Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart – Review

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken HeartPoachingFacts rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim Butcher‘s memoir Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart recounts his travels along the 2,500-kilometer Congo River, following in the footsteps of Henry Morton Stanley‘s first trans-African expedition (1874-1877) which was the first successful attempt by Europeans to determine the origin of the Congo River, several of its tributaries, and the geography of Central Africa’s tropical interior.

Stanley’s journey covered more than 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) from East Africa to West Africa and had the funds to hire 230 porters for all the equipment his expedition required, including a specially-made modular boat. His efforts, and the more than one hundred lives lost along the way, are chronicled in his book titled Through the Dark Continent. Stanley’s expedition would set the stage for Belgian colonialism in the heart of the continent and proved that commerce between West Africa and East Africa was possible.

Though Blood River follows the same waypoints that Stanley set, Tim Butcher’s own journey along the Congo River is dramatically different in one major respect: Butcher sets off alone. The details of his journey are paralleled by historical anecdotes and references to Stanley’s own journey down the Congo River, as well as other famous people who visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the river from which the country takes its name. These anecdotes and quotations add insight into what the region once was and how its colonial and post-independence status may differ from what the author experiences on his own journey.

But Blood River is not a grueling recounting of every painful moment nor does it play up adventurous scenes. The author chooses instead to highlight specific challenges faced by himself, the character and stories of people he meets on his journey, and the regions he passes through. His journey is one that illuminates a cross-section of a forsaken people whose plights run the gamut from cruel dictators, substantial and widespread government corruption since the country’s independence, rebel militias exterminating entire villages, and as a result the lack of opportunity to fix even the most critical infrastructure to stem the country’s turmoil.

Further Remarks:

We feel that Blood River can appeal to a wide swath of individuals without deep knowledge of Central Africa to jump into an eye-opening journey while also receiving background history through the narrative in a way that doesn’t detract from the memoir’s readability. A map of the route taken by the author, a few photos, and rustic maps provide additional context and are much appreciated.

Blood River strikes an appropriate balance between describing the harsh trek that the author experienced while also making the memoir informative and lively enough to read for pleasure. His use of eloquent, detailed descriptions and insightful reflections on the people and circumstances of their lives adds substantially to the reader’s ability to understand and relate to the lives of those living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Books by the Author:

Tim Butcher has since written two more adventures following in the footsteps of history. Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit chronicles his 350-mile trek through Liberia and Sierra Leone, based on the travels of writer and MI6 human intelligence asset Graham Greene. Butcher’s most recently published adventure, titled The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, follows the 100-year-old trail of Gavrilo Princip, the young man who assassinated heir-apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand.


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