Ever in search of new and exciting adventures to add on to gorilla trekking trips in Uganda, Mark shares some insights from Cameron Mcleay, Nile explorer and African Queen aficionado.
So Cam, tell us a bit about your latest project with the African Queen:
Visitors to Uganda can enjoy the magic of a steam-powered cruise up the Nile at Kalagala Falls (Jinja) on board the original vessel used in the 1951 Hollywood classic, The African Queen.
Sixty years after Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn thrilled audiences in the movie, we have re-launched their boat in the Nile, where she belongs.
How did this come about?
I was on the Kenya coast at the island of Lamu admiring authentic African boats, especially the Swahili and Mozambiquan dhows which have plied the coast for centuries. When I mentioned to Lars, the proprietor of the Peponi Hotel that I was looking for an authentic African boat he suggested the African Queen.
My jaw dropped as he recounted part of the story. Yank Evans, an elderly Kenyan man had been pushing in roads in Murchsion Falls National Park in Uganda and had come across the carcass of the African Queen. She was completely rusted away below the waterline and all the woodwork had been eaten by insects. He purchased her for $1, transported her to Entebbe and completely rebuilt her.
In the 1951 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, she was diesel powered and made to look like a steam engine. Yank decided she must be powered by steam, wrote to his mate who was head of the steam engine society in England and said can you find me a steam engine for the African Queen? He delivered (two years later) with a century-old Brady steam engine which he airfreighted to Uganda.
Yank ran some trips on Lake Victoria in the late nineties under steam, but when he returned to Kenya over a decade ago, he took her with him. She spent this time on a trailer in his garden in Nairobi, until I found her, via Lars and returned her to Uganda.
She had left over a decade before for repairs and maintenance, so all Uganda customs needed on the way back was a serial number – AQ01!
We have since rebuilt the steam boiler and the hull and expect to water test her on the Nile again within a few weeks.
How long is the cruise?
The cruise will be 3/4kms along the Nile upstream from Kalagala Falls and Wildwaters Lodge. There is a lovely section of river here punctuated by heavily forested islands and bordered by huge rapids. The current flows swiftly between the islands and passengers will feel the roll of the old river boat against the current, and marvel at the nostalgia of steam-travel. The steam engine is remarkably quiet and a wonder to watch in operation.
Not only can passengers marvel at the engineering of a bygone era, but travel in a manner that lends itself wonderfully to both bird watching and conversation.
What can you expect to see?
In addition to wonderful sunrises and sets over the Nile, the islands and the river in this area are beautiful.
We have recorded sightings of over 50 species of bird as we get a remarkable combination of forest, water and migratory species. Uganda’s national bird the Grey-crowned crane, fish eagles, African Open-billed storks and the more unusual rock pratencols are special and regular sightings.
We can also expect to see Nile Monitors and sightings of our resident families of otters are becoming more common. Guests will also see local fisherman fishing from their small wooden boats and the shore.
Is the vessel the actual Africa Queen, or a replica?
The 1951 film was made in DR Congo on a tributary of the Congo River and on the Nile at Murchison Falls National Park. An African Queen was constructed in each location and the DR Congo ‘African Queen’ was restored in the US and takes trips (not under steam power) in Florida.
Our vessel is the original African Queen from Uganda. Large parts of the hull have been replaced, wood-work rebuilt and a ‘new’ steam engine installed, but the integrity of the original boat has been preserved.
It’s not the first time you’ve had a brush with celebrity is it?
No, I hosted Joanna Lumley on her Journey to the source of the Nile in 2011 for the BBC.
We have hosted the Duke of Cambridge on a three-day rafting and bungee jumping trip, Joanna Lumley and most recently led the Top Gear East Africa special.
All the exposure is great for Uganda and tourism in the country. Uganda is increasingly getting the attention it deserves in terms of a holiday destination as visitors appreciate that the warmth of the sunshine is matched by the hospitality of the people and the remarkable flora and fauna.
What about your own search for the source of the Nile?
As a youngster, I was particularly fascinated by the Egyptian Nile, the irrigation and the annual floods.
In 1996, I led the first descent of the Victoria Nile (Lake Victoria to Lake Albert) through the staircase of the Nile and in over 30-years of worldwide rafting it remains one of the most memorable trips I have ever done.
The more time I spent in Uganda, the more I became fascinated with the Nile and in 2005/6 the signing of the peace agreement in Sudan provided a window of opportunity for the Ascend the Nile expedition. Neil McGrigor, Garth MacIntyre and I travelled by boat along the Nile for 6718kms from the Mediterranean Sea to the Mac source in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. The ancient Egyptians, Victorian Explorers and many others had traditionally explored the Nile from its source and so we completed the world’s longest river journey (we travelled over 98% of it in our little Zap Cats) travelling upstream.
The journey is captured in the book ‘Ascend the Nile’, a Random House publication in New Zealand.
Can you tell me a bit about Wildwaters and how you came to build a lodge in the middle of the Nile?
Adrift introduced commercial rafting to Uganda 16-years ago, and it is now an icon of tourism to Uganda. The one day rafting trip is legendary and probably the best of its kind in the world. Each of the major rapids is characterized by heavily forested islands and multiple channels and supports and unbelievable abundance of wildlife both above and below the surface. I have never been anywhere in the world with so much life.
We have seen rampant deforestation from local communities along the river bank and on the mid-river islands despite statutory protection. We decided that the best way to protect these islands was to purchase them and to create jobs, partly by building a lodge, to ensure that the local community benefited directly from tourism and saw real value in protecting the mid-stream islands and their forests.
Wildwaters Lodge was a huge logistical challenge to build as most of the building materials arrived at the island, between two huge rapids by local boat. My brother Brad McLeay did the most remarkable job in constructing this lodge against all odds. It has just won an Excellence Award from Trip Advisor for 2013.