Kiwi refloats movie history

By Amy Fallon

Cam McLeay has restored the boat that starred with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
Cam McLeay has restored the boat that starred with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

"Ain't nobody in Africa except yours truly who can get up a good head of steam on the old African Queen," boasted boat captain Charlie Allnut, played by Humphrey Bogart to missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) in the 1951 Hollywood classic film.

More than 60 years after the pair navigated the wild rapids of the Ulanga-Bora River in German east Africa during WWI, two New Zealanders have one of the original vessels used in the movie back up and running on the Nile.

Cam McLeay, a Kiwi who lived in Uganda for ten years with his family, purchased the Nile African Queen after hearing her amazing story. Tours will begin running on the world's longest river from his award-winning Wildwaters Lodge by Christmas.

"I love that romance of the steam technology. So just firing her up for the first time
... I'm very excited," said McLeay, speaking in Uganda last week before flying home to New Zealand.

Filmed in DRC on a tributary of the Congo River and on the Nile at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, it's believed two boats were constructed in each location for the movie. The other one was taken to Key Largo, Florida, in 1983 and restored. According to its website that African Queen, added to the US National Register of Historic Places, offers daily cruises. That boat however is not steam-powered, like McLeay's prized possession.

The 51-year-old first heard of the existence of the Nile African Queen after he went to Lamu island in 2010. Having "discovered the source of the Nile" and built a lodge in the middle of the rapids McLeay, described as one of the world's best whitewater rafters, had a new mission: to find an authentic African boat.

He'd seen a Swahili and Mozambican dhow and a stunning wooden clinker boat. When a friend suggested the African Queen his jaw nearly hit the ground.

"I said you're joking and he said no, as far as I know she's still on a trailer in Nairobi," recalled McLeay. "I just called up a mobile phone number and he said yeah she's still on the trailer, come and have a look!

"What a find!"

The person he spoke to was Yank Evans, a Patagonian mechanical engineer who'd come across what was left of the vessel while working on the roads in Murchison Falls National Park in 1984.

"Yank came across a carcass of a steel boat, in the bushes there just left to rot," said McLeay.

"He asked the locals what this was and they said well that's the African Queen. So he bought it off the National Parks for $1."

Evans, who'd worked on the boat with his son Billy and given her a steam engine (she was actually diesel-powered in real life but made to look like she had a steam engine onscreen), had run some trips on her on Lake Victoria in Uganda. But he'd taken her to Kenya when he went to live there in 1997 and her new home became a trailer in the garden.

"He wanted to sell it but I think he was just so connected to the boat. (Restoring her) was a labour of love, really," said McLeay.

Although the boat hadn't run for a decade, he decided to take a risk.

"I just had to take a punt on the investment and I'm pleased (my wife) Kate wasn't there," said the father of three, who got the boat from Kenya back to Uganda by making up the serial number AQ01 to get her across the border.

As it's turned out, his other half is now helping make the uniforms for the crew who will welcome passengers onboard the boat that Oscar winner Bogart and Hepburn once sat on, with a Uganda-based designer.

"We'll have a captain who will have a Bogart style hat," said McLeay.

"We're going to have an engineer and he'll stoke the fire and oil the running gear and then we'll have a waiter who will do the directions, steer the boat and serve the drinks and have a good birding knowledge."

Wildwaters Lodge plans to offer cruises on the African Queen to guests who stay there three nights or more, but anyone who wants to book just a cruise will be able to. And of course the trip will come with the "obligatory" G&T, McLeay said. At one stage in the movie, the Gordon's-swilling Bogart tells Hepburn they'll be alright because they have "two thousand cigarettes and two cases of gin".

Over 60 species of birds have been identified near Wildwaters Lodge, which McLeay built with his brother Brad. It has since won a Trip Advisor Excellence award. McLeay has also hosted the Duke of Cambridge on a three-day rafting and bungee jumping trip, Joanna Lumley, while she was making Joanna Lumley's Nile TV series, and most recently the Top Gear stars.

Petrol mechanic, consultant and contractor Gavin Fahey, originally from Dunedin, is usually more at home driving and maintaining jet boats on the river for Adrift, Uganda's first commercial rafting company which McLeay co-founded in 1996. But he's spent nearly the past six months rebuilding the African Queen's century-old Brady steam engine and replating the hull and and replacing over 100 pipes, sourcing parts mostly from the UK but also from within Uganda. He described driving the African Queen "a twist" to what he's been doing for the past five years in Uganda.

"With over 14,000 hours of commercial experience, the jet boat is like an extension to myself. It starts with a key, you only need one driver and moves along a speeds of 90kph," said Fahey, 43, last week after taking the steam boat for a spin on the Nile.

"The African Queen on the other hand takes one hour to warm up and complete pre-trip checks. To operate the 34 foot long boat requires three crew - one driver, one engineer and someone to direct through the tricky rock channels around the islands."

He said he'd met steam enthusiasts amazed that he was doing up one of the original African Queens.

"Overall it has been an interesting experience so far, and my knowledge of steam engines and uses for steam is growing daily," said Fahey.

McLeay said after re-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, which he said features photos of both a full size and half size African Queen, he was "very confident" that the boat he now has was used in the film.

He stressed Hepburn details filming in the DRC, then describes the flight from Kisangani (DRC) to Entebbe and staying there for a few days before departing for Murchison Falls, where the crew boarded the MV Lugard II. They filmed there for the next few weeks.

"Given all the time frames she refers to, it is impossible for the Congo African Queen to have been transported from the tributary near Kisangani to Murchison Falls in that time," said McLeay.

"Without a very large helicopter, this would take months - even today. There must have been more than one African Queen, and the one we have is the Nile's African Queen."

- Herald on Sunday

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