds, but this was Africa and we figured there was no harm in trying. When we approached the friendly chief officer, he seemed confused that wed even asked, and told us to go ahead, even offering us some tips. Erected on one side of the deck, the tent not only provided us with somewhere to sleep but gave us somewhere to stash all our belongings free from opportunistic petty thieves.The Ilala pulled away a couple of hours late, delayed by having to load a car onboard. It was quite the mission getting the car onboard, only prolonging the stress of the poor South African owner we would later meet. As we pulled away it was a little disconcerting when I noticed some men tinkering with the engines in the lifeboats. I mean the Ilala didn't look like the most seaworthy of vessels, but "Engines in lifeboats?", "How often did they need them?". "Did they know something we didn't?"As we set off the weather was miserable, not cold but with an on and off drizzle that served no purpose but to keep everything damp and us annoyed. We imagined a long journey in such conditions. Eventually we sailed clear of the bad weather and pulled into our first port. With some time to kill we went for a short walk around the local village and market before re-boarding to ensure we didn't miss the boat.By now the sun was shining and it had turned into a pleasant afternoon, so we retired to the top deck with a nice cold drink in hand. We spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and drinking with our new friends Friso, Campbell and Strewan. Campbell and Strewan were a South African father son duo who were spending 2 weeks travelling from Durban to Arusha in Tanzania. They were travelling in relative luxury compared to us and had chosen the owners cabin, it was basic but this one had a private bathroom, something Campbell was quite happy about after witnessing the communal toilets.The afternoon quickly disappeared and before we knew it we were watching the beautiful sunset over Malawi and the calm waters of the lake. It was peaceful, relaxing, just as we had imagined, but it didn't feel like we were on a lake. Dinner was served in the small saloon on the second deck, a simple menu that got tiresome after a couple of meals. Each dish was effectively the same, you choose the meat (fish, beef or chicken) to be served with the same tomato and onion gravy and your choice of starch. I found the meals quite tasty, but after 3 or 4 meals Id had enough…..thankfully we weren't on the boat till the end.After dinner, we headed back to the bar and after a heavy night of drinking the majority retired to bed. Friso and I stayed up to have "one for the road" but when we were accosted by a massive swarm of minute lake flies, getting caught in our hair and buzzing in our ears, mouth and nostrils making it hard to breathe we figured it was time for bed.We had a good nights sleep in our tent but were awoken early by howling winds and rain that threatened to destroy our tent. As we lay inside, the tent worryingly contorted like it had earlier on in the trip at Mt Zebra NP, and although reinforced by heavy duty poles we were concerned it would soon give way. The rain was belting down and water was rushing into the tent at the edges exposed by the wind. Obviously not pegged to the deck, the corners of the tent remained unfastened and as the wind howled we spread ourselves and our bags across the edges trying prevent the tent folding whilst minimising what was getting wet. We were fighting a losing battle, everything was getting saturated and I needed to head outside to initiate damage control. I stepped outside the tent and was instantly drenched and began about creating a makeshift windbreak by stacking deck chairs tent high on the windward side. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective enough, and at the least it softened the gale enough to limit the tents water intake. Drenched, cold and hungover I lay on the hard tent floor, limbs spread to the corners trying to prevent liftoff and listening to Karen complain about being uncomfortable as she curled up on the soft bunched sleeping bags. This is not what I signed up for.To my relief, the storm soon passed and although the clouds stuck around and kept everything a little damp, we were able to mop up the puddles and sort ourselves out a little.The weather was still a little miserable when we pulled into our first port of the morning. Unlike the bigger ports, the Ilala simply anchored offshore before the lifeboats were lowered to transport people and cargo to shore - thus solving the riddle of why the lifeboats needed engines. At this time though it was a little choppy, and we again commented how the lake did not feel or look like a lake at all. If we hadn't have known better we would've sworn we were on the ocean. With the mildly rough "seas" we were again delayed, and needed to wait before the lifeboats could be deployed. An hour or two passed and eventually the wind died down enough to get the show started. We were anchored just off the Mozambican village of Metangula on the lakes East Coast, and now somewhat aware of the limited road links in Western Mozambique we could understand why the twice weekly Ilala was the lifeblood of the community.Whilst anchored, and with the lifeboats running to and from the shore, we took the opportunity to go for a swim. We had been told by the chief officer that this was the best place to swim (free of crocodiles and hippos) and although the weather was cloudy and not particularly nice, the blue waters still looked enticing. Strewan, Friso and I gathered on the top deck, and one by one leapt the 10m or so into the waters below. The jump was exciting, and the water refreshing so we swam about and then climbed back aboard before doing it all again. We were soon joined by some other curious passengers who along with Strewan's Dad progressively made their way up to the top deck.The weather remained fickle throughout the day as we travelled from port to port. The journey was interesting and we spent our time reading or chatting and split between lazing on the deck, in the tent or in the saloon.We had been on the boat for 30 hours or more and the sun was setting on our second afternoon. Kaz and I had planned to disembark on Likoma Island, the first of 2 island ports approximately midway up the 350mile lake. Likoma was the next stop and we were scheduled to be arriving in the middle of the night. We began to count down the hours, and not because we wanted to get off, but because we had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and were sad to be farewelling our new found friends who had help make our last few days so memorable. By chance the manager of the lone backpackers (Mango Drift) on Likoma was returning to the island, and after introducing herself as Lauren, she offered to arrange a lift for us to Mango Drift. Considering it was the middle of the night, the weather was miserable and "Mango" was on the other side of the island it was a welcome relief. We pulled in to Likoma some time short of midnight, it was dark, there was a slight swell and there was the typical chaos as everybody rushed to board the first lifeboat to shore. It was challenging to say the least climbing down the slippery ladder to the boat, our backpacks on and then trying to find a spot to sit whilst the boat bobbed up and down. But eventually, jammed in like sardines we made our way in the dark towards shore. Again it was pandemonium and as soon as we hit the bank there was a mad rush. People pushed and shoved, surging forward and trying to get off, there was no sense of order whatsoever and when people began trying to get in the boat that was only partially unloaded, I had had enough. I grit my teeth put my head down and barged my way out. Maybe I could've knocked some people in the water on my way through, but I figured that was now their problem.We convened on the shore with Lauren, her boyfriend Anthony and another, couple and in the meantime farewelled Friso, Campbell and Strewan who had come ashore to explore whilst the Ilala was anchored. We hopped in the battered old landrover that had been left for us and headed off down the maze of dirt tracks.