We wanted to touch a little piece of movie history, so we headed down to Key Largo, Fla., to ride on the African Queen.
The African Queen is a 30-foot steel-hulled steamship built in 1912 as the S/L Livingston to navigate the upper Nile River. John Huston leased it in 1951 to make the movie The African Queen, and the boat was renamed for the film that made it a star.
Later, the boat was brought to the United States and used for charters, abandoned, rediscovered, refurbished, used for rides, then put on display when the engine died.
Several years ago, Lance and Suzanne Holmquist leased the boat from the African Queen Trust and rehabbed it. They replaced the broken steam engine and boiler with an 1896 model as noisy as the one in the movie, oiled the black African mahogany, replaced some parts (including the bench on which Humphrey Bogart sat) but deliberately left it looking as beat-up as it did in the movie.
Then they began offering rides along Key Largo’s canals.
The African Queen holds up to six passengers on its 80-minute cruises down the Port Largo Canals to the Atlantic Ocean and back, but my two friends and I were the only passengers on a sunny weekday afternoon. The captain, wearing a shirt and kerchief identical to Bogart’s, explained how the engine works and showed us photos of the making of the movie.
We took turns holding the tiller — the same one that Bogart, as cranky drunk Charlie Allnut, used to pilot the African Queen — and struck the same pose as did Katharine Hepburn, pouring liquid out of a gin bottle as the African Queen sailed away from the dock.
As we cruised slowly past waterfront homes, the steam engine hissing and clanking, a tattered old Union Jack fluttering and the captain judiciously tooting the steam whistle, I conjured up a picture of Bogart and Hepburn fleeing on the Ulanga River and was glad we were instead in Key Largo trying to outrun nothing more than white clouds drifting in a blue sky.