Life in darkest O'Hanlonia

Charles Nicholl has a brain-mangling time in the Congo; Congo Journey by Redmond O'Hanlon, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 18
From the first words of the first sentence we are there. "In her hut in Poto-Poto, the poor quarter of Brazzaville, the feticheuse, smiling at us, knelt on the floor...."

It is strange but somehow familiar. We are a long way from home, in this sweaty part of town with a name like an African drumbeat. There is this potentially malevolent but faintly alluring figure, the feticheuse, and there is "us", for whom or to whom she is about to do something. The night is hot and the possibilities are endless, but may well include hapless ingestions of some brain-mangling local hallucinogen, and an encounter with giant crotch-burrowing parasites hitherto unknown to science. There's no doubt about it - we're back in darkest O'Hanlonia again...

To say that Congo Journey is typical Redmond O'Hanlon is, of course, a thorough recommendation. One could even say, though it is his only his third travel book, that it is "classic" O'Hanlon. His voice - that particular personal presence in the text which is the key to good travel-writing, far more than intrepidity and exotic locations - is unmistakeable. For the fickle reader, however, "classic" might soon start to mean "same old", and one may be expecting something a bit different next time.

Into the Heart of Borneo (1984) found Redmond O'Hanlon paddling up the rivers of Sarawak in the company of poet James Fenton. In In Trouble Again (1988) he hacked through the jungles of southern Venezuela with a night- club owner called Simon. This time the expedition leads into the equatorial swamp-forests of the Congo, a place of pygmies and gorillas, of bad magic on a bad stomach. The role of the travelling companion who on second thoughts maybe wasn't such a good idea is played by a gruffly empirical American psychologist, Professor Lary Shaffer. As before, O'Hanlon uses the small personal tensions of the situation as a comic counterpart to the larger difficulties and dangers of the expedition.

The quasi-scientific (or "crypto-biological") goal of their journey is to get a sighting of the legendary Congo dinosaur (or "sauropod") known as Mokele-mbembe. This creature is supposed to inhabit Lake Tele, in the extreme north of the Congo Republic; a local biologist, Marcellin Agnagna, claims to have seen it.

This also is classic O'Hanlon, who has perfected this guise of the slightly unhinged professor, with his floppy sunhat and his fogged-up spectacles and his capacious Bergen back-pack crammed with well-thumbed tomes like Bannerman's Birds of Tropical West Africa. He has something of the great 19th century explorer-naturalists like Charles Waterton about him, and indeed his first published book, Charles Darwin and Joseph Conrad (1984) was a scholarly study of the interplay of scientific thought and travel literature in the late Victorian era.

He is also a passionate ornithologist, and his journey has a secondary goal, fortunately - to see the rare, pennant-winged nightjar which at the age of eleven he "thought the oddest, the most desirable bird in the air." The book is enriched throughout by his knowledge of African flora and fauna, and by the exotic plumages of the sunbirds, hornbills, fishing eagles, and so forth, which he observes with such relish.

There is also in Redmond O'Hanlon, and this is a clue to the great charm of his writing, an emotional channel between his childhood and his adult journeying. He got his first taste of Africa from the books in his father's "big dark study", and now the real Africa is entwined with the view from that study window - a Wiltshire vicarage garden, "the yew, the bushes where we played jungles, the huge copper beech, the conker tree, and...a stream where I'd catch minnows in Lucozade bottles baited with bread". Later, his memories of childhood woodlands blur deliriously with the Congo jungle as he sweats through a fever that might just be the fatal falciparum malaria.

This is sometimes funny, because it belongs with his comic sense of the explorer as overgrown schoolboy; of the journey as a series of scrapes ("in trouble again"), or indeed as one of those jungle-games once played in a garden, and now effortfully re-enacted in the last few corners of the world where the grown-up 20th century has not yet intruded.

It is funny and also true - true that the explorer is often a case of "arrested development" (see Melanie Klein's study, Love, Guilt and Reparation and biographies of Burton, Speke, Stanley passim); and true that travelling and childhood are strangely close - everything magnified by unfamiliarity, fringed with the unknown, conducted in languages one doesn't understand.

For all the gung-ho, SAS-kitted machismo of his expeditions, he has that tonic touch of humility and self-mockery which is the essence of travelling.

This book has been six years in the writing, and weighs in at nearly 500 pages. It has a broad, Balzacian sweep, an air of magnum opus. This is remarkable in a genre that tends to the two-dimensional. However, it is also true that the experience of a journey is rather two-dimensional, offering as it does some intensely felt but fragmentary glimpses into other people's lives. In this sense, the novelistic dimension of Congo Journey is in danger of overblowing its material, of becoming rhetorical.

And though I am by no means asking the question unbeloved of travel-writers - the one that begins "Did you really....?" - it is hard to accept that some of the longer, more expositional chunks of dialogue are things that people really said.

In the size of the book, also, one loses something of the irony and obliquity which gave Into the Heart of Borneo its charm - the brevity expressive of the traveller's profound puzzlement, his inability to fill in the spaces between what he experiences.

Here, perhaps, the spaces are too well filled in, but O'Hanlon is a very fine writer as well as a courageous traveller (travel writers may be one or the other but not many are both) and what he brings back from this extraordinary trip is richly entertaining and at times alarming in its brushes with the primaeval.

This is a traveller's yarn de luxe, and it would be churlish to complain if it goes on a bit too long.