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The Congo River

By Rhett Butler   Google+      Last updated: July 24, 2013

The Congo River -- formerly the Zaire River -- is Africa's most powerful river and the second most voluminous river in the world with a discharge of 1,500,000 cubic feet of water per second. It is the fifth longest river in the world, draining a basin of nearly 1.5 million square miles.

The river is best known for its role in history. Called the heart of darkness by Joseph Conrad, the river and surrounding rainforest have long been known as the mysterious land of pygmies, mythical beasts, dreadful plagues, and cannibals. It is a land made famous by the rigorous adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, and known as a place of brutality and violence for its past: the days of the Arab slave and ivory trade, its long history of tribal warfare; and its present: the ethnic violence and massacres of today.

The river itself is as turbulent as its history, though it begins peacefully enough in the savannas just south of Lake Tanganyika. Gradually the river widens and picks up speed until it enters the "Gates of Hell," a 75-miles long canyon of impassable rapids. The river emerges again, surrounded by lush tropical rainforest as the Lualaba or Upper Congo. During the course its journey through the foreboding rainforest, the river crosses the equator twice. Because the watershed of the Congo drains from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere it does not have the great seasonal fluctuations in water level as other great rivers. Its flow is relatively stable because part of its watershed is always in the zone of rain. The Upper Congo abruptly ends with Stanley Falls, a 60 mile stretch of rapids.

Stanley Falls gives way to the Middle Congo, a 1000 mile stretch of navigable river, nine miles wide in some parts. Along this quiet stretch of river is the city of Kinsangani, a city known for violence since Belgian colonial days. Near the end of the Middle Congo, the river slows to a virtual stand-still for 20 miles, a section known as Stanley or Malebo Pool. Here the river is 15 miles wide and flanked by the capital cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. The peace of the pool is suddenly shattered by Livingstone Falls, a series of rapids and cataracts 220 miles long. There are some 32 cataracts, having as much power as all the river and falls in the United States combined. The final 100 miles to the Atlantic ocean from the end of the falls is fully navigable.

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For kids

Recommended Reading on the Congo

+ Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo
by Kate Jackson

+ In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz
by Michela Wrong

+ The Last Hero
by Peter Forbath

+ The River Congo
by Peter Forbath

+ Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

+ Facing the Congo
by Jeffrey Tayler

+ The Troubled Heart of Africa
by Robert B. Edgerton

+ The Forest People
by Colin Turnbull

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