Aboard the African Queen

One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “The American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.

If you haven’t seen the movie, my first suggestion is that you get on that. Bogart is at his unshaven, sweaty best; and despite decades of “strong female characters” since, the single toughest moment in cinema history is still Katherine Hepburn sliding into the black, leech-filled water to help pull the boat through razor-sharp reeds at which she’s hacking with a machete. There’s not enough adjectives in the English language to describe how cool Katherine Hepburn was. In a nutshell, it tells the story of prim missionary Rose (Hepburn) in German East Africa who is forced to cast her lot in with a drunken riverboat captain named Charlie (Bogart) when, upon the outbreak of World War One, German soldiers descend upon the mission, burn it down, and kill Hepburn’s brother and fellow missionary. Charlie mentions to Rose a German gunship that patrols a large lake at the end of the unnavigable Ulanga River, preventing any sort of British response to German aggression. Rose then come sup with an utterly insane plan: to take Charlie’s shambling little boat, the African Queen, down the impossible river, emerge onto the lake, and destroy the German ship.

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The boat that would serve as their home for most of the movie was built in 1912 at Lytham shipbuilding in England and was originally christened the S/L Livingstone. As the Livingstone, the boat plied the waters of the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert on the border of the Belgian Congo and Uganda, carrying mercenaries, missionaries, cargo and hunting parties in the service of the British East Africa Railways company. In 1951, when sniffing around for props and locations, director John Huston happened upon the S/L Livingstone and cut a deal to use the boat, shabby but full of character, for his movie, at which time it was rechristened the African Queen. The boat was not functional at the time, so for most of the filming it was towed behind another boat. It was discarded again until 1968, when a San Francisco restaurant owner bought it to refurbish and use as a novelty charter. From there, the venerable old girl had an improbable journey that led to Oregon and, finally, to what looked to be her final resting spot, rotting away in a field in land-locked Ocala, Florida.

By some stroke of fortune, an attorney named Jim Hendricks, himself a big Bogart fan, tracked the ship’s circuitous trip to Ocala and purchased it in 1982 with the intention of saving it from decay. After substantial restoration, the African Queen was water-worthy again in 1983 and was employed in the service of entertaining holiday goers in its new port of Key Largo, Florida. Under Hendricks’ stewardship, the African Queen not only toured Florida’s Upper Keys but was also sent overseas to appear at special occasions, showing up to put-put around waterways as far-flung as Ireland and Australia. In 2001, however, the old engine gave out, and while the African Queen was still cared for and maintained, it was as a non-functioning display outside a Largo Holiday Inn.

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The African Queen stayed on display but not seaworthy until 2012, when Key Largo locals Lance and Suzanne Holmquist bought the Queen from Hendricks’ son and set about restoring it to its film state, including once again making it a functioning boat. Employing a small army of dedicated restoration artists and working from original plans and with as many original materials as possible, the Holmquists patched the African Queen back up, complete with a cooler hidden inside a wooden Gordon’s Gin crate. The broken down old steam engine was replaced with a “new” one built around the same time as the original. Later that year, on the boat’s 100th birthday, the African Queen was lowered into one of Key Largo’s winding canals and chugged out to sea once again. It’s been in operation ever since, and in June of 2015, I celebrated a hot, sunny birthday of my own (not a centennial) aboard the determined little boat I’d been watching since I was a child. And in case you are thinking that surely I’m not nerdy enough to have purchased a Bogart-as-Charlie style outfit specifically to wear while tooling around on the African Queen, well then you really must be new to Teleport City.

We stepped aboard along with a few other old-timers and listened to the captain run through a history of the boat and the production of the film, which was about as fraught with sickness and hardship as you would guess. For most of the filming, Hepburn was suffering from severe nausea and other maladies, as was much of the rest of the cast and crew. They contracted stomach illnesses when they drank water. Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston remained oddly unaffected, though. It turns out that’s because they skipped the water and spent most of the shoot drinking scotch. After flipping through a book of photos, many of them donated by collectors and fans and a few straight from Bogart’s son, the captain coaxed the ancient engine to life, and with a cry from the steam whistle and the incessant signature chk-chk-chk of the engine, we were off at a pace slightly faster than a man might walk on dry land.

The canals of Key Largo are not as fraught with peril as the river down which Rose and Charlie struggled, but the lack of rapids, swamps, impenetrable clouds of mosquitoes, and leeches are replaced by more modern dangers more indicative of the African Queen’s new home in the Florida Keys. Gentle manatees replace leeches, and the rapids are simulated by the wake of passing giant yachts and dive boats. Sadly, bottled water also has replaced Charlie’s beloved Gordon’s gin, but given how sweltering our leisurely trip along the winding canal was, perhaps that’s for the best. From time to time, the captain will let one of us passengers take hold of the till and steer the boat around. Jumping into the water and pulling the boat along by a rope was strictly forbidden however, and rarely requested. The entire cruise lasts about two hours, with most of that spent puttering along the calm waters of the canal and, ultimately, into the open waves of the Atlantic. No arrangements had been made for us to torpedo an old German warship, but I suppose one must leave something for next time. Still, the Keys are frequented by a pretty quirky bunch of people, so the houses and boats lining the canal offer plenty to see on your way out to the open ocean even if you don’t get to blow anything up at the end.