Boat owner Cam McLeay confident his is original African Queen, abandoned after use in film starring Humphrey Bogart
More than 60 years after Humphrey Bogart’s gin-swilling captain steered her through treacherous, hippo and crocodile-infested waters during the first world war – falling in love with Katharine Hepburn’s missionary along the way – the African Queen has been restored.
There’s no sign of the 2,000 cigarettes or tinned grubs that Bogart’s character Charlie Allnut boasts about, but passengers will be pleased to know that the obligatory two cases of gin will be on board when the boat sets sail on commercial cruises up Uganda’s Nile in the coming weeks.
The 1951 Hollywood classic film, which earned Bogart his only Oscar, was shot on the Nile in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, but also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a tributary of the Congo river and at studios in England.
Cam McLeay, a New Zealander who owns a lodge at Jinja from near where the cruises will start, says he is confident his boat is the Nile’s original African Queen, abandoned after filming finished – although there are other contenders.
McLeay bought the vessel from Yank Evans, a Patagonian mechanical engineer who found the boat while working on the roads in Murchison Falls National Park in 1984.
“He [Evans] asked the locals what this was and they said, ‘Well, that’s the African Queen’,” said McLeay.
“It was just a rust bucket. There was no engine but there was a funnel and there was the steel hull. She was all rotted away below the waterline and all the woodwork had been eaten by termites.”
After paying Uganda National Parks $1 for the boat, Evans trucked her back to Entebbe, about 35km from the country’s capital Kampala. With his son, Billy, he rebuilt the hull. It was a labour of love.
Although the African Queen was actually diesel-powered, she appeared as a steam engine onscreen and Evans decided she must be steam-powered in real life. It took two years for his mate, who then worked for the steam engine society in England, to come up with a missing part, which he airfreighted to Africa.
Evans ran some trips on the boat on Uganda’s Lake Victoria in the late 1990s, but took her with him when he went to live in Kenya in 1997. Covered in tarp, her residence became a Nairobi garden trailer until McLeay, who had gone to Lamu in 2010 to look for an authentic African boat, heard of her existence, tracked her down and “took a punt on the investment”.
“There was no way of testing it. She hadn’t run for 10 years,” he said.
When McLeay got a call from customs saying the African Queen was stuck at the Kenya-Uganda border without a serial number, he had to think quick.
“Of course the boat had never had a serial number,” he said. “So I just said straight away it’s AQ01 and they wrote it down and said that’s fine.”
Diesel engineer Gavin Fahey has spent nearly the past six months rebuilding her century-old engine, which has the words T Parkinson Blackburn written on the manufacturer’s plate. He has also replated the hull and replaced more than 100 boiler tubes. Most of the equipment came from Britain.
“She needs constant attention and to tick along at good pace (10kph approximately) requires good team work and constant monitoring,” said Fahey.
“Sometimes we need to turn around in tight spots. This leads to four or five gear changes and good timing as we are also dealing with currents, and the boat is heavy.”
But following a test run on the Nile last week he said all the African Queen needed to sort out was a couple of mechanical issues – and more props.
“There were lots of boxes and boxes of Gordon’s on the boat, so we’re trying to replicate that,” he said before he tootled the whistle and she set sail.
Another boat claiming to be an original from the film is now in Florida, also having been restored, running daily cruises.
But McLeay said reading Katharine Hepburn’s book The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, convinced him that two boats were used during filming – and that his was one of them.
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