I’ve just finished reading a fastinating book by Tim Butcher. Subtitled ‘A Journey to the Broken Heart of Africa’ it tells of how he managed to re-create the journey of Henry Morgan Stanley from the Eastern shores of Lake Tanganyka across country to the Congo River and then down the river to the Atlantic Coast.  Stanley (of Dr Livingstone I presume fame) was a journalist with the Telegraph newspaper and could see the commercial potential of this vast un-mapped country with a wealth of natural resources.

The Democratic Repubic of Congo is unique of all countries on earth in that it is evolving backwards. Stanley claimed sovereignty of the country for the King of Belgium, King Leopold (the king only not the Belgian Government) in 1879 and then began one of the worst colonial regimes imaginable. By 1964 when independence came the Congo river was navigable between the two main sets of cataracts, there were railways and roads but they had been built at a price to the local population.  Various regimes have been in power since and a five year war in which millions were killed, finished in 1999.

The Congo has since literally returned to its roots. One leg of the journey, about 1,000 Km is done in a traditional dug out canoe.  At one point, as he is travelling through dense rain forest in which he cannot see the sun for the tree canopy, his foot catches on something in the ground – he scrapes away the earth and it is the remains of a railway line. There is no indication at all around him that a rail track ever went through the area. His journey was truly of epic proportions. He has empathy with the people who helped him and the plight that they find themselves in; one contact asked Butcher to take his 4 year old son along with him, as there was no prospect for him in the Congo.  Mostly this is a highly readable account of a journey which should have been impossible but he managed it.