The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a challenging place in many ways. It is best known internationally for poverty, civil war and Ebola. At the same time, it is also a land of opportunity. The population is rapidly growing (it has passed 80 million), GDP is on the march, there is an increasing internet penetration, and there are — at last — signs of increasing political stability. I don’t want to make it look like the DRC is perfect, but the image it has right now doesn’t do it justice. As an entrepreneur, the DRC is actually kind of a dream, combining a host of unique challenges with a population of innate early adopters looking for solutions.
In this piece I want to share realistic travel advisory for adventurers who would like to visit the DRC, and I thought the best way to do that was by a series of my favourite pictures of the country (also available as a photo series on the Gorilla Highlands Instagram account). If you do decide to visit the DRC, I can at least promise that you will be awarded with a one-of-a-kind destination.
As a traveller you need to mentally prepare for some challenges and particularities that come with a massive country that has gone through too many difficult decades. Try not to take it personally, or judge the Congolese based on corrupt officials you are going to encounter repeatedly. In a state that doesn’t always work, people find ways to make it work for themselves.
This is not the luxury that you might expect; affluent people in the DRC don’t take trains, they fly. But as you move through the lush landscape, reflect on the fact that as much as you benefit from the connection right now and bring in tourism dollars, it was built to loot Congo. 10,000 locals died to construct a line that was to help Belgians colonisers avoid the unnavigable river; no human being has ever travelled by River Congo from the ocean to Kinshasa, it is a death sentence.
Zongo Falls represent a cool day trip for Kinshasa residents, to escape the craziness that we are about to share with you… To get to Zongo Falls you will need to leave the main road and drive to the Seli Safari lodge from which you can marvel at the views. However, for most dramatic viewpoints some hiking may be required; the falls are 65 m/214 ft high.
Kinshasa is a place one would never suggest to a casual tourist but it’s something to experience once in your life because there is no other place like it. If there was a black hole to randomly open anywhere in the world, it would be in the middle of Kinshasa; the city has an energy that is not normal, it’s just different. Nobody who visits it will complain that it hasn’t lived to its high standards of a ridiculously fun yet most messed up place on Earth.
This part of Kinshasa is the “Republic of Gombe” because it feels like its own country within city. The former Belgian colonial centre, Gombe contains Africa’s first skyscraper, and was master-planned to be a cross between Manhattan and the Champs Elysee. Across the water resides the sister city Brazzaville (population 1.8 million), the political and business center of the smaller of the two Congos, the Republic of Congo or “Congo-Brazzaville”. Our focus is entirely on “Congo-Kinshasa”, a country the size of Western Europe (or a quarter of the USA).
Visiting Brazzaville from Kinshasa can be done by ferry and takes about 15 minutes. The ‘formalities’ on both sides are a nightmare so it’s better you go with a fixer. A local tour guide can also help you immensely if you are coming to Kinshasa from Brazzaville (or, for that matter, from anywhere in the world) because s/he can provide you with a visa volante, a visa on arrival. This is a major travel hack because it spares you the torture of applying through a Congolese embassy in the country of your residence.
There is demand for such flats because Kinshasa is ridiculously expensive. You can get anything but since everything is imported from Europe, from shampoo to onions, the prices are out of this world. Plan on USD 20 minimum per person for dinner and push that up to USD 100 pretty quickly. It comes with a very poor bang for your buck.
Any item above USD 5 USD is denominated and charged in dollars, even taxi rides and supermarket shopping. There are money changers everywhere, but keep your eyes open. There should always be some small money in each of your pockets. CDF (Congolese Francs) 2,000, CDF 10,000 CDF, USD 5 USD and USD 50. If you are in a tricky situation — which happens about five times a day — try to give money quickly and move on, it only gets worse.
When the infamous dictator Mobutu Sese Seko plundered DR Congo from 1965 to 1997, calling it Zaïre, being a Sapeur was an act of rebellion. Mobutu wanted to make everything “indigenous”, so dressing in western clothes ran into his face.
As you move around the city, let somebody with local knowledge advise you on where to go and what locations to avoid. Don’t obey the police. They are all corrupt to a tee. Just try to pretend you don’t understand what they say, be friendly and a bit dim.
If there was an international fashion competition among their drivers, the Congolese would win hands down. In Kinshasa wewas are appreciated because they are nimble and because you can easily jump off if that proves necessary (for example: to avoid kidnapping by your driver).
A multi-week adventure on the Congo River is a dream shared by many travellers. I recommend that you do it with a Congolese friend/guide.
We are leaving Congo’s capital with an image meant to symbolise the unrivalled hospitality and generosity of the Congolese. They are amazingly welcoming people and treat the world with extreme warmth, despite the cold shoulder and abuse they’ve gotten from the foreign powers during the colonial period and ever since… In the DRC they truly know how to make a guest feel special!
Whenever you find Kinshasa hostile — swarmed by aggressive beggars, having a possibly unloaded gun pointed at you, stopped by a uniformed thug — remember that the streets don’t represent the real people of the city.
Driving around Congo is like being in the Caribbean some centuries ago; it is covered with land pirates. Many of them happen to be government officials but they are still pirates.
We cannot travel though DRC without a moment for its fascinating masks!
Congo comes the closest to a regular tourism spot in Goma, the city near Virunga National Park. This protected area in the east of the country is run by an international team that takes security very seriously. Bukavu on the other end of Lake Kivu and Lubumbashi on the border of Zambia are normally a safe bet as well. However, keeping an eye on the latest news and seeking local advice is highly recommended even for these locations; we are here to help.
Mbuji-Mayi is a city in the heart of Congo that was literally built on diamonds. International mining interests have been harvesting industrial diamonds for a century (80% of worldwide market) and periodically tear down parts of the city to resurrect the gems underfoot. But material wealth is just a stroke of luck away for locals, whether diamonds are dug from the Earth or panned from the Sankuru River, and many survive on their good fortune. Founded as a company town, Mbuji-Mayi has changed hands through political upheavals and civil wars and keeps producing precious “ice” in a land of thick forest and high humidity.
Copper and cobalt mines are hugely productive and made Kolwezi City a target in the 1987 war with Angola. But today business booms, with a smooth rail connection to Lubumbashi.
Lubumbashi is best accessed by air. Trains, cars and busses often meet with problems on rain-ravaged roads.
Despite the country’s immense distances, the water you see here now might well end up in the Atlantic Ocean one day, pushed through the Congo Basin.
If you wish to meet the endangered Eastern lowland gorilla (also known as Grauer’s gorilla) you will likely sleep here, on one of the colourful peninsulas of Bukavu. Bukavu’s position straight on the Rwandan border assures a visitor that in case something unforeseen happens, one of the most stable countries of Africa is just a step away. Moreover, Bukavu is a welcoming and relaxed city where international visitors are rare and appreciated.
No matter how many people are fed by the fish, the lake’s most precious bounty is definitely methane. Rwanda is extracting it for power generation, which also reduces the risk of its large and potentially explosive quantities becoming a danger to the people around the lake.
With 36 species and 15 genera of primates, the DRC is among the leading countries of the world; together with Brazil, Indonesia and Madagascar it gives shelter to 65% of the planet’s primates. Only 14% of the primate habitat falls within protected areas but there are a growing number of community forest reserves.
Grauer’s gorillas are supposedly bigger than mountain gorillas and their population is about 4x larger (estimated 3,800). Kahuzi Biega National Park is the only place where they are habituated.
The Virunga area is the home of the mountain gorilla, and on the DRC side it is accessed through Goma (right under the airplane in the photo). Goma has a twin city on the Rwandan side, Rubavu or Gisenyi, and is connected to Bukavu with fancy speedboats; the experience resembles a flight.
For a traveller the best way to get access to Goma, Bukavu and their national parks is to book an activity in Virunga National Park. It will come with a two-week visa that includes no additional bother. (The park is currently closed as a Covid-19 protection measure).
Notice the tracking device is visible on the top bull in this Garamba image? The staff from the international conservation organisation called African Parks need to keep a close eye all the time!
Often submerged and docile, hippos are the continent’s deadliest wild animal when antagonised. Give them broad berth on land and let them enjoy their languid lagoons.
We, the Gorilla Highlands Experts, believe that tourism done right should play a similar positive role the DRC, supporting its peace and stability.
Okapis do not exist anywhere else in the world, so the Okapi Conservation Project is playing a crucial role in protecting the planet’s biodiversity. The site, Ituri Forest, is also famous for Mbuti Pygmies, cousins of the Batwa of Uganda and Rwanda.
We have moved west, to the third biggest city of the DRC where the big-cargo stretch of the Congo River starts. Once Stanleyville with the impressive Stanley Falls nearby, the city and the river now boast African names again (Buyoma Falls) and define a very African commercial centre. In 1960 Kisangani is said to have had more Rolls Royces per capita than any city on Earth, and river transport was why.
Flying in a Mil Mi-8 helicopter instead of hitting the river, we have eventually left the east of the nation behind. We are on the way back to Kinshasa and the huge distances that we fly over seem endlessly green. They are home to primates, crocodiles, and other mammals, in addition to thousands of scattered villages.
Bonobos, also known as ‘Pygmy chimps’ have been chosen, together with Grauer’s gorillas, to proudly represent nonhuman primates in this article. Malebo is the only place where you can visit wild but habituated bonobos.
I want to end with this photo from the capital… Its dark nature led us to talk about the astonishing fact that the king of Belgium wrote — in 2020, or at least 60 years too late — a letter to Kinshasa as an expression of regret for what his monarchy did to the country. This was the first time ever that the Belgian royalty acknowledged its globally-condemned legacy
There is an estimated 24 trillion dollars of mineral wealth in the ground in the DRC; that’s more than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. This nation, so abundantly rich in minerals and natural wonders, has been plundered by greedy foreigners and unscrupulous nationals for the former, yet retains the mystery and majesty of the latter. A responsible traveler can still be awed by the enormity of those wonders and assure that they benefit the DRC’s ultimate wealth, its people.
featured photo by Marcus Westberg