Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart


A compulsively readable account of a journey to the Congo — a country virtually inaccessible to the outside world — vividly told by a daring and adventurous journalist.

Ever since Stanley first charted its mighty river in the 1870s, the Congo has epitomized the dark and turbulent history of a failed continent. However, its troubles only served to increase the interest of Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher, who was sent to cover Africa in 2000. Before long he became ...

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A compulsively readable account of a journey to the Congo — a country virtually inaccessible to the outside world — vividly told by a daring and adventurous journalist.

Ever since Stanley first charted its mighty river in the 1870s, the Congo has epitomized the dark and turbulent history of a failed continent. However, its troubles only served to increase the interest of Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher, who was sent to cover Africa in 2000. Before long he became obsessed with the idea of recreating Stanley’s original expedition — but travelling alone.

Despite warnings Butcher spent years poring over colonial-era maps and wooing rebel leaders before making his will and venturing to the Congo’s eastern border. He passed through once thriving cities of this country and saw the marks left behind by years of abuse and misrule. Almost, 2,500 harrowing miles later, he reached the Atlantic Ocean, a thinner and a wiser man.

Butcher’s journey was a remarkable feat. But the story of the Congo, vividly told in Blood River, is more remarkable still.

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Editorial Reviews

Kira Salak
Butcher constantly juxtaposes present and past realities, giving his narrative the surreal feel of time travel. His journey is complemented by quotations from Stanley's travel narrative, Through the Dark Continent, published in 1878, and by numerous interviews he conducted with local people, including Congolese mayors and Greek expats. Butcher's breadth of knowledge is both impressive and eclectic.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

"For me terror manifests itself through clear physical symptoms, an ache that grows behind my knees and a choking dryness in my throat," writes British journalist Butcher in the preface of this devastating yet strangely exhilarating account of his six-week ordeal retracing the steps of 19th-century explorer H.M. Stanley's Victorian-era travels through the present-day hell that is the Republic of Congo. Setting out into the war-torn, disease-infested backcountry of Congo in 2000 against the wishes of just about everyone in his life-family, friends, editors and a wild assortment of government officials (the corrupt and the more corrupt)-Butcher quickly finds more horror than he'd previously experienced in his 10 years as a war correspondent ("With my own eyes I had peered into a hidden African world where human bones too numerous to bury were left lying on the ground"). His tale is chock-a-block with gruesome details about the brutal Belgian rule of the late 19th century as well as the casual disregard for life on the contemporary scene. Part travelogue, part straight-forward reportage, Butcher's story is a full-throated lament for large-scale human potential wasted with no reasonable end in sight. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Part adventure travelog and part historical narrative, this book chronicles Daily Telegraph correspondent Butcher's intrepid journey across the heart of the Congo. As the Telegraph's African bureau chief, Butcher sought to appease his growing obsession with this troubled African nation by retracing H.M. Stanley's famous 1874 mapping expedition of the Congo River. Thus ensued an amazing 44-day adventure through some of the Congo's most dangerous regions, many untraveled in decades. Thankfully, the text offers more than just a solitary explorer's romp and reflection through Africa. Although at times caught up in his personal struggles with loneliness, disease, and fatigue, Butcher does manage to accomplish a greater good. He shares the stories of ordinary people, aid workers, and missionaries all desperately trying to subsist in a country lacking the fundamentals of law and order. It is in these moments that his book shines. What Butcher's tale lacks in political analysis is redeemed by the honesty of his writing and his genuine attempt to bring international interest to the Congo and the struggles of its citizens. Recommended for large public libraries and academic libraries with African studies, geography, or travel collections.
—Veronica Arellano

Kirkus Reviews
A somber, eye-opening journey into the definitive heart of darkness. Joseph Conrad is the tutelary spirit of this work by Daily Telegraph correspondent Butcher, who for years "had stared at maps dominated by the Congo River, a silver-bladed sickle, its handle anchored on the coasts, its tip buried deep in the equatorial forest" and, emphatically without the approval of his newspaper employer, decided to travel the 3,000-odd-mile length of the river. Conrad may be the spirit, but the book's more literal guide is the 19th-century adventurer Henry Stanley, as miscreant an imperialist as ever there was. Half a century ago, Butcher's mother made the voyage down the Congo, but that was before the country had disintegrated into postcolonial civil war and what Butcher, quoting her, refers to as "a great deal of ‘beastliness.' " An ardent student of history and culture, Butcher could find no single expert, before undertaking his voyage, who could make sense of the entire country. After his trip, so eloquently described here, he may be the only Western journalist with such a handle on that vast region. His book is of tremendous use to geographers, development specialists and humanitarian aid workers, as well as armchair travelers. One thing he turns up almost immediately is the impossibility of domestic harmony in a land where local government is impossible. As one of his interlocutors, a town mayor, says, "I can pay no civil servants because I have no money and there is no bank or post office where money could be received, and we have no civil servants because all the schools and hospitals and everything do not work." Nonetheless, Butcher finds a few rays of hope even in a place where, by hisreckoning, about 1,200 lives a day are lost in a civil war that the international community seems to consider "a lost cause without hope of ever being put right."A brilliant account of a broken land, one that certainly deserves the attention this excellent book brings. Agent: Camilla Hornby/Curtis Brown
From the Publisher
“A remarkable, fascinating book by a courageous and perceptive writer. One of the most exciting books to emerge from Africa in recent years.”–Alexander McCall Smith

Blood River represents a remarkable marriage of travelogue and history, which deserves to make Tim Butcher a star for his prose, as well as his courage.”–Max Hastings

“Tim Butcher deserves a medal for this crazy feat. I marvel at his courage and his empathy.”–Thomas Pakenham

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802118776
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim Butcher has worked for the Daily Telegraph since 1990 as foreign affairs leader writer, defense correspondent and Africa Bureau Chief. He is currently living in Jerusalem where he is The Telegraph’s Middle East correspondent.

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Table of Contents

Preface     xi
Africa's Broken Heart     1
The Final Frontier     29
Cobalt Town     51
The Pearl of Tanganyika     75
Walked to Death     117
The Jungle Books     153
Up a River Without a Paddle     177
Pirogue Progress     211
The Equator Express     231
Bend in the River     253
River Passage     291
Road Rage     317
Epilogue     343
Bibliography     347
Acknowledgements     349
Index     351
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Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think of Tim Butcher’s decision to go on this journey in the Congo? Was it brave or foolhardy? Intrepid or insane? Would you ever consider such a journey yourself? If so, why?

2. Do you think Tim is correct, that you can only understand a country by visiting it in person? If so, is it possible to gain a comprehensive understanding of a country by just travelling through, or do you think it’s necessary to live somewhere to get to know it properly?

3. Do you think it gives a fair picture of life in the Congo? Would a Congolese voice tell things differently?

4. What did you know about the Congo before reading Blood River? Did reading it change your perception of the country? If so, how?

5. Which episode in the book sticks most clearly in your head?

6. In what ways does Tim Butcher explore the relationship between Europe and Africa in Blood River?

7. How does his final route compare to that of H.M Stanley’s expedition?

8. Do you think that Tim Butcher’s portrayal of the Congo and its future is for the most part positive, or pessimistic? What are your own feelings and what, if anything, do you think should be done?

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    outstanding treatment of a little known topic

    Butcher's treatment of the current status of the Congo is exceptional. He blends history with first hand accounts of his experiences navigating the Congo River to provide a balanced picture of the region. This book was difficult to put down, and will be difficult to forget. For anyone who wants to understand modern Africa, this is a must read.

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  • Posted November 8, 2008

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    This book was a little slow in starting or it would have won all the awards for which it was nominated. Stick with it. It is worth it. The author accomplished what was believed to be impossible. He retraced the 1874-1877 route of Henry Stanley through the Congo. He introduces the concept of de-evolution ¿ a country that in 40 years since independence has lost all trace of civilization except in the two largest cities. The jungle has reclaimed roads, railways, public works, hospitals, schools, and buildings. Villages are so isolated that only the old have seen cars and motorcycles. In a country rich with natural resources, the people live as their ancestors did before harsh Belgium colonial rule established an agricultural, industrial and transportation complex with one primary difference ¿ there is no local rule, no stability and no rule by law. Butcher ponders the causes ¿ Arab slavers, harsh Belgium colonial rule, European imperialism, Western backed megalomaniacs, and a people that have lost all sense of sovereignty and freedom. It isn¿t a pleasant picture and he doesn¿t hold out much hope for rapid change. It is a shocking picture of reality.

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    Posted November 15, 2009

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