No. 28: “Facing the Congo” by Jeffrey Tayler
Travel Blog • Rolf Potts • 05.04.06 | 12:29 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa
Though “adventure” travel writing has come to the point where it often blurs with extreme sports coverage, Tayler’s chronicle of his 1995 pirogue trip down the Congo River proves that the most engrossing adventure tales don’t involve corporate sponsors and television crews. Frustrated with a dead-end life as a Moscow-based expatriate, the author travels to what was then Zaire to re-create British explorer Henry Stanley’s trip down the legendary Central African river in a dugout canoe. Tayler’s underlying impetus for the journey is to find meaning in his life by testing its limits—which proves to be no problem, as the author continually faces smothering heat, corrupt soldiers, lawlessness, hunger, swarms of insects, and a creeping sense of fear. Though Tayler occasionally illuminates moments of natural beauty, he never glosses over the reality of his journey, which is marked by an uncertain relationship with his guide, Desi, and ongoing suspicion from locals who, perhaps understandably, can’t understand why an outsider would want to submit himself to such a dangerous adventure. Drawn into Tayler’s heart of darkness, the reader feels the dread (and slaps at the mosquitoes) as the harrowing journey plays out.
Outtake from Facing the Congo:
We had bivouacked early in a malodorous and desolate bight of palm and rubber vines. Biting ants, fat and black, infested our camp. Scuttling over our legs, chomping away before we could scrape them off, and we had to seek refuge from them in our tents. . . The banks were uninhabited and the absence of hostile locals set me at ease, but I grew certain that we were somewhere on the river we should not be. Desi insisted he knew the way, but I was beginning to see he did not, this far from his home.
—Rolf Potts writes the Ask Rolf column and is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His last story for World Hum was The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra.