Going with the flow

Blood River
By Tim Butcher

Desiring Africa is not as niche as many people would have you believe. It is the subject of so many plays, books, films and commercial endeavours. It is one I share with the author of this book about the Congo. Butcher represents himself as the fearless foreign newspaper correspondent, a journalist of the old school: reliant on objectivity, charm and in tireless pursuit of contacts. In many ways, his style is perfect for the journey he took in following Henry Morton Stanley’s route along the Congo River. For the region is itself notoriously old school, governed as it is by nepotism and rhetoric. Butcher may be kinder in approach than his forebear, who thought nothing of shooting his way through a crowd of worried natives, but I suspect little difference between most of his methods and those of Stanley. The explorer must cajole favours from strangers, take advice about the dangers of the road and remain dogged in his determination to reach his goal. Butcher achieves all of these, and it makes for a thrilling read.

That is the crucial character of this book: it is not a revolutionary or even progressive approach to ‘endurance travel’. It is a borrowing of universal principles of what it means to be a traveller. With this as his methodology, Butcher can go on to describe the Congo’s miserable history and its dreadful present-day existence. In that sense, his account certainly forwards the discussion somewhat. On a trip through Africa a few years ago, I skirted around the Congo as I tripped through Uganda and Tanzania, all the time experiencing in my mind the pulsing fear emanating from the Congo’s forests. I’ve read other African travel accounts and devoured Conrad’s Heart of Darkness more than once. The region excites and terrifies me. And now I will certainly add Butcher to that bibliography.

Butcher is very keen to position himself at the end of a long-line of explorers that includes not just Stanley but also Livingstone, the Congo’s Portuguese ‘discoverer’ Diogo Cao and the Belgians. It is a canny technique that makes the reader pay attention and provides a level of historical objectivity, as if history has already decided to situate Butcher among this crew. I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t become the case: his achievement as the first known person to travel overland through Africa’s most dangerous territory since the extreme violence of the 20th century is considerable.

Like many travel writers, Butcher is keen to stress his achievement alongside those of others selected by history. But what most impressed me about this book is the vivid descriptions of a lost civilisation. Without knowing it, Butcher’s account follows just as much on the path of H Rider Haggard et al in his enticing depictions of vine-entwined railway stations, grounded and rusty steam boats and crumbling hotels. The idea that the Congo was as developed enough to welcome tourists and entrepreneurs from around the world in the middle of the 20th century – plus the film crew and A-list stars of The African Queen – is often forgotten, but not as much as the fact that this was all lost. Butcher’s paintings of this strange, retreating form of civilisation are gripping. They are this book’s most understated asset.

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