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.
Published: 2000
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.

For more about Jeffrey Tayler, check out interviews with him by Rolf Potts, Jim Benning and John Coyne.

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.

4 Comments for No. 28: “Facing the Congo” by Jeffrey Tayler

Wendy Knight 05.04.06 | 2:11 PM ET

Facing the Congo is an exceptional book. I read the book after returning from my trip to Southern Sudan in 2003. I promptly wanted to head back— this time to the Congo. Tayler is a eloquent writer who offers remarkable insight into his personal journey and captures the formidable and unending lure that Africa has for those who travel there.

Casey Kittrell 05.04.06 | 3:09 PM ET

Tayler’s book pairs well with Redmond O’Hanlon’s “No Mercy. O’Hanlon covered some of the same territory about five years earlier, but he’s a much different writer on a much different mission. I think both books are excellent. It’s great to see such fine writing about contemporary Africa. We need more of it.

Jerry Haines 05.04.06 | 3:11 PM ET

Tayler does an excellent job of taking the reader along AND communicating the significance of the details he selects.  I haven’t read Facing the Congo, but his Angry Wind and Glory in a Camel’s Eye are among my personal faves, and I don’t have that many.

Mollie Foti 05.05.06 | 12:51 PM ET

Actually, anything by O’Hanlon is worth checking out.  If you want to read a really different (and personal) perspective on Middle-Eastern travel, check out Freya Stark’s writings, from the 1920s or so. (The more things change, the more they stay the same, in many respects.)

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