Register | Log in

Talking to Tim


Interview by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Tim Butcher

Tim Butcher is an English author who lives in Kalk Bay, Cape Town. A former war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, he’s written two books on Africa: Blood River and, more recently, Chasing the Devil. The titles alone should tell you that these books aren’t written about Africa’s touristy bits.















PC: Tim, who were your early influences? TB: My great grand uncle was a fellow by the name of Eric Shipton and it’s no exaggeration to say that he was the Edmund Hillary of his day. He was a Brit living in Kenya and he climbed everything in Africa and then went further up Everest than anyone 
else – until Hillary of course. Shipton was an inspiration to me even though I grew up in the most staid, stolid part of Britain. en, there was this wonderful author who was alive when I was a youngster; he only signed his name BB and wrote about his own childhood in Britain in the 30s and 40s when he walked across England sleeping in the  elds, making his own way. England then was a world apart from the one I knew in the 70s and 80s; you get to know a place in a very pure form when you sleep in the hedgerows, hitch for li s and beg farmers for food. So as a child all I wanted to do was travel with a rucksack on my back.
When I was 17 I did the Eurorail thing where you go around Europe on trains and sleep on  oors.  en, between school and university I went to New Zealand and did nothing but climb mountains, walk and hitchhike for a year. I went from the top of New Zealand all the way to the bottom without spending a cent on public transport.

So I’ve always had a love of travel in its purest form. I wanted a career that would take me to interesting places and journalism was the answer. PC: Tell us about your journalism career.

TB: I joined a national newspaper and worked my way up the ladder. I was keen to go to odd places and as a foreign correspondent you go to odd places at odd times – you advance when everyone else is retreating.
My  first assignment was Saddam’s Gulf War in ’91 when he was destroying the Kurds in the north of his country. To get there I went to Iran, with the same rucksack I’d used on my Eurorail trip, and walked through the mountains of Kurdistan to cross the border. PC: When did your focus begin shifting to Africa? TB: After a decade of running around the Balkan war zones I wanted a new challenge and Africa seemed promising. We had Somalia in ’93, Rwanda in ’94 and then Sierra Leone and Liberia in the late 90s.  These were epic dramas.  The Daily Telegraph sent me to Johannesburg in ’00 and my heart hasn’t really left Africa since.

PC: Do you take photographers with you or do you shoot your own stuff?

TB: Funnily enough, I like photography and get as much from it as I get from writing. A well-framed photograph sings, it  lls in gaps you can’t possibly describe. I’ve worked with photographers at times but sometimes you go to places which are very dangerous and having two bodies in your party doubles your risk. I’ve never been one to distinguish between a photographer and a writer – the two complement each other. Pictures are a great aide de memoir, especially in the digital age.

PC: Why do so many journalists end up writing a book?

TB:  ey say that all journalists have a book inside them but that o en that’s the best place for it to stay! It’s a rare journalist who doesn’t have the desire to write a book. But you have to  nd a subject that really sings to you.

PC: Why did you choose to go to the Congo and write a book about it?

TB:  e desire to go to the Congo wasn’t born as the idea for a book project. I wanted to go there because it was the epicentre of everything I’d been writing about it since ’00. All of Africa’s current problems, if you look through the history, have their roots in the Congo. I was writing about Zimbabwe whose generals were lining their pockets with diamonds from the Congo. I was writing about Rwanda and the genocide whose instigators were still  ghting in the Congo. I was writing about the Lords Resistance Army – they were still lurking across the border in Congo. Jonas Savimbi from Angola had been armed by the Congo for over 30 years. It goes on and on. The worst periods of the colonial era played out in the Congo. It was much crueller than it was in South Africa, much more barbaric than in Rhodesia. It went on for longer, and the numbers that died were higher.

PC: But didn’t you also have a personal connection to the place?

TB: Two connections actually. In the late 50s my mother – 21 at the time – came to Cape Town by ship, and she jolled her way through SA, getting up to all sorts of nonsense, falling in love, getting engaged to a man I didn’t know about. She eventually went through the Congo because it was perfectly safe to do so at that time. When I was considering doing the same journey I realised that it was impossible to do that now – the train lines, ferries and support infrastructure are all either gone or broken.  The other connection is that the whole history of the Congo begins with a guy charting the river.  The man who chartered the river on that epic journey of Victorian exploration was a character called Henry Morton Stanley. We all know him because of that famous sound bite but his Congo expedition was actually the big story. He changed history because he came back with a story about a river which was a thousand miles long.  This was important because if you could navigate inland for a thousand miles then you could access the continent’s interior.

PC: Was Africa’s interior unexplored by westerners at that stage?

TB: It was only the fringes of Africa that had been explored by the white man at that stage. No-one had gone beyond Dakar in Senegal, Freetown in Sierra Leone, the mouth of the Congo River, Cape Town and Mombasa.  They never went inland for various reasons. Primarily because of malaria, and if that disease didn’t get you the locals probably would. economic justi cation to head into the interior – gold and diamonds had yet to be found in meaningful quantities.

PC: So,  nd a cure for malaria and you can get at Africa’s interior?

TB: It’s funny how one can look at these things now with an historical perspective. In 1850 scientists worked out how to manufacture quinine pills and three years later they found the source of the Nile. So you can see the causality – if you can get to the interior and protect yourself from malaria, there’s no stopping you. With Stanley charting the Congo River there was suddenly the possibility of a colony; you could travel up the river for a thousand miles; you could bring European goods in and take African goods out. And that’s what the Belgian king smelt from Brussels.  is is where history changes because the white man suddenly became interested in the Africa’s interior.  This was around 1880 and four years later we had the Conference of Berlin and with it the scramble for Africa began. So for me, Congo lay at the heart of it all – the modern history, the ancient history, colonialism and all the good and bad of Africa. And so I got drawn to doing this. It wasn’t a book, it was never going to be a book, it was a journalistic exercise.

PC: Did you have any backers for your venture?

TB: I rang up the Telegraph as they had sponsored Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870s and said hey I want to go back to the Congo, it’s going to be o -the-charts dangerous but will also be rewarding.  ey came back with a no – their insurers said it was too risky. But by then it had become an obsession so I took six months unpaid leave.

PC: They say the Congo is like no other place in the world.

TB: All the regular assumptions of African travel such as you can always  find a Coke somewhere or someone who will sell you fuel or you will always  find a road, all of those go out of the window when you go to the DRC. You can nibble at the edges, you can go to Goma from Rwanda and you can get a sense of what it might be like. Or you can drive from Zambia to Lubumbashi but once you go north of that you’ve got to leave your 4×4 behind. I did my trip in ’04. About a year ago some Belgians took a car from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa, that’s the main artery in the country – you used to be able to drive it in about 16 hours in a VW Beetle, but it took these guys 42 days!  ere is no road – they had to build their own.  ey wrote a blog about their astonishing journey.

PC: Where did your journey begin?

TB: I started my journey where Stanley started his, on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. Mad Mike Hoare, one of South Africa’s greatest exports to the Congo, did a lot of  ghting in that area. Che Guevara fought in those very same hills, and Laurent Kabila cut his teeth as a rebel leader in that area. In the early 60s nine Irish UN soldiers were killed there in what was known as the Niemba Ambush.  ey were mutilated and eaten by the Baluba tribe. A crazy place. If you turn your back on the great open waters of the beautiful lake and go into the bush you go back in time. You can’t take a 4×4 there, so I used small motorbikes to get around.  This was supposed to be the impossible part of my journey, and I’d been warned that this was also the part where I was most likely to be killed. It was 500 kilometres of overlanding, bushwhacking all the way from the lake to the river, using narrow trails through jungle and savannah, lots of valleys and all along the famous Lukuga River.

In 2010 two hard-arsed American kayakers wanted a challenge so they went to paddle the Lukuga River; they didn’t know Africa so they took along a South African guide, Hendri Coetzee. On 7 December Hendri was taken out of his kayak by a massive croc.  The two Americans went to the river’s edge, dumped their gear and walked out. Hendri’s body was never recovered. When I went six years prior to this it was a toss-up between the crocs and the rebels as to who would get you  first. I was travelling with some of the bravest individuals I have ever met, who were prepared to do the journey with me but according to their rules. You have to listen to what the locals advise. In this case they said we must use the smallest motorbike imaginable, a 100cc Yamaha. We had to take our own water as we couldn’t light  fires at night to boil water because this would attract the rebels’ attention.  The bike was light enough to pick up and carry over a ravine or downed tree. We moved quickly and didn’t dawdle, so as not to attract attention.

PC: So you travelled a little faster than Stanley?

TB: In some ways you could criticise this as a travel experience because I wasn’t spending much time in the places I passed through, but I think this was a very pure form of travel, as it was the only viable way. The Congolese themselves had stopped travelling through this area, as it was just too dangerous. People might think you are a trader, that you have goods with you and you’ll be killed for that reason. Owning a chicken was a death sentence as the rebels would come and kill you for it. So all the normal dynamics of trade and economics were non-existent there.

PC: How did you build up contacts for travelling in such a remote area?

TB: It took me three years of preparation and planning. Three years of being told no, no, no. My initial idea was to kayak the river section but I was told that it was suicidal and impractical. I used to hang out at Sun City where they were holding the Congolese Peace Talks with 30 separate factions. Some of them were war criminals who had been indicted by the ICC. But there I was drinking Castle with them and talking about their golf handicap trying to  and out who was  fighting who. As a war correspondent you learn how to get through the frontlines. You get close to the commanders. Eventually I found somebody who did not say no; he did not say yes either, but he said maybe. He was a Pygmy community leader called Georges Mbuyo. My other big breakthrough was to get two motorbikes from an aid group called CARE. They were interested to see if I could go through an area where technically the war had ended but where no-one had dared venture into the forest.

PC: Stanley’s route took 999 days to complete and you took 44 days. How long had you given yourself?

TB: This wasn’t an exercise aimed at recreating Stanley’s trip. It was to go where he had been and compare what he’d described with today’s realities. I vaguely knew where I wanted to go but I had no idea how long it would take. I was totally cut off; I did have a satellite phone in my bag but if I called for help who was going to come and help me?
I was prepared to take as long as it took but as you’ll read in the book it wasn’t an easy experience, I got hungrier and thirstier than I’d ever been. I got depressed at times when I realised just how screwed up the country was. I arrived at the city of Kisangani, a million people, and I couldn’t  nd a single working river boat.  is was the lowest point of this trip. I waited there for two weeks and eventually a boat arrived, an oil tanker called the Mbenga which had come a thousand miles from Kinshasa. I had to get on board, be it by persuading, coercing or even bribing. But it proved beyond me and seeing that boat leave the river bank was a very low point. I was ready to give up, I was talking to my wife Jane a lot at that time.

On Stanley’s trip, he couldn’t ring his friends or girlfriend, but these days with a satellite phone or mobile phone you can SMS. Which also means that you’re able to import problems from home, problems you’d never have known about if it weren’t for the phone.

PC: Tourists go to the DRC to try and catch the Goliath Tiger  sh or see the mountain gorillas. Do you predict a normalisation of tourist activity in the country?

TB: If I was the emperor of the world for a day I would be putting all my tourism resources into the Congo – it has everything. You can sit on the beaches of the lakes of central Africa and not worry about malaria, you can climb mountains, you can play in the snow, there are snow-capped volcanoes, you can see mountain gorillas, you can see lowland gorillas, there are jungle elephants. You’d be able to do extraordinary things in the Congo if it was a normal country, but that’s a big “if”.  There actually is a Bradt guide to the Congo – they list individual things to do but there’s no mention of travel between them. Crazy for a travel guide.  ere’s one functioning tour operator called Go Congo who do some great things but the biggest thing on their website is the indemnity waiver which says remember that this is di erent to the rest of the world so be prepared. Can I see normality? Yes defnitely – when the Belgians were there they created Africa’s  first wildlife park which is older than Kruger; it’s known as the Prince Albert National park.  The DRC is a belt-and-braces travel experience. You need to belt yourself in and brace yourself. You need to be prepared to roll some dice. Look at Angola today, it’s more open now and you can get up all the way to the Congo River, the river which eats all other rivers and makes the Nile look like a stream.

 This thing belts out ten times the volume of the Nile and if you go to Kinshasa and see the white water to the west of the city where it chokes into the Crystal Mountains, it will blow you away. It is just a hydrographer’s dream, there are amazing unique  sh species. It’s deeper than any other river, but the reality is that you have to be prepared to take some risks and it’s going to cost you a lot of money.

PC: Any tips for people travelling to the Congo?

TB: Different rules apply to Congo travel. Only take what you’re prepared to lose or walk away from.  There are no roads, and the fuel, if there is any, might be dodgy. I travelled lighter than I’d ever travelled. Have a memory stick around your neck with copies of all your important documents such as passport, visa etc. So that if a guy comes at you with a gun you can walk away from everything. Fortunately that did not happen to me. The DRC is annoyingly expensive as you have to have enough money to buy yourself out of trouble. Taking photographs is a massive no-no in the DRC and if you take your camera out then expect a gun in your face. Countless UN personnel have been arrested for taking pictures.

PC: Your second book is called Chasing the Devil? Why that title?

TB: I was more scared covering the conficts in Liberia and Sierra Leone than I have ever been. Some of my friends were killed in Sierra Leone and in Liberia I had a death threat put on me by Charles Taylor. I ran from those places, defeated as a journalist. Yes, sure I did a good job but I didn’t understand the place. So one of the devils is the devil of fear – overcoming my fear of these two places. But what I also want to understand is the context of a community that can throw up a war so violent that Hollywood can deal with it. When Hollywood can deal with an African war as they did in the movie Blood Diamond then you know it is pretty stark. It’s kids having their arms cut o , it’s murder, rape, sex crimes and all of these horri c things. I wanted to have a better understanding of all of this.

When I was 17 and took my rucksack and headed o into Europe it was out of curiosity. In contrast, I yearned to understand the context of these places because the war has been there; the place has been bedevilled for years by so many complex coups and rebellions. I wanted to understand how a place can be so violent and why that violence is so brutal.  Then the keeper of the spiritual knowledge in these two countries is known as the devil and he is a masked human being; masking communities are very common in those areas. So Chasing the Devil works on a number of levels as a title. So I went on a long, sweaty walk in these two countries to try and answer some of those questions that the title was asking.

PC: Tell us more about the walk.

TB: In terms of travel it was a purer experience than the Congo because I could walk it. It was safe to walk the 560 kilometres and it was a journey another author had done before me. I didn’t do it because I hero worship the person who’d done it previously but rather because it would allow me to compare two points in time.  The author, Graham Greene, went there in 1935 and he wrote a very powerful book about his trek. I crossed Sierra Leone by public transport, no big deal there but when you get to the edge of Sierra Leone you’re at the northern wildest part of Liberia. At a place where Charles Taylor and his rebels were  flooding into Sierra Leone for years and the blood diamonds were going out. Wild and very interesting.  Then I started walking and I didn’t stop until I got to the Atlantic Ocean about  five weeks later.  The Congo was psychologically tough but this trip was physically tougher. We walked day afer day with very little food – mainly unsalted rice. My philosophy is that you eat what the locals eat, you don’t bring a lot of fancy stu along. You have to carry everything – just our water weighed eight kilograms. The forest is so dense the air doesn’t move, you don’t see light. By 10h00 all the Liberians are asleep. I used to have this patronising view that people who sleep in the middle of the day are lazy but it actually makes perfect sense in a place like that. If you have been up since 05h00 working in the  fields, you have to stop  five or six hours later when the sun is at its zenith otherwise it’s going to kill you.  The First few days we pushed on through the middle of the day but by day four we changed this routine. We would take a siesta from 10h00 or 11h00, wake up a few hours later,  and eat some sugar and pineapples and push on again. It was a very physically demanding thing; we were going along trails that weren’t drivable, they were foot trails. So the sense of fear wasn’t as great as the Congo.

PC: Was this last trip as rewarding as your Congo adventure?

TB: It was a fantastically rewarding journey – for me travel is at its richest when you’re outside your comfort zone. If your vehicle is falling to pieces how do you deal with that? But what happens when you are in Soyo or Bangwelu and your vehicle breaks down there? Travel is about learning to deal with challenges and being out of your comfort zone.

PC: Surely modern technology aids the modern day adventurer?

TB: Sometimes you have to be realistic about what you can and can’t do; modern technology gives you the illusion of help (at this point Tim receives an SMS from one of his guides in northern Liberia). Now that’s amazing, in the Congo cellphone coverage is restricted to the cities and big towns, that’s it.  This guy is in a village in Lofa County and if he goes to the top of a hill and climbs up a tree he can get signal to send me a message. It’s like the story about the New Zealand mountain guide who was on that Everest expedition about a decade ago where things went wrong, he had to use his sat phone to ring his wife and tell her that this was going to be the last time she would hear his voice. So you might be able to get a call out but if you’re dying, running out of food or oxygen, no-one can save you. Any good journeys will have highs and lows and these journeys had ultra-highs and ultra-lows. In Sierra Leone there were some ultra-lows when we were scared shitless, once when some guys came after us with machetes – we were saved by our motorbike guide.  There were other moments of illness and hunger. But you learn to deal with dirty clothes, hunger and thirst. I mean the locals were worse off than us because they were barefoot or wore  tip- tips.

PC: If someone wants to go to these countries what should they keep in mind?

TB: Do what the locals do, listen to what they say. Learn to trust, look people in the eye. I used to this when I went to war zones.

Are you the guy who will go the extra mile or are you going to stab me in the back for my shoelaces? You have to be willing to do what the locals do. Don’t make demands or have expectations. It is pretty simple: don’t shit in the river, drink from the same rivers as the locals, bear in mind what you leave behind. So it is a very basic and commonsensical travel philosophy. Find a local who is not going to rob you, offer to pay him. If he says “No, I am doing this because you are a stranger and I am welcoming you,” then that is a very good indicator. So you can run little tests – send them to buy you food. Be constantly aware of the quality of the people you are dealing with! Don’t go there thinking you can get by on your own, because you cannot.  That will be a fatal error. I have been blessed and have had some great guides. Be humble and remember that you don’t know anything. Consult locals.

PC: Tell us about your travel gear philosophies?

TB: I travel with just a modest rucksack and a pair of boots.  The only stuff that I take is stuff that I am prepared to leave behind. I only carry one change of clothing.  There is such good gear about these days, stuff which keeps you warm and dries quickly. I just sleep on the  floor under a mosquito net and use my  fleece as a pillow. Simple practical stuff.