Lake Tanganyika – look it up. It spans 68,000 squared kilometres. At it’s greatest length it is 210 miles long and 150 wide. It’s coastline stretches for 2,000 miles. It borders with Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. One hundred years ago it bore the name Victoria and lay tucked between the Belgian Congo and German East Africa, not far from the imperious glances of the British below. This huge body of water was important – control it and you could control East Africa.
The greatest German minds were set to this mammoth task – to somehow build and transport a ship to Africa beneath the searching gaze of the Royal Navy to a lake which was hundreds of miles from the sea. Eventually it was decided that the liner would be designed and constructed in Hamburg, placed into 5,000 specifically numbered crates, transported in three cargo vessels to Dar es Salaam where they would be trucked by train to the lake. There the parts would be assembled into the Graf von Goetzen and the greatest ever package delivery would be complete.
By the time the logistical miracle had ended, the Great War had begun. The Goetzen commanded lake Victoria and begun to launch surprise attacks on Allied troops on the shore only to retreat into the night. The great British minds were not to be outdone. Seeing the German vermin as a rat they designed two pacey gunboats originally called the Cat and Dog to exterminate it. The admiralty however did not wish such trivial names for his majesty’s navy and so rather appropriately named them Mimi and Toutou – Parisian slang for ‘meow’ and ‘woof.’ These small and nippy boats were placed on a large steamer to Cape Town then onto a train bound for the Belgian Congo. The nearest station to Victoria was 100 miles away so the two pets were unceremoniously dragged through the jungle to hunt the rat. The battle for Lake Victoria had begun.
The Goetzen used vast archipelagos for cover before launching daring raids under the noses of the HMS Mimi and Toutou. Eventually however she was cornered by her pacier foes in 1916. Both Belgian pilots and British seamen claimed to have struck the final blow. The Graf von Goetzen was no more. Or so the Allies thought…
Such was the affection for their ship which they had cared for since it’s inception at Hamburg, the German engineers refused to finally it put down. Grease was carefully to it’s damaged engines, her vast compartments filled with sand and she was quietly scuttled in the shallow fresh waters of the great African lake.
Once the dust was settling after a gruesome war, thoughts turned to the once great steamer and raising her from the dead. Belgian engineers succeeded in towing the half submerged vessel to shore but a storm two years later but the idea to bed. Or so the Belgians thought…. In 1924 the British salvaged the ship which became a passenger ferry three years later under the name Liemba.
She served as the inspiration for CS Forresters 1935 novel The African Queen which was brought to life by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the silver screen in 1951.
By the 1970s the groaning steam engines had seen better days as scrap merchants circled with offers for the old rat. An Irishman named Paddy Dougherty had other ideas. An ex-employee of Harlaand and Wolff in Belfast – the birthplace of the Titanic – he led the project to breathe some life into it’s weary lungs. Diesel engines were fitted and with a lick of paint she looked brand new. Ish.
Today the Liemba has the proud distinction of being the longest serving and oldest passenger ferry in the world. Don’t get me wrong, there are great naval stories out there from the Essex to the Vasa, but if there is a better one than this then I am yet to hear it.