November 2013: Looking for the Mountains of Kong

I have long admired the rugged approach to Geography taken by the great 19th century explorers. Not for them the careful study of churches with or without spires; instead, they leaped blithely into the unknown with the hope of mapping the land, meeting hitherto unmet tribes and (in some cases) discovering a shedload of treasure. I have hitherto admired this from a distance – the idea of sleeping rough in the jungle amongst venomous snakes, malaria-ridden mosquitoes and unwholesome miasmas completely fails to fill me with enthusiasm – but Google World has opened up new possibilities in the field of armchair exploration. Equipped with a mug of tea, a touch-screen device and a rainy Saturday afternoon one can step into the unknown and get thoroughly lost in trackless deserts and impenetrable jungle.

You could take the advice of Paul Simon and, starting where the Mississippi Delta shines like a National Guitar, follow the river through the cradle of the Civil War. I, however, prefer to explore Africa, where roads are fewer and the main landmarks are rivers. The three largest rivers in Africa are: the Nile, the Congo and the Niger. This link provides a map with the rivers (and their drainage basins) clearly marked, although you might like to reach for an atlas or, indeed, Google World itself to follow the adventure.

The Nile flows southwards from its delta on the Mediterranean coast through Egypt and Sudan as far as Khartoum where it splits in two. Most of the water comes from the left hand (eastern) fork and following this river takes you along the Blue Nile to Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The source of the Blue Nile was found in 1613 by Pedro Paez but the river itself wasn’t traced by explorers until 1968. The Blue Nile has most of the water but it doesn’t extend for the greatest distance – to fully trace the longest river in the world we have to take the right hand fork: the White Nile. Fairly soon after doing so we find ourselves in the Sudd wetlands – a swamp that defeated the attempts of Greek and Roman explorers to find the source of the Nile (exploration of Africa has been going on for quite a while). It was centuries later that European explorers (in the person of John Hanning Speke in 1858) found the lake out of which the Nile flows: he immediately asserted two things – that he had found the source of the Nile (a fact that was confirmed by Henry Morton Stanley in 1875) and that the Lake should be named after Victoria.

To trace the Congo, one must start in the Atlantic Ocean, in the northwest corner of Angola and follow the river in a great arc, starting heading northeast but curving round to the east and eventually heading south. At its upper end, the Congo is fed by Lake Tanganyika which lies close to Lake Victoria and led to the most famous sentence in African exploration: David Livingstone was looking for the source of the Nile but strayed too far west and, when Henry Morton Stanley went looking for him, was found on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The sentence in question is “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” and was probably not actually said by Stanley at their meeting but has gone down in history nonetheless (it doesn’t pay to believe everything you read, as we shall see later). The Congo continues onwards to its ultimate tributary: the Chambeshi River in Zambia. Meanwhile, Stanley demonstrated that the Congo was a single river by following its course back downstream to the ocean.

The source of the Niger River can be found in Guinea, just 150 miles east of the Atlantic coast. Instead of flowing west to the sea, however, the Niger flows northeastwards through the Sahara desert. When it gets to Timbuktu it takes a right hand turn and heads southeast until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean in a great delta in Nigeria. For a long time the upper part of the river was known to Europeans but its eventual destination remained a mystery. Pliny the elder (a Roman author) believed that it flowed into the Nile. There was even a school of thought that it ran into the desert and dried up without ever reaching the coast: in fact it appears that the upper part of the Niger did once run into a lake at Timbuktu whilst the lower part was a completely different river and so this belief was not so unlikely, particularly after the discovery of the Mountains of Kong (see this map). The Mountains of Kong are the highlight of European exploration of Africa: they are a range that runs for about a thousand miles from west to east between the Niger and the Atlantic Ocean; they appear on British and American maps from 1798 until the 20th Century; and they are completely fictitious. James Rennell was the first cartographer to put them on a map he drew based on an explorer’s diary and from then on anyone mapping West Africa copied the Mountains of Kong from Rennell’s map onto their own (this continued even after their non-existence was demonstrated by explorers such as Louis Gustave Binger). You will, therefore, not find the Mountains of Kong should you explore the course of the Niger on Google World, but you should remember them. The Mountains of Kong are a reminder of how easy it is to be misled by simply believing generally reliable sources: ask yourself when faced by a surprising fact “could this be the Mountains of Kong?” In fact, ask your source the same question – in addition to getting a check on the credibility of the claim you’ll get a surprised look and the opportunity to tell the story.

Finally, it should be noted that the tale of the Mountains of Kong is not, as far as I can tell, the Mountains of Kong: it is attested by Wikipedia (which is more prone than most sources to this error but at least provides citations for its assertions) and confirmed in a book called “On the Map” by Simon Garfield (which is worth reading if you’ve picked up a copy to check on the veracity of this unlikely tale – as, of course, you should).