It’s a widely accepted fact that there are few places left on the planet that have yet to be penetrated by the great white explorer. Some hidden corners of New Guinea and Ecuador may still throw up hoards of xenophobic, stick-wielding natives, but no longer do our world maps still have uncharted territories marked as “there be dragons”.
So a different angle of thinking is required to find new and exciting ways to continue the great tradition of world exploration in the 21st century, and Tim Butcher, Middle East Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, did just that when he laid down his plans to follow in the footsteps of the great Henry Morton Stanley and his epic journey through The Congo in 1874-7.
For H M Stanley, his well-publicised greeting “Dr Livingston, I presume”, upon tracking down that other great explorer at Ujiji, on the shores of Lake Tanjanyika in 1871, became more famous than his actual expeditions and if anything, only succeeded in making his colleague a household name, with Stanley himself consequently becoming a short side note in that particular story. For the uninformed, Stanley was sent to find David Livingstone and that’s where his story ends.
But Tim Butcher is not the uninformed; not in matters of 18th century exploration at least, and in 2001 he started in earnest to research the possibility of retracing Stanley’s epic route from Lake Tanjanyika, through the Congo rainforest to the head waters of the mighty Congo River and thence to the West coast. A huge accomplishment back then, but no big deal in today’s age of satellite communication and detailed maps of every square inch of the planet, right? Wrong… Whether you know it as The Belgian Congo, Zaire or the D.R.C. it is still pretty much the most violent killing ground you might ever have the misfortune of finding yourself in, and to travel overland through this hell hole, with a backpack, clean clothes, white skin and a wad of cash is to court disaster of the worst kind.
Nevertheless, Butcher would appear to be possessed with a sense of adventure that drowns out his sense of survival, so it’s little surprise that he developed selective hearing when every rational soul that he spoke to of his plans warned him he was on a one way ticket to a very sticky demise; and in 2004, with all the “good advice” ringing in his ears, he boarded a flight to Lubumbashi in the far south of the D.R.C. and walked headlong into the darkest, filthiest, bloodiest, most corrupt, fetid region on earth, with no other aim than to follow the route some other guy took 130 years before, and live to tell the tale.
Blood River is that tale, and it’s a veritable litany of corrupt officials, murderous rebels, near misses, chance-encounters, impenetrable jungle, sickness and abject poverty. But it’s also a testament to the tenacious and undying spirit of man in the face of insurmountable odds: The old men that drag palm oil for hundreds of miles through the forest for a few lousy shillings; the folks that set up home on board the riverboats, waiting sometimes for months for the boat to depart downriver. These are the people that represent the beating heart of The Congo, even if the beating heart is regarded by many to be black as pitch.
The characters that Butcher meets along his journey are portrayed as one with the contrasts of the forest; the Mai Mai dark and menacing; the villagers full of colour and hope; and the Interahamwe uncompromising and omnipresent. And as he tells his account, we find the forest reveals overgrown, decaying remnants of its opulent colonial past, and we get the sense that a fading hope of a return to better days for the Congo becomes a parallel thread to Butcher’s own passage.
The reader is left in no doubt that Butcher is one of a rare breed of modern-day travelers, who take on every obstacle with quiet resolve and stay focused on the challenge in hand. But The Congo is an immense and ominous place, and even when Butcher left the dangers of the civil war in the east of the country far behind, the regular challenges of simply moving through a region with no infrastructure, other than a murky, foreboding river, remained as testing and arduous as anything he’d tackled before.
Whether you’re a seasoned world traveller, or just content to see the world through the eyes of others from the comfort of an armchair, Tim Butcher’s “Blood River” is essential reading. It’s impeccably written with great intelligence, insight and humour and offers a fantastically detailed view of the interior of this darkest and most forbidding of countries.
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Book review by Lee Ridley.