“Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart,” by Tim Butcher
Reviewed by Richard West
Recently, I gazed at a map of the world and fondly remembered countries visited: sites seen, people met, divine meals devoured, memorable mementoes purchased, and also the unpleasantness of trips, luggage lost, vigorous bigotries, Delhi-belly-esque illnesses. Then a question arose: where among all these nations of the world would I never, ever go under any circumstance?
That’s easy. The Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.). Let me count the reasons:
…Disease, malnutrition, and an ongoing civil war that has killed an estimated four million since 1998, by far the deadliest conflict since World War II.
…A petri dish of the world’s most virulent, incurable viruses, including the horrific Marburg and Ebola, along with rampant typhoid fever, malaria, hepatitis A, and a long paragraph of other killers above which the “CIA World Fact Book” warns, “Degree of Risk: Very High.”
…Cannibalism. In 1961, 13 U.N. Italian airmen were killed and eaten near Kindu on the Upper Congo River.Rumors persist of more recent human feasts. Perhaps, Mr. Kurtz, he ain’t dead.
…Corruption, casual violence, and theft that makes Zimbabwe seem like Iceland by comparison.
…Jungles prowled by deadly beasts, carpets of ants that eat anything but fire, rivers open-jawed with crocodiles, menus serving “le cousin” which turns out to be monkey.
All of which, for me, makes the D.R.C. the quintessential armchair travel destination. Better you than me, Tim Butcher (above), the latest intrepid Englishman to explore this terra nullius in the footsteps of David Livingstone,Henry Stanley, and Joseph Conrad.
Cue Noel Coward’s appropriate ditty:
“The Japanese don’t care to
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to…
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.”
Working as the “London Daily Telegraph” correspondent in the D.R.C., Butcher became obsessed with recreating Stanley’s epic 4,500 kilometer expedition from 1874-77 that mapped the Congo River from Lake Tanganyika on the eastern border to the river’s mouth at Boma near the Atlantic Ocean. After four years spent researching this quest, Butcher stashed $2,000 and flew to Kalemie, a port on the western edge of Lake Tanganyika.
“The only protection I carried was a penknife and a packet of baby-wipes,” he wrote.
First Butcher had to cover 700 kilometers through roadless jungle before beginning river travel. In hot, brain-baking days, hoping to avoid crazed rebel groups like the Mai-mai, who believed dousing with special water rendered bullets harmless, Butcher bounced on the back of a motorbike driven by an intrepid Care International worker and worked his way toward the Upper Congo River.
What he found was a Frankenstymied country, landscape Henry Stanley would instantly recognize. He passed Congolese walking for weeks in rags with backbreaking loads of life’s basics – cassava root, ancient bicycle parts, or firewood, hoping to sell somewhere; encampments burned by raiding terrorists; primordial villages without a single pane of glass, metal hinge, or cement plinth; not only not one ubiquitous Coca-Cola but not a single electric light glimpsed until reaching Kasongo 500 kilometers later.
More Congo decay: at Kibombo, once a large town, now lit only by palm oil lamps with a station master still on the job even though only one train had come through the last six years; in Kisangani, home to one million people, one functioning restaurant in the city center.
It took Butcher three weeks to cover 1,200 kilometers, yet he wasn’t halfway to Boma, his endpoint near the mouth of the river. With ferry service only a memory and time running out, Butcher accepted a ride with a U.N. patrol boat from Kisangani 1,000 kilometers to Mbandaka. Then, sick and no prospect of a boat ride, Butcher hopped a helicopter ride for three hours down river to Kinshasha, another 700 kilometers. The only functioning highway in the country runs 350 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasha, to his final destination, Boma, a trip that took Butcher two days, 342 fewer than it did Stanley.
“My Congo journey deserved its own category: ordeal travel,” wrote Butcher.
No kidding. That said, he kept his sang froid during his four-month journey, his only moment of real danger coming after stepping too close to a marauding path of army ants. He was lucky. This past December Ugandan rebels killed, mostly by beheading, at least 620 people in eastern Congo villages close to his route taken a few years before. All of it brings to my mind a quote from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “Hell is empty, all the devils are here.”
For readers wanting more riverine Congo armchair adventures, I recommend Jeffrey Tayler’s Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness and for interior Congo exploration, the incomparable Redmond O’Hanlon’s No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo.”
Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart by Tim Butcher, Grove Press.