All aboard the African Queen
Full steam ahead in eastern Uganda for an ageing star of the silver screen
KATHARINEHepburn isn’t at the helm and Bogie isn’t kicking the boiler, but the pugnacious African Queen is once again ploughing the Nile.
The century-old firebox is fed with wood to generate a sufficient head of steam, the flywheel twirls into life, the pistons pogo, the steam-whistle peeps and the engine groans into life. It sounds like a pair of wellies in a washing machine. This is its first pleasure cruise since being pressed back into service by a New Zealander, CamMcLeay, from its moorings at Wildwaters Lodge in eastern Uganda.
The film of The African Queen, directed by John Huston and released in 1951, is cemented in cinematic history. Based on CS Forester’s 1934 novel, it was set during World War I in German-occupied East Africa. Humphrey Bogart won an Oscar for his portrayal of the ginsoaked, ambition- free steamboat captain Charlie Allnut, who takes on board prudish missionary Rosie Sayer (Hepburn).
Allnut wants to see out the war in an alcoholic haze but Sayer has other ideas. In a pique of patriotic zeal she badgers the reluctant Allnut to take the African Queen down the previously unnavigable Ulanga River to destroy a German lake cruiser. Steadily, Allnut falls for his ‘‘crazy psalm-singing skinny old maid’’ and an unlikely romance blossoms on an epic voyage amid fierce whitewater, German bullets and malarial swamps.
Forester was quixotic with his novel’s locations. Ulanga is a Tanzanian river but doesn’t flow into Lake Tanganyika, where imperial Germany held naval sway. Equally, the filming locations were geographically discordant. Scenes were shot in London’s defunct Isleworth Studios, the Belgian Congo and Uganda. In this last location, Nile scenery was filmed at Murchison Falls National Park, where McLeay’s version of the African Queen boat was unearthed in 1984.
I say ‘‘version’’ because of uncertainty about how many African Queens were used during filming. The original boat, the Livingstone, was built in 1912 in England. This 30ft steamboat operated in the Belgian Congo and was rented by Huston’s crew for the movie, where it appears in scenes filmed around the Congo. It was sold to an American buyer in 1968 and now takes pleasure cruises out of Key Largo, Florida.
Its current owner insists none other than his African Queen and scaled-down models were used during filming. McLeay, however, is equally adamant his African Queen was specially constructed for the Ugandan film scenes. An explorer who has traversed the Nile’s length by boat, McLeay founded whitewater rafting company Adrift and in 2010 opened Wildwaters Lodge. He wanted an old riverboat for his lodge.
‘‘When I first heard a Kenyan guy, Yank Evans, was selling the African Queen, I thought, You’re joking . . . Humphrey’s boat?’’ McLeay explains. ‘‘I phoned Yank and he told me he’d discovered it when building a road around Murchison Falls in the 1980s. His local workers insisted to a man it was the African Queen.
‘‘Yank uncovered its steel carcass rusted below the waterline, with a mock boiler and toppled flue.’’
The fake boiler and flue are significant clues. In the movie the boat (or boats) used were diesel-driven but were mocked up to resemble a steam-powered vessel.
‘‘Yank rebuilt its hull and his friend in England sourced a century-old steam engine [made in Blackburn], which he freighted to Uganda,’’ continues McLeay. ‘‘By the 1990s it was running again but now truly steam-powered. When I bought it three years back, it’d succumbed to rust again. We’ve spent a few years overhauling it.’’
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