The MV Liemba is a freight and passenger ferry that runs along the eastern side of Lake Tanganyika. The route goes from Kigoma in Tanzania to Mpulungu in Zambia, with many stops between. Built for the Imperial German Navy, she is the only one of their vessels still in service and the oldest passenger ferry still sailing.
English speakers may recognise her from the film The African Queen; MV Liemba was the inspiration for the German vessel Königin Luisa in that film. Humphrey Bogart plays a Canadian riverboat captain — rough-and-ready, very cynical and a heavy drinker. Katherine Hepburn plays an English missionary — prim, proper, idealistic and teetotal. Thrown together by circumstance, they scheme to sink the Luisa during the First World War. The film is also a fine love story and earned Bogart his only Oscar.
The ship was built in 1913 in Papenburg, Germany. She was then dismantled and shipped to Kigoma in German East Africa in 5,000 wooden crates. The railway did not extend to Kigoma at that time, so all those boxes were carried on the backs of porters for the last part of the journey.
In Kigoma, she was reconstructed and launched in 1915 under the name Graf von Goetzen, named after the governor of German East Africa. She was a warship intended to let the Germans dominate on Lake Tanganyika and she was very effective in that role, much more powerful than any other ship in the region.
However, the land part of the war in Africa did not go well for the Germans. In 1916 they were forced to retreat from Kigoma; they scuttled the ship before they left to save her from capture by the Allies. She was soon recovered by the Belgians, but she sank again in 1920, due to a storm.
The British brought her up again in 1924 and put her back into service, converted for use as a ferry and renamed MV (motor vessel) Liemba, in 1927. Liemba is the name of Lake Tanganyika in Swahili. Ever since then, the MV Liemba has sailed on Lake Tanganyika, except for an interruption from 1970 to 1976.
Read and watch
There are a multitude of articles written on the MV Liemba. Also some books have been published and may make a good preparational read (or even to be read while aboard).
- Alex Capus (2007, Eine Frage der Zeit (German) / A matter of time, English). The story of the ship until 1915, and of a rival British project. The book is not claiming documentary status, but is based on thorough research and provides lots of accurate details in an easy to read story.
- Sarah Paulus and Rolf G. Wackenberg (2013, Von Goetzen bis Liemba - Auf Reisen mit einem Jahrhundertschiff, (German)). Describes the journey of the authors with the ship and provides a detailed portrayal of the ship's long history until 2013. Also deals with myths and fairy tales which entwine around the ship.
- A less than 5-minute documentary film by the BBC was published in November 2014.
- A full length documentary titled Liemba was released by Breadbox Productions and Indican Pictures in 2011.
- An article about Liemba was published on Vice in 2017.
She should be running from Kigoma every other week on Wednesdays at 4PM (this should not be seen as a precise time).
Try to contact the Liemba office in English (or Swahili if you can) via email: firstname.lastname@example.org The name of the contact person is Abel Giliard.
A great contact for schedule and reservations is Miss Siwema Reuben from the MSCL branch office in Kigoma. It is possible to connect with her on Whatsapp: Tel: +255 766 633 830
A great contact is Captain Mwassa Winton who can reply quickly to emails at email@example.com in English or in Swahili.
Tickets and prices
Prices are listed on the official homepage, but may vary a bit compared to the price list in board. It is recommended to have this price available printed or on your phone when boarding and paying to avoid overcharging.
When they want to charge you in US dollars, refuse and ask for the price list in Tanzanian schillings. You will pay less than half price for a first class cabin when you pay the amount quoted on the TZS list instead of the USD list (in July 2017)
- USD40 per person in a 1st class cabin (2 persons, own fan, a little desk and your own lavatory)
- USD35 per person in a 2nd class cabin (4 persons, below first class cabins)
- USD30 per person in 3rd class (benches below deck, not recommended)
It seems Mzungus (whites) are talked into 1st class. The upgrade cost from 2nd to 1st (and even more so 3rd to 2nd) is very much worth the difference. There are ten 1st class cabins. Cabin #1 has two additional windows to the front, thus you can watch the scenery from the cosiness of your own cabin. Also vibrations of the engine are much less notable than in the cabins further back. There is one more cabin to the front (#2? #6?) which shares these advantages.
A round trip starting from and ending in Kigoma on the MV Liemba takes about 5 days (plus the delay). Typical itineraries include the following (and vice versa):
- From Kigoma to Lagosa (152 km, get off here to get to Mahale, around 10 hours)
- From Kigoma to Kasanga (538 km, last stop in Tanzania)
- From Kigoma to Mpulungu, Zambia (572 km, around 2½ days)
- From Kigoma to Kigoma (1144 km, around 5 days, round trip)
While it may be possible to get off at some points and explore stuff on shore, you should be aware that the boat is not going to wait for you to get back on board. Should you miss it, you may need to wait up to 14 days to continue your journey. Always check with the captain of the Liemba before getting off the ship.
List of stops from Kigoma to Mpulungu. Where there is no port, boarding and debarking are done with smaller boats:
- Kigoma (Port)
- Kipili (Port)
- Kasanga (Port)
- Mpulungu (Zambia) (Port)
- Breakfast is available.
- Dinner can be available as
- Buffet (no refills) for Tsh 6000 (not in July 2017)
- Rice or ugali with beef (or chicken) for Tsh 4,000. Choose the beef.
- Rice or ugali with fish for Tsh 4,500. The best option (if you like whole fish)
- Sometimes also chips can be ordered instead of rice or ugali
Ugali is a common dish in the region, basically a cornmeal mush but often with other grains as well.
On the lower decks you can buy pineapple, bananas, fat cake and more.
- A variety of cold local beers are available for a very reasonable Tsh 3000 per bottle.
- Soft drinks and water are also sold.
- Should the MV Liemba arrive after 20:00 in Kigoma you will have to stay another night on the boat, because the harbour in Kigoma is closed and you are only allowed out after 08:00 on the next morning. When the crew realizes this may happen, they sail slower. This is an attempt to not be standing still in the middle of Kigoma bay for too long.
- After getting off in Kigoma you must pass through immigration. Expect your passport and vaccination book to be checked.