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.

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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.

This image was lost some time after publication.

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.

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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.

If I look at my bookshelves today, I see the Stanley/Conrad hook on numerous title pages: John Bierman's Dark Safari (a biography of Stanley), Paul Hyland's The Black Heart (travel), Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate All the Brutes (post-colonial studies) and Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (an outstanding look at the last days of the country's dictator of more than 30 years, Mobutu Sese Seko).

For Butcher, following Stanley's path provides a framing device and historical context. But I wonder also if publishers feel Western readers need a familiar touchstone before picking up a book about a place so removed from our daily consciousness.

Butcher is a solid reporter, and he offers an indelible, ground-level report of what ordinary citizens were facing on the ground in 2004, particularly in the eastern half of the sprawling country. Congo was still lurching through the aftermath of one of the most horrific wars in modern history, and armed militias roamed everywhere, terrorizing anyone and everyone. The country's infrastructure was nonexistent: roads consumed by forest, rail lines rusting away and the river ferries—once the country's lifeline—gone. Among the nations we dump under the euphemism "developing world," Butcher marvels that Congo is rapidly undeveloping.

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"Ordeal travel" is what Butcher calls it, and personal danger is omnipresent. But the drama turns truly affecting only when the writer tells the stories of the ordinary Congolese trapped in endless cycles of violence. Armed bands come and go, and the people survive by fleeing into the bush, losing all of their meager possessions again and again, subsisting (barely) on starchy cassava, occasional bush meat and little else. Truly cut off from the outside world, they have no idea who is fighting whom, or why.

Eerily depopulated villages have appeared before in Congo's history, in the years that Belgium's King Leopold II ruled Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom. He used forced labor to wrest resources (first ivory, later wild rubber) from the land, and millions died from starvation, disease and outright killing. Those who survived learned to disappear into the bush at the first sign of outsiders. Conrad witnessed it himself as a riverboat captain in 1890, putting into river stations cut from the forest under Stanley's command.

Stanley turned to colonizer after his first exploration of the Congo, helping Leopold establish his claim on the land and establishing the first railway lines and steamer stations. "Dark continent" is a phrase Stanley is credited with coining, but the real darkness was of Leopold's making. His regime was brutal even by the colonial standards of the time, enough to inspire an international humanitarian campaign, and he was forced to turn over his control of Congo in 1908 (to Belgium's parliament).

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Congo's tragic history continued after independence in 1960, with the imprisonment and murder (with Belgian and U.S. complicity) of its first elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, and several years of violence across the country. The U.S.-installed Mobutu, who in more than 30 years of a model kleptocracy, squandered the only Belgian inheritance of real value: an infrastructure of industry, roads, railways and working ferries that slowly crumbled because of corruption, neglect and, finally, war.

About that war: After Mobutu was driven from power by Laurent Kabila, conflict stretched from 1998 until 2003 and continues to flare up today, particularly in the east. Eight African nations were involved in a struggle for power and the country's rich resources; it has been estimated that more than 5 million died, not only from violence but also disease and starvation. That would make it the world's deadliest war since World War II.

How much have you read about that war in your daily paper, or seen on the news? And did you know that China is now investing billions in Congo in a play for its uranium, cobalt and possibly oil? For much of the world, Congo retains its deep mystery, and so intrepid writers and reporters like Butcher, like explorers from another time, venture in and emerge with hard-won news.

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Rick VanderKnyff is a writer and editor who lives outside Seattle. He has studied colonial-era imagery of the Congo region and wrote about stereographs recently for African Arts.