M.V. Liemba

Name ID 2435

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole
Page Number: 240
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Down to the waterfront at 9 a.m. to join the queue for tickets on the ferry which runs to Mpulungu once a week. Ahead of me in the line is Francis, a farmer from Karema, one of the stops on the way down the lake. I explain to him what we are doing, and, with more difficulty, why we are doing it. He listens carefully before asking, politely, 'And will your film help to solve the problems it exposes?'

The MV Liemba, 800 tons, her lines as straight as the back of a Prussian cavalry officer, is said to be the oldest passenger ship in regular service anywhere in the world. Judging by her history she could have been better named the MV Lazarus. Built as a warship in Germany, she was carried in pieces overland and assembled on Lake Tanganyika in 1913. At the end of the Great War she was scuttled by the Germans, and lay on the bottom of the lake until raised and refitted by the British in 1922. She was in regular operation as a steam ship, before being converted to diesel in 1978. After 80 years she remains the only way out of Kigoma to the south or to the west. If we had missed today's sailing we would almost certainly have missed the sailing from Cape Town to Antarctica in a month's time.

We pull away at 5 p.m. The Australian and New Zealand overlanders have taken over the stern deck, and the locals crowd into the bows or the lower covered decks, squashing in with their boxloads of plastic sandals, pineapples, and even Lion Brand Mosquito Coils � 'Keep Out of Damp' �and with apparent good grace accepting the presence of two white-owned Land Rovers, which further reduce the space. At least we can all feel ourselves better off than the several hundred tired and confused occupants of the Kabambare, a barge just arrived from Kalemie in Zaire. They are refugees from the inter-tribal violence which has recently flared up in their country. They do not know if the Tanzanian authorities will accept them.

A last look at Kigoma from the departing ferry. I had come here expecting dense jungle, snakes, monkeys and swamps. Instead the town at the centre of Africa resembles a small port on a discreet Scottish loch, with the railway line running picturesquely between the water and low grassy hills � reassuring, comfortable, rendered exotic only by the bright slash of purple from the jacaranda trees on the shore.

My cabin has the stamp of Tanzanian Railways all over it. It claims to be air-conditioned but the fan is missing. There is a basin but no water, hot or cold. All but one of the light bulbs is missing.

Three hours out from Kigoma I am unenthusiastically facing up to a plate of rice and scrawny chicken leg, when the engine note changes down an octave, the ship slows and within seconds the night air is filled with a growing clamour of voices. They grow louder and more insistent, and are mingled with the splash of paddles and the thudding of boats against the hull. Out on deck in some alarm to witness an extraordinary scene. Flooded by powerful shipboard lights, a dozen or more dugouts are clustering around the Liemba like maggots at a corpse, filled with vendors of every kind of food, families trying to get themselves and their belongings aboard and water taxis touting to take people off. Everyone is screaming to make themselves heard, as a forest of hands extends from below decks, waving, beckoning, holding out money, helping some people aboard and others down into the bobbing mass of boats below.

Every boat is vying with its neighbour to get close to the Liemba. As soon as the tiniest gap is glimpsed paddles are applied furiously and very often one hull will ride up over another, until with cries of protest, the offending canoe is thrust back. Babes in arms are passed to the hopeful safety of outstretched hands. Small boys frantically bale out their boats.

This is African business. The whites can only watch and photograph. There is an urgency about it all that is spellbinding and exhilarating and exhausting. And I'm told later that what looked like a fully-fledged native attack is just one of 15 scheduled stops.

Extract ID: 5731

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole
Page Number: 241
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Aboard the Liemba, Lake Tanganyika. The last day of October, 1991. Have taken a capsule of Imodium as a prevention against having to make use of the toilet facilities. I know it is unwise to meddle with my metabolism but the alternative is too frightful to contemplate.

It has rained before dawn and I step out of my cabin onto the head of a sleeping figure swathed in cotton robe and woollen shawls. I needn't have bothered with my profuse British apologies as he doesn't wake up. A row of passengers is sheltering beside him. Their heads turn towards me, defensive and unsmiling. My hot and airless little cabin may not be the last word in comfort but it is First Class, and I know that by the time I return from breakfast the officious policemen on board will have shooed these people back down below.

Later in the day the captain agrees to be interviewed. His name is Beatus T. Mghamba and he lives on the bridge deck, which is nearly always empty apart from the lifeboats (made by Meclans Ltd of Glasgow in 1922), a jolly group of ladies and a hard-drinking Englishman. At the appointed time for the interview � about five in the afternoon � I knock on Captain Mghamba's door. After some time it is answered by a handsome dreadlocked lady who

is obviously surprised to see me. I ask for the Captain. She disappears into the cabin. There is a long wait and some muttering before she returns. `He is asleep.'

She bats not an eyelid, and as I utter the immortal phrase, 'When he wakes up, tell him the BBC are waiting', she closes the door on me.

The Captain finally appears, dishevelled but surprisingly cheerful after his sleep. I ask him about the problems of running an 80-year-old ship.

The ship is big, but the engine is small . . . manoeuvring is a little bit difficult.' He shrugs. He has no chart of the lake.

`We are sailing this through experience. If you are one mile away from the shore you will be safe.'

The Liemba, he tells me, is registered to carry 500 passengers and 34 crew, 'but sometimes, in summer seasons where we find that these people along Lake Tanganyika are harvesting their crops it can be more.'

`How many more?'

`Up to a thousand.'

At one of our 15 stops a wedding party paddles out to welcome guests off the ship. Huge brightly-coloured flags and banners stream in the wind and there is great singing and chanting as they circle the ship. The progress of the Liemba reminds me of the Hurtigrute service which took us up through the Norwegian fiords three and a half months ago. In both cases the service is the only lifeline for communities unreachable by road or air. There the similarity ends. I cannot imagine the manic, uncontrolled exuberance of the Liemba surviving long in the cold Protestant waters of the North Atlantic.

As we progress south, some Zambians come aboard. Tomorrow they are voting for a new government, and I am quite shocked to hear that Kenneth Kaunda is so unpopular that he may well be unseated after 28 years in power. I always had the impression that he was one of the most secure, successful and responsible of the post-colonial leaders, but Japhet Zulu from Chingola, who describes himself as 'a simple businessman', thinks Kaunda has ruined the economy and he will not be voting for him.

At dusk, unobserved, except by me, one of the policemen who chases steerage passengers off the upper decks has removed his hat and boots and is praying towards Mecca. The sight of this man of authority so completely prostrating himself before a higher authority is oddly moving.

Extract ID: 5732

See also

Foden, Giles Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika
Extract Date: Tuesday September 21, 2004

Flies, fever and farce

The Guardian

The African Queen is renowned as one of the toughest and craziest shoots in cinematic history. But it was nothing compared to the first world war British naval escapade which lay behind the film, as Giles Foden's new book reveals

At one point in John Huston's 1951 film The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, Bogie gets covered in flies. A crude special effect (the insects are plastered on the lens), it is nevertheless one of the links between the film and the true story behind it: a British navy campaign on Lake Tanganyika in 1915 which saw 28 men haul two motorboats with the unlikely names of Mimi and Toutou through the wilds of the Congo.

At the start of the first world war, German warships controlled Lake Tanganyika. The British had no ships there. This mattered: it was the longest lake in the world, and of great strategic importance. The Admiralty ordered the 28 men, mostly volunteers, to take control of it. They were a strange bunch - one was addicted to Worcester sauce (as an aperitif), another was a former racing driver - but the strangest of all of them was their skirt-wearing, tattoo-covered commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.

In The African Queen, which was based on a novel by CS Forester, published in 1935, Bogart and Hepburn are en route to sink a German battleship on a fictionalised central African lake, when the insects strike. In real life, Spicer-Simson was witness to a great eruption of flies on the surface of Lake Tanganyika. He and his men saw a series of sky-tall funnels wheeling across the waves. They rose hundreds of feet in crooked stems, then spread out at the top, mounting in eddies as they joined the clouds.

Typically, Spicer-Simson maintained that the swarming masses were water-spouts until the evidence they were insects could be gainsaid no longer. In fact, they were the famous kungu flies of central Africa that Livingstone had noted on his travels. Both a local delicacy (baked in a loaf) and a death trap to fishermen (sweeping up their boats in tornados or suffocating them), the flies' eggs had risen from the lakebed, nearly a mile below.

Hatching as the navy men watched, the kungu whirled across the lake; or, their short lives over, fell dead on the surface of the water - just as they would do 36 years later when Huston, his cameraman Jack Cardiff and still photographer Arthur Lemon tried to keep the rackety show of The African Queen shoot afloat, 400 miles to the north on Lake Albert.

According to Lemon: "We lived on an old paddle-steamer called the Lugard II, which had been art directed to look like a German gunboat - the one that eventually gets blown up in the film... Each evening, as the sun went down, lake flies would hatch out and swarm everywhere. Everything on the boat had to be shut up tight. They only survived 30 minutes or so and then died and fell back on to the surface of the water. Great for the Nile perch who would swim along like vacuum cleaners and scoop them up for dinner. Some of these fish were huge."

Huston was a difficult man to work for. Clint Eastwood's 1990 fictional film about the shoot, White Hunter, Black Heart, gives a good idea of his macho posturing. But compared to Spicer-Simson, he was an easygoing milksop. Vainglorious and vindictive, Spicer (as he was known) took every opportunity to show off the tattoos of snakes and butterflies that covered his thighs, arms and torso. Nor did he ever lose the chance to browbeat his men, barracking them with bogus tales of his own bravery in various parts of the world.

Spicer had always wanted to be a hero. He would have settled for admiral. But a series of catastrophic errors had left him the oldest lieutenant commander in the navy, which he had joined at the age of 14. By the start of the war he had already lost three ships through stupid mishaps. He was given a desk job to keep him out of trouble. Such was the state of Spicer's fortunes when, on April 21 1915, a big-game hunter called John Lee arrived in London with an appointment to see Admiral Sir Henry Jackson. Lee had great experience of Lake Tanganyika. He also had a scheme to bring it under British control.

Lee explained to the admiral that the Germans had two steamers under military orders on Lake Tanganyika: the 60-tonne Hedwig and the 45-tonne Kingani. Lee's plan to attack the German vessels was simple in conception but difficult in practice: if two fast British motor boats could be sent to South Africa, then by rail to the Belgian Congo and dragged to the lake, they could sink or disable the slower Hedwig and Kingani. Sir Henry agreed to the plan.

There was much discussion as to who was to lead the Naval Africa Expedition, as it was named, but in the end it was a case of needs must. The navy was in turmoil. First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had just been sacked because of the Gallipoli debacle, which had left the service short of officers. There weren't many options.

So when Spicer volunteered, he was given the appointment, despite still being in disgrace. His fortunes were about to change. Within a year he would be being worshipped as a deity by an African tribe. Within two years his name would be plastered over British newspapers.

The liner carrying the Naval Africa Expedition arrived safely in Cape Town, South Africa, on July 2 1915. The two motor boats, HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou (as Spicer had whimsically christened them after the navy had rejected his first-choice names, Cat and Dog) were put on goods trucks in a railway siding, ready for travel.

On August 5, nearly two months after they had set out from England, Spicer's crew reached Fungurume, deep in the Belgian Congo. It was just a few sheds in the jungle, with piles of steel railway track and wooden sleepers lying about.

To the right and the left of them was rough bush; in front lay the forbidding Mitumba mountains, which they would have to cross. Mimi and Toutou were lifted off the train on to special trailers. Two enormous steam-traction engines would drag them up the escarpment: a team of 1,400 Africans had begun clearing a road.

By August 18, the ox-teams that were supposed to supplement the pulling power of the road locomotives had not yet arrived, but Spicer was impatient to get going. He gave the order to proceed. Belching smoke, the locomotives tugged their eight-tonne burdens up the track. The steam whistles of the engines blew and the African labourers chanted as Mimi was towed towards the first bridge. Within seconds of the first tractor coming on to it, it collapsed. Mimi and the loco had to be hauled out of the gulch below.

They had almost reached the first camping point, having covered six miles, when disaster struck again. Mimi's locomotive slipped off the edge of the track and began to fall away, the earthwork sliding, unable to carry the engine's weight. Stuck at an angle, the tractor had to be disconnected from Mimi again and pulled by the other engine till upright once more.

The oxen arrived but the days that followed were much the same, one accident following another under the penetrating sun. The struggle continued as, mile by mile, they crept towards the top of the Mitumbas. Every hour threatened the arrival of the rains, which would make their ascent impossible: neither wheels nor hooves would be able to cope with deep mud.

Hauled in this manner, 50 yards at a time, Mimi and Toutou finally reached the mountain-top. There, 6,400ft above sea level, they came to rest on a pleasant meadow-plateau. Crossing the 20-mile plateau was easy enough, except that a great many lions surrounded the camp at night. On September 12 they reached the other side and saw, far below them, the Lualaba or Upper Congo river, on which they would make the second part of their epic journey.

The river passage was 350 miles long. They kept hitting obstructions and were bitten by tsetse flies along the way. The men shot off their rifles at hippos and crocs. The boats often had to be towed by dug-out canoes or hauled over sandbanks by teams of African labourers. Sometimes they were loaded on Belgian steamers, like that in which Joseph Conrad had travelled up the river 25 years previously, on the trip that inspired his novella, Heart of Darkness; some of The African Queen was also filmed on the Lualaba.

Through heavy rain, Spicer saw Lake Tanganyika for the first time on October 27, more than four months since he had set out from London. Watched by Holo-Holo tribesmen, the expedition set up camp on the lakeshore. At last, Mimi and Toutou's great journey was over. Now they had to prepare for battle.

One morning soon after they arrived, a German boat was spotted on the horizon of the lake. In truth, this small paddle-steamer didn't look much of a challenge. But still, she was twice as long as Mimi or Toutou. Squinting through his field glasses, the expedition's medic, Dr Hanschell, noted that the gun of the ship, the Kingani, was trained on them, where they had lined up on cliffs above the lake. He looked around to ask Spicer what he thought, but the commander was nowhere to be seen.

At breakfast a day or two later someone told the doctor that he had seen the commander wearing a skirt. Hanschell assumed they were pulling his leg. But at that moment Spicer appeared, framed in the doorway. He was indeed wearing a skirt. It was made of lightweight khaki and came down to his knees. Spicer sat down at the breakfast table; nobody knew what to say.

"I designed it myself," Spicer announced eventually. "My wife makes 'em for me. Very practical for the hot weather."

On Boxing Day 1915, after a fierce battle on the lake, Mimi and Toutou captured the Kingani, killing its captain and two others. Once the boats came onshore, Spicer was mobbed by the thousands of Holo-Holo who had watched the action from the cliffs. They threw themselves prostrate before him or tried to touch his clothes, as if they wanted to worship him. Fighting them off, he went over to inspect the prize, stepping over the German corpses on the deck.

"Twelve hits out of 13 shells," he announced. "That's a pretty good show." And then, quite casually, Spicer bent over the captain's twisted body and calmly removed the dead man's signet ring. Over the next few days the Kingani was mended. Spicer renamed the ship HMS Fifi, which he thought went rather well with Mimi and Toutou.

With the Kingani captured, the expeditionaries turned their attention to the bigger Hedwig, sinking it on February 9 1916. With that Spicer thought his work was done. He had even managed to capture a German naval flag, the first of the whole war. And now the Holo-Holo began to worship him in earnest, bowing down before him and making his effigy in clay. Part of the reason for this was that they venerated a snake god: his tattoos tapped into the mythology. Mainly it was because he had defeated the Germans.

But he hadn't. Not long after, a much larger German ship, the Graf von G�tzen, appeared on the horizon. At 1,200 tonnes, it was 20 times the size of the Hedwig. It seemed to make a mockery of Spicer's toy navy, and its appearance came around the same time as news that his younger brother had been killed on the Western Front. Spicer went to pieces and was invalided home.

The irony was, the G�tzen was carrying only wooden decoy guns. Its real ones, being needed by German land troops, had been removed. Spicer could have taken it with Mimi and Toutou after all. For the rest of his life - he moved to Monte Carlo after the war, then to Canada, where he died in 1947 - he kept quiet about the G�tzen, bragging noisily about the other ships instead.

The G�tzen was eventually scuttled by its German captain in July 1916 after being bombed by Belgian aeroplanes. Its latter fate is perhaps the strangest part of the whole tale. In 1921 Churchill, back in the job of First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the G�tzen refloated. On Monday May 16 1927, she sailed again - rechristened the Liemba, the name given to Lake Tanganyika in Livingstone's time. She is still sailing up and down the lake to this day.

� Extracted from Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden, to be published by Michael Joseph on September 30 at �16.99.

To order a copy for �16.14 (RRP �16.99) with free UK p & p, call the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875, or go to www.guardian.co.uk/bookshop

It will be Book of the Week on Radio 4 in the week beginning October 25.

Extract ID: 4771