Ilala Lodge Hotel’s cruise boat, The Ra-Ikane, originates from the rich and fascinating history of David Livingstone’s remarkable and extraordinary travels along the Zambezi River. These travels saw Livingstone trek from the west coast of Africa to the east coast under extremely challenging conditions.
Livingstone’s missionary career began in 1841, when he arrived in Africa from Scotland. Having chosen a career as a missionary doctor, Livingstone was inspired by the work and tenets of acclaimed missionary, Robert Moffat. He was enticed by Moffat’s alluring tales and passionately committed himself to unshackling the continent of Africa through ‘Commerce, Civilisation and Christianity’. During his time at the Kuruman missionary, Livingstone met a young African boy named Lazarus Ra-Ikane, who became one of his guides and a significant aid to Livingstone in his monumental discovery of Victoria Falls.
Livingstone’s missionary career proved frustrating and disappointing, as the stations he worked diligently to establish were not successful and suffered a poor rate of conversion, with only one Christian convert in seven years. He turned his sights instead to exploration, and was committed to explore the Zambezi River from coast to coast, set up trade and commerce stations and harness ‘God’s Highway’ to the interior of central Africa.
In 1855, with over a hundred men, including Ra-Ikane, Livingstone followed the Zambezi River downstream and headed east. They discovered the Mosi-oa-tunya or ‘the smoke that thunders’, an immense cataclysmic crevice into which the Zambezi River falls and then zigzags through a series of steep-sided gorges. Highly impressed by the falls, he named them after Queen Victoria, and later wrote: ‘…but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.
This welcoming area in the middle of the African continent became the dream location for Livingstone’s trade and missionary centre. All that was left was to ensure the Zambezi was sufficiently navigable to encourage trade and commerce. Since the Zambezi once again altered course in a large loop, Livingstone was advised to take a shorter and more direct route. As a result, he missed out on the discovery of the unnavigable Kebrabasa Rapids. This natural impediment was, in the future, to destroy his dream of ‘God’s Highway’.
The journey to Tete, 200 miles upstream, was overwhelming. Livingstone was not prepared for the fluctuating channels of the river and the treacherous shallow areas. Much time was spent running aground and dragging the vessel over sand banks, while subjected to oppressive heat and disease. These conditions presented insurmountable challenges, and the Ma-Robert was not equipped for the job. The Ma-Robert has been described as “‘a wretched sham vessel’ with an engine ‘evidently made to grind coffee in a shop window’”. Livingstone persevered but upon reaching the Kebrabasa Rapids, he realised that his dream of navigating ‘God’s Highway’ was over. ‘Things look dark for our enterprise. This Kebrabasa is never what I expected’. After months of attempting to overcome and blast the rapids, the Ma-Robert, by then a ‘leaking rusty sieve’, sank in 1860.
Livingstone was then forced to set his sights on another expedition altogether, in order to diminish the failures of this expedition. His subsequent journeys led him to discover Lake Nyassa (today Lake Malawi). It was during his quest for the source of the Nile that he became seriously ill and he was presumed dead by friends and colleagues overseas. Eventually, a search party was commissioned to find him. Henry Morton Stanley landed in Zanzibar in 1871 and proceeded west to Ujiji. Here he delivered his famous line, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ as Livingstone eyed the first white man he had seen in five or six years. They became close friends, and remained so until Livingstone’s death in 1873.
Livingstone’s illness did not subside, and he had to be carried most of the journey as he and his party continued to search for the source of the Nile. On 1 May 1873, he died before his quest was complete, in the darkest heart of Africa, accompanied by his faithful African followers. The devoted party trekked for five months in untenable conditions in order to return his preserved body to England.
Livingstone’s body is now buried in Westminster Abbey.
The ensuing fame and notoriety he achieved after the discovery of Victoria Falls enabled him to raise funds in order to continue to follow his dream. He and his party assembled a small steamer craft and christened it the Ma-Robert, meaning mother of Robert, after the name given to his wife, Mary Livingstone, by the Makololo tribe. The boat took off from Quelimane, in present-day Mozambique, at the mouth of the Zambezi on the eastern coast of Africa in 1858.