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Trapped in the 'Heart of Darkness'

What is it about Congo that turns good writers into Great White Explorers?


In late 1874, Henry Morton Stanley—he of the pith helmet and "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"—set off west from Zanzibar with 356 porters, guides and camp followers, determined to fill in many of the lingering gaps in the map of Africa. Exactly 999 days and about 5,000 harrowing miles later, he reached the Atlantic, having lost all but 114 of his retinue.

It was neither an easy nor a peaceful march, and more than once he resorted to shooting his way across the continent. But he made some significant discoveries, including his determination to prove that the Lualaba, a river that David Livingstone had thought was the source of the Nile, was actually the source of Congo.

In 2004, a Daily Telegraph reporter named Tim Butcher decided to follow the portion of Stanley's route that traverses the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation that has been known by many names since Stanley's time: Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo, Zaire and now Congo again. Butcher recounts his travels in Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart (Grove Press), newly published in the U.S. after a best-selling run in the U.K.

Unlike Stanley with his army of porters, Butcher had just a backpack, a few thousand dollars and tentative offers of help from several e-mail correspondents among the U.N. and relief agencies stationed along his route. Butcher's highly improvised journey took 44 days and included motorbikes, a U.N. patrol boat, dugout canoes ("pirogues") and finally a helicopter; as an adventure yarn, it is as gripping at times as Stanley's 1878 account of his own epic trek, Through the Dark Continent.


Pirogues and riverboat on the Congo, late 1990.


But the book raises a question: What is it about Congo that leads many reporters and travel writers to look back to Stanley or reach for their well-worn copies of Heart of Darkness? Sometimes it's mere cliché, sometimes it's used to genuine effect, but ruminations on savagery and madness inspired by the 1902 Joseph Conrad novel always seem to creep into contemporary writing on this tragedy-plagued swatch of Africa.

The difficulties of traveling in Congo seem to bring out the Great White Explorer in everyone.

It's as if Western writers still see the region only through the colonial lens. The trouble with that is that it can mask the very real history stretching centuries before Stanley, and for more than a century since. Do Stanley and his guides cast such a long shadow because of the misery they helped wrought in Congo? Or is the center of Africa still such a blank spot in the mental maps of some writers that we continue to need Henry Stanley as our guide?

I plead guilty to the pattern. As preparation for my own two-month trek up the river in 1990, I reread Heart of Darkness and read three other books, in addition to my Lonely Planet guide: V.S. Naipaul's novel A Bend In the River (set in Kisangani, with an Indian merchant as protagonist); Helen Winternitz's 1987 travel book East Along the Equator (which first mentions Conrad on page 3) and Peter Forbath's The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration and Exploitation of the World's Most Dramatic River.