Reflections: MV Liemba – The African Queen of Lake Tanganyika

Stare at any map of the African continent for more than a few seconds, and it won’t be long before your eyes begin drifting towards the region of the rift valley, and the great lakes of Africa. There are seven lakes in total that form the ‘Great Lakes of Africa‘, but today my focus is on only one. The mighty Lake Tanganyika, the longest and deepest lake on the vast African continent.

MV Liemba - Lake Tanganyika's Very Own African Queen

Winding the clock back to 1993, I have great memories of my adventure aboard Africa’s grand old passenger ferry, the MV Liemba.

The MV Liemba was built in Germany way back in 1913, and carries approximately 400 passengers and crew (although she is at times loaded up with far more), as she makes her way back and forth along the complete length of Lake Tanganyika (the worlds longest lake at approx 673km or 418mi).

The MV Liemba Has A Rich History

The Route The MV Liemba Takes on Lake Tanganyika

The Route The MV Liemba Takes on Lake Tanganyika

Formerly named the Graf von Götzen, the MV Liemba has a rich history, starting way back during the first world war where she was used by the Germans to shuttle soldiers along the lake. The ship was also the inspiration for the German gunboat Luisa in C.S. Fosters 1935 novel ‘The African Queen’, later made into the famous film staring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

In recent times the MV Liemba was used by the UNHCR to transport more than 75,000 refugees who fled Zaire during the ‘First Congo War‘. On top of all this, the ship has also been the victim of many piracy attacks during the last twenty or so years, with the lawlessness and the ongoing continental war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Tirelessly serving the people of Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia, the MV Liemba plies the shores of mighty Lake Tanganyika stopping on route (approximately 19 times) to supply many of the local villages that dot the shores along this great African voyage. Many of these villages are extremely isolated and have no road access. The weekly passing of the MV Liemba is the life blood to the village, bringing food and supplies to the people living in this isolated region of Africa.

The Chaos Unfolds As The African Queen Comes To a Halt

Smaller boats after picking up passengers from the MV Liemba

After the MV Liemba stopped, the smaller boats would be full to the brim with people and supplies.

As the ship comes to a halt a little way of shore, the captain sounds the horn, as a signal for the game to begin. Watching the chaos unfold before you as the swarm of smaller boats hustle and bustle their way towards the MV Liemba, all plying for pole position to tender people and goods back to shore.

At this point people are basically slung, handed, thrown and pushed onto the waiting tenders, with all manner of goods tossed from the ship into the waiting boats below.

The ships crane is also busily working above, loading the smaller boats with large sacks of grain and rice.

The Trip Aboard The MV Liemba Takes 3 Days in Either Direction

The chaotic loading and, unloading of the ship whilst at anchor.

Organized choas, as the passengers were loaded into the smaller craft.

The trip aboard the MV Liemba takes approximately three days in either direction, as she makes her way back and forth between Burundi’s capital Bujumbura at the northern end of lake Tanganyika. All the way to the Zambian town of Mpulungu, at Tanganyika’s southern most point.

My time aboard the ship had it’s ups and downs. For starters we treated ourselves and went 2nd class, obtaining a sleeper cabin for the three day trip. As it turned out our cabin was next to the engine room, and was so hot inside, that we ended up sleeping on the deck anyway.

Another problem we faced aboard was a fair bit of drinking aboard the ship, and as there was no cell to lock away any unsavory characters that were up to no good. The captain decided it would be a good idea to padlock one of the drunks to a pipe just in front of our cabin door. We had to step over this one fella for two full days (he also spoiled his pants during these two days, so you can imagine the stench).

The MV Liemba Still Runs To This Day

The MV Liemba is nearing her 100 years of service on the African continent, which is quite astonishing really. She has seen allot in her day, but from all accounts is still running strong to this day (albeit a little haphazardly at times). If you ever get to this part of Africa, I highly recommend a journey aboard this famous ship.

The trip along lake Tanganyika, will always be remembered by myself as one of those classic journeys a traveler can undertake, and whenever I look at a map of Africa, I will always remember my three days aboard Lake Tanganyika’s ‘African Queen’.

Your Thoughts and Comments?

Have you taken a journey aboard the MV Liemba? What about another ship or ferry that also operates upon Africa’s great lakes? Are there any other voyages around the world such as this,  that you would recommend?


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     About the author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  • Steve

    I had no idea that the boat in The African Queen was based on a real boat. It would be really cool to go on that since I enjoyed the movie. Sounds like you had a really interesting experience. I’ve never been on a ship or ferry in Africa, but I’ve been on them in Asia before and I can tell you that they get packed and chaotic there too.

  • Jason

    Hey Steve, It’s funny mate, cause I had no idea the book (and film) were based around this ship at the time I was on her. I learned this fact a few years later. There’s no doubt that Asia can get a little crazy at times, especially in the heavily populated countries. Thanks for your comment mate.

  • Dave from The Longest Way Home

    I enjoyed this. I spent times in a ship cabin also looking for some R&R, but also to discover it was next to the engine room. Not so nice, I agree. But, granted, I did not have a chained up drunk man to step over.

    I’m not sure how you felt about this at the time, but reading your account in hindsight is quite amusing. Good going!

  • Jason

    Hey Dave, Yeah the engine room issue was a bit of a drama at first, but in the end our cabin just ended up as a nice safe place to lock away our packs. Sleeping on deck with the mass of people was an experience, I’m glad I went through as well.

    I’m tipping your experience with the engine room would have been on one of the numerous boat rides you took throughout the Philippines?

    The drunk fella locked to the pipe in front of the cabin was a classic. We had no issue with it (that’s Africa), and gave him a bit of food and water now and again. It was quite funny really, but he was pretty messy. Thanks for the comment mate.

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