Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The Best Books: Canoeing the Congo

I've finally finished another book - it takes me ages these days. I used to go through books by the shelf load but real life is busy and by the time children and full time job and other commitments come along ... reading time is sparse and frequently cut short by sleep! 


I came across this book by accident, I'm pretty sure it was a suggestion from Amazon when purchasing a couple of 'adventure books' from my long, very long wish list. But I committed that cardinal sin - judging a book by it's cover - and decided that this was a book I needed to read. 

It ticked several boxes for me straight off the bat: 1) I bought a canoe, sorry - kayak, earlier this year as a new tool in the adventure tool kit and 2) I've always loved the idea of source to sea river journeys whether by land following the river or on the river, and 3) Africa calls my name - I need to visit one day. 

I completed my first source to sea trip last year, almost exactly a year ago in fact, and it was a journey I had been thinking about since I was a little boy! It only took me 20 odd years to realise the plan. It was much smaller than the Congo and didn't go exactly to plan anyway, but was a great journey and learning experience none the less. My source to sea journey was following the Ystwyth river in mid Wales - you can read about it here. It will not be the last source-to-sea journey I do, that is for sure. 

But the book! Well it does what it says on the tin... or cover. It recounts the journey of Phil Harwood down the full length of the river Congo by canoe - the bits he could traverse without being obliterated by raging, white water anyway. Geography has always fascinated me and the Congo is a river I had certainly heard of, but could not have told you anything about the river, with the possible exception of fact that it flowed through the country of the same name.  I now know a lot more, but this book is a lot more than a geography lesson.

This certainly isn't one of those natural history books which waxes lyrical and poetic about the 'personal journey' or anything like that. It is more a diary of what by any standards is a blooming exciting and even terrifying journey. Crocodiles, Hippos, occasionally angry and threatening locals, biblical rapids, literally uncharted territory AND setting off to do it on his lonesome. Phil may not be the most gifted or flowery author but he is clearly a pretty brave chap. 

Of course the trip is not all danger and isolation. It also illustrates the diversity of the world we inhabit and that there are good people everywhere. And it is a cultural and sociological insight into just how easy I and others like me have had it; a relatively wealthy up-bringing in a peaceful, European nation. I like to think that I am a little more aware than some of the scale of the privileges I have been blessed with. I lived in South America and the Caribbean for a few years and while there was witness to unquestionable and genuine poverty, but one thing which wasn't present even in those poor nations was the aftermath of decades of war and civil unrest which are still making their presence felt even years later. 

Has it lessened my desire to visit Africa? No. Has it opened my eyes to what the realities of travelling in that continent may hold? Yes, I would say it has. Will I be disappearing off to canoe the Congo myself anytime soon? No, for starters my wife wouldn't let me! 

Which brings me on to the final point which this book highlighted for me - that long, solo canoe journeys and water travel in general are not to be taken lightly. I better get training then!

To anyone for whom adventure, travel, far flung places, the splendour of the natural world or the diversity of human culture and experience holds any interest, this book is worth the time to read, even if like me your reading time is short and precious!


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