Some real-life tales are so strange one couldn't make them up even if one tried. The MV Liemba ferry in the heart of Africa has to be one of the world's strangest stories. She is the oldest Imperial German Navy ship still running in the world - and she is on a lake in Africa!

The story is a bizarre one of Imperial Empires fighting naval battles thousands of miles away from the ocean, a story of eccentric commanders, and a story of one of the last legacies of Imperial German rule in Tanzania. It is a story of a ferry that just refuses to die.


The Colonial Background And Getting Her Overland To The Lake

During the colonial period of Africa before World War One, most of what is now Tanzania was German East Africa and part of the German Empire. Neighboring the German colony were the British possessions of Uganda and Kenya to the north and what is now Zambia and Malawai to the South. When the war broke out in Europe, the war immediately spread the respective Empire's colonies abroad.

  • Mainland Tanzania: A German Colony Called German East Africa

In the middle of Africa is the massive Lake Tanganyika - thousands of miles away from the ocean and navigable rivers. British, Portuguese, and German colonies converged on this mighty lake and the Germans were determined to have mastery of it.

To that end, the Germans built a ship in Germany in 1913 and then had it packed into 5,000 wooden crates. These were transported as far as their railway would take them, and then they had to carry them overland the rest of the way on the backs of porters.

  • Built: In 1913 In Germany
  • Dissembled: She Was Disassembled And Shipped To The Lake in 5,000 Wooden Crates

Related: Why You Should Explore Zanzibar, And What There Is To See There

The Mighty Ferry In The Battle of Lake Tanganyika

The ship was called the Graf von Goetzen and was intended to be a ferry before the war broke out. But then she was converted into an auxiliary warship (called SMS Goetzen) and given a 4-inch gun from the wrecked light cruiser SMS Königsberg on the coast. When she was ready in 1915, it was easily the most powerful ship on the lake.

  • Armed: With A 4-Inch Gun

The British wished to challenge this, so during the war, they dragged two boats overland under the command of the eccentric British Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson. This oddball of a man christened the boats as HMS Mini and HMS Toutou.

The tiny British task force managed to surprise the (smaller than the Goetzen) German ship Kingani. She was damaged and captured by the British who christened it into the Royal Navy as HMS Fifi.

  • British Task Force: HMS Mini, Toutou, and Fifi
  • Fate: Scuttled On 26 July 1916 (Later Raised)

The British went looking for the German auxiliary warship SMS Goetzen. When they spotted it they awoke Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson who observed that his three little boats had no chance of taking on the much larger SMS Goetzen with its 4-inch gun. So he just went back to bed - a very eccentric man. Learn more about this engagement on the YouTube Channel, The Great War's video on it.

But developments on land soon overtook those of Lake Tanganyika and the Germans removed the guns from the SMS Goetzen and scuttled her in July 1916.

Related: Everything You Need To Know Before Going On A Serengeti Safari (With Expert Tips)

After The War And Service As A Ferry

She was recovered by the Belgians (who controlled the other side of the lake) but soon sank again in a storm in 1920. She was raised by a British Royal Navy salvage team in 1924 and brought back into service in 1927.

  • Name: Liemba Is the Name of Lake Tanganyika In Swahili

She was then pressed back into service as a passenger and cargo ferry that runs along the eastern shore of the lake. She is called MV Liemba and runs between the ports of Kigoma in Tanzania and Mpulungu in Zambia.

  • Oldest: Today She is The Oldest Passenger Ferry In Service
  • Last: She Is the Last German Imperial Navy Vessel Still Actively Sailing Anywhere In The World

The SMS Goetzen/MV Liemba is thought to be the inspiration for the German gunboat Königin Luisa in C. S. Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen. The novel was later adapted into a black and white movie of the same name.

If one would like a very unusual attraction in Africa - can't get much odder than this. Traveling in Africa is expensive, but there are also ways to travel in Africa on a budget. In Zambia one of the main attractions is Victoria Falls - these are perhaps the most spectacular falls in the world.

Related: Touring Great Zimbabwe: The Lost City of Africa