The Congo River

In his book by that name, James Conrad called the land the “heart of darkness” Others like Henry Stanley have echoed that sentiment. The Congo River (also called the Zaire)is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile. Through its almost 3000 mile length, the river seems to take on the various personalities of the country for which it is named. The Congo is punctuated three times by long sets of violent rapids, cataracts and falls. It is one of the few rivers to flow three different direction, first north, then west and finally south to the Atlantic Ocean. Located in the middle of the African Continent, it forms almost a circular loop, crossing the equator two times. Although it passes through five different countries, the majority of its length is in Congo.

According to, the river starts in the quiet savannahs near Lake Tanganyika in northwest Zambia. There it is known as the Chambeshi River. It flows placidly northward until it reaches the “Gates or Cauldron of Hell”, a 75 mile canyon full of impassible rapids.

As if it needs a rest, it enters the lush, tropical rainforest. At this point it is known as the Upper Congo or Lualaba. As stated by, this area was originally known as the “Dark Continent” a name coined by Victorian explorer Henry Stanley. To early explorers the forest seemed like a dense jungle full of cannibals and terrifying beasts. It is home to many species of exotic plants and animals including the endangered mountain gorilla. It is populated by indigenous pygmies who are presently assisting in mapping the forest and working toward saving it.

Many facts about the river can be found in including information about Stanley Falls, a 60-mile length of more turbulent rapids. The Falls end the Upper Congo and lead to the Middle Congo. This part of the river is navigable for 1000 miles and reaches up to 10 miles wide. This stretch of the river is the most heavily populated including Kinsangani and the capitol cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Near the end of the Middle Congo, the river flows so slowly it almost seems to stop for almost 20 miles and widens to 15 miles. This area is called the Stanley or Malebo Pool.

Once again, however, the river turns violent. Livingstone Falls. named after the Scottish explorer and missionary, is really 200 miles of rapids and 32 cataracts. The rush of water is said by rainforest. to have as much force and power as all the rivers and falls in the United States.

The last 100 miles to Atlantic Ocean is navigable. Http://, tells readers that this part of the river has a tremendous volume and flow. It dumps over 1.5 million cubic feet of water a second into the Atlantic, making it the most substantial and powerful river in the world after the Amazon in South America. Thinkquest also notes over 4000 islands occupy the river some of which are up to ten miles long. Together with the rapids and cataracts over 300 miles of the river will never be navigable.

Ranking as one of the top ten longest rivers in the world, the importance of the Congo River to Africa and the world cannot be overestimated. The rainforest through which is passes accounts for a tenth of the world’s rainforests and absorbs 20% of the earth’s carbon dioxide. Thinkquest reports with its many tributaries it the best resource for transportation in Central Africa providing over 9000 miles of navigable water. Website says it is the deepest river in the world, measuring more than 750 feet deep in places, making one of the primary resources for fishing on the continent.

The origin of the Congo was first discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, but they navigated only the first 120 miles up to the Cauldron of Hell. After his quest to find Dr Livingstone, Henry Stanley used the river to cut across from east Africa to continue his own exploration. According the, Stanley was the first white person to navigate this area of the river. There are falls as well as a lake or pool which bear his name. Stanley described his 1878 journey on the Congo in “Through the Dark Continent.

Unfortunately the land of the Congo, shrouded in history with stories of violence and terror, has not changed much in modern times. News stories continue to recount the ongoing rape of the rainforest, the illegal slaughter of animals for ivory and horns, tribal clashes, political instability and ethnic “cleansing”. While there are a few efforts to harness the river’s power for electricity and companies are working toward reducing logging in the forest as well as other environmental efforts, the country and its famous river continue to struggle like the rapids and cataracts that interrupt its navigation. What a sad waste of the potential power and beauty of this amazing river and the land through which it flows.