Thursday, June 23, 2016

The name “Congo” conjures up images of rushing rivers, impenetrable forests, volcanos and fantastic wildlife, especially gorillas. Rightly so. They are all to be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But travel there has for many years been perceived as fairly risky business, especially in the east of the country where fighting has raged for two decades. It is in the east, however, where Africa’s first national park, Virunga, is located, and where some of the most beautiful scenery can be found. (See related story.)

Today, travel to the DRC, other than its eastern areas, is likely similar to that in other African countries. This means that you need to be alert, avoid areas of towns that are little frequented by foreigners, and stay off the streets at night.

Kinshasa is said to be safer than some other major African cities, so no need to take precautions above and beyond those you would take in cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg.

However, the British government warns visitors to stay clear of Eastern Congo, except for major cities, notably Goma and Bukavu, because of the continued presence of armed groups in the region.

The best season to travel is June to December, when temperatures are generally cooler.

And getting around the country is getting better. The Congo River has long had boats for passengers and cargo that move between Kisangani and the area above Livingstone Falls, where the capital Kinshasa is located. However, these are not tourist craft and using them for travel is definitely roughing it.

There are private operators, like Go Congo and Danico, which provide boats with crew and can make sure you arrive at your destination safely.

And for fishing enthusiasts, the Congo is teeming with species, although it is best known for the Goliath Tigerfish, which is large and feared by many of the villagers. “Capitaine,” or Nile perch, is a favorite on Congolese dinner tables.

The road system is very limited and many sections in poor repair, but Chinese firms are carrying out a massive program of building new roads and fixing existing ones.

The Chinese are also refurbishing and building new railway lines. In 2013 they finished a comfortable train that runs from the Atlantic coast to the interior. Many consider it the best railway service in Africa.

Hotels in the major cities are multiplying and improving, with several international brands getting established, especially in the capital Kinshasa, where a Kempinski started the influx of high-end brands. Tourist rooms are available from about $80 for a reasonable hotel up to $300 a night for five-star properties.

There are 20 airlines that now serve Kinshasa, supporting the growing international travel associated with the resurgent economy and giving tourists good options for a visit to the country.

From Kinshasa, it is easier to fly to other parts of Congo since travel overland (or by boat) can be very time-consuming. And, away from Kinshasa expect services to atrophy. You will probably need cash (outside of major hotels) when you travel beyond the capital.

If you do venture to the east, this is the region of the great lakes that run down the rift valley (Albert, Edward, Kiva, Tanganyika — the world’s second largest by volume and depth — and Mweru), Virunga National Park and volcanic Mount Nyiragongo and its lava lake.

But the east is still a relatively dangerous part of the country, with violent outbreaks taking place from time to time. It’s probably a good idea to keep this region for your next visit.

The DRC is not yet a country where you are likely to bump into hordes of tourists at major attractions. This is still an adventure destination for the tourist who wants to see the little-seen, and experience the little-experienced.

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