Best Travel Books' Congo River Book Rumble

I think I might recently have developed something of a Congo fetish. Although, to be brutally honest, I guess I’ve always had a rather (un)healthy interest in the the Congo, which throughout history has been known variously as the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Republic of the Congo (République du Congo), Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zaire before reverting back again to the current ironic name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This interest is, in no small part, a result of the images conjured up in association with the early European explorers Livingstone and Stanley, as well as due to well-known classical books and movies such as Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and C. S. Forester’s The African Queen. The Rumble in the Jungle, that took place in Kinshasa in 1974 between The Greatest Muhammad Ali and Big George Foreman in what has been called “arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century”, is another reason that I can attribute to my ongoing attraction to the Congo.

Above all else, however, my fascination has been fuelled by the mercenaries and associated bloodshed that seems to have continually dogged this country and which seems so ingrained that whenever I hear the name Congo, it is Warren Zeevon’s lyrics from Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner that immediately spring to mind:

Through '66 and 7
They fought the Congo War
With their fingers on their triggers
Knee-deep in gore
The days and nights they battled
The Bantu to their Knees
They killed to earn their living
And to help out the Congolese

Thankfully, there are a number of books about the country with which to continue feeding this somewhat morbid fascination. About a month or so ago I decided I’d read a few travel books about the Congo with a view to deciding which book is the one I’d most recommend. Sort of like a travel literary Rumble in the Jungle, if you like. Or, maybe more accurately, a travel literary Battle Royal.

I refined the rules of the bout to only include non-fiction travel-related books which had been written in the past 25 years and where a substantial part of the story took place on the Congo River. This ruled out great fiction books including The Poisonwood Bible, Heart of Darkness and A Bend in the River. I already had Tim Butcher’s Blood River on my shelves, having read this previously and decided to also through Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey, Jeffrey Tayler’s Facing the Congo and Phil Harwood’s Canoeing the Congo into the ring as well.

Shortly after reading Congo Journey, however, I decided that due to the story taking place almost entirely in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) and mostly away from the Congo River, that it would be disqualified at the weigh in.

To decide an eventual winner, I comprised a number of categories and rated each book out of 5 for each of these categories as outlined below.


In terms of sheer achievement, Canoeing the Congo wins hands down.  Powered under his own steam, Harwood's canoeing journey from the source of the Congo River down to where it empties itself into the Atlantic Ocean is simply remarkable.

Congo Journey is also an amazing journey, where Tayler journeys both up the Congo River to Kisangani by river barge and then attempts to make the 1.800 km return journey back again by pirogue.

Blood River is a journey that follows closely in the footsteps of Stanley, albeit via a range of transport options that most definitely weren’t available in that bygone era. The six-week journey undertaken by Butcher seemed to be much longer and despite spending the least amount of time actually on the Congo River, this was still no mean feat.


Canoeing the Congo  5
Facing the Congo  4
Blood River  4


By some distance, Blood River provides the reader with the most comprehensive background information to the Congo. Filled with historical facts and socio-economic observations, this is a great book to get a thorough understanding of the unfortunate history of the beleaguered country and its people. Canoeing the Congo provides a modicum of history and also does a great job of providing information on the river itself, whilst Facing the Congo provides very little by way of the background historical information on the Congo.


Canoeing the Congo  3
Facing the Congo  2
Blood River  5

If you’re looking for another book heavy on Congo’s history and which gets great reviews, then make sure you check out Congo: The Epic History of a People which was written in 2010 by David van Reybrouck and translated to English in 2014. Jason Stearns' Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa also provides an extremely good account of the blighted history of the country.

Quality of Writing/Prose

Of the three books, Facing the Congo provides the best quality of writing, most especially in terms of what I would call literary content. Canoeing the Congo provides a good “how-to” approach that describes Harwood’s journey whilst Blood River has a more journalistic feel, which is not surprising given the Author’s background. But in terms of quality of prose and writing, Facing the Congo is the best of the three books due to its quality of descriptive writing.


Canoeing the Congo  3
Facing the Congo  5
Blood River  4

Overall Interest

This is more of a catch-all category, which covers how interesting the book is from start to beginning. I found all three books to be of good quality and remained very interested in all three journeys from start to finish and more or less to the same degree.

Canoeing the Congo  3
Facing the Congo  4
Blood River  4

Inspiration to Travel to Congo

Part of reading travel literature is to inspire a desire to travel to the region written about. In this instance, not through any fault of the authors or books in their own right, after reading all three books I have absolutely no desire to visit Congo! Sometimes it really is better to live vicariously through others.

Canoeing the Congo  1
Facing the Congo  1
Blood River  1

Combined Scores

Adding up the scores across the five categories provides the following result:

Canoeing the Congo  15
Facing the Congo  16
Blood River  18

While Muhummed Ali required eight rounds to knockout Foreman, Blood River wins after only five. In my opinion, however, all of the books are worth reading. If you’re looking for a book of human accomplishment, then Canoeing the Congo is the one for you. If you’re looking for something more introspective and people-focussed then Facing the Congo is more likely to appeal. But if you’re looking for something that provides strengths across all areas including some really good historical information, then you shouldn’t go past Blood River.

Credit: Banner photo by Julien Harneis