Crossing the Congo: Over Land and Water in a Hard Place by Mike Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When someone says that a journey is impossible, most people will leave it at that, but not these three. The crossing of the Congo River Basin, heading from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Juba, in South Sudan had be done before, but not for a very long time and not since the region had descended into war and conflict. On top of that, this 2,500 mile journey was to be driven in a 25 year old Land Rover called 9Bob, which had already been driven around a large portion of West Africa and was really on its last legs.
On this unbelievably tough journey, the route they followed could not be described as tracks, let alone roads. However, this was only one of the challenges that they faced; as well as the sheer hard graft it took to carve a way through the jungle, they had to cope with tropical diseases and fevers, fire ants that numbed their legs after biting, suspicious locals who thought that they were prospecting for minerals. The hardest part for all of them though, was dealing with the endemic corruption and bureaucracy from petty officials and kleptocracy that was rife. The three had to rely on every single ounce of ingenuity and effort to get themselves through the jungle, digging themselves out of mud, building and strengthening bridges and even rafts to get their Land Rover and gear across rivers. Sometimes they were assisted by the locals, who appeared almost magically out of the forest anytime they stopped, but frequently they were just watched as they struggled against the elements.
Even though this was a short journey compared to other travel books, it was unbelievable tough. It strained their relationships to breaking point; occasionally beyond. Some days their distance travelled was just a handful of miles, the relentless dealing with the petty officials and the people and the daily battle to keep the Land Rover going slowing progress to a crawl. It is a well-written book, even though it feels a little clinical at times, they manage to convey the tension of daily life. What makes this book really special though is the stunning images of their journey taken by award winning photographer Charlie Hatch-Barnwell. It also gives us an insight into the harsh lives of the Congolese people, still affected by the ongoing conflicts and the legacy left by their Belgian colonial masters. It is a tough book about an astonishing journey.
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