The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been known for too long as the ‘heart of darkness’, but it rewards intrepid travellers with beautiful countryside and some of the continent’s most exciting trekking.
Here, Harriet Constable explores how and why you should visit this central African country.
Why should I go?
There is something magical about the DRC. The expansive countryside is alive with colourful flowers, flourishing fruits and luscious green plants. Here, towering mountain peaks are garnished with wisps of mist and giant primates roam the rainforests, munching juicy leaves, swinging from vines and rolling playfully in the dirt.
As a visitor to the DRC, time is spent climbing to great heights for epic views, having close encounters with some of the world’s rarest creatures, and wading through thick, wet rainforests in search of adventure.
This country offers the most extraordinary experiences and, by the very essence of its splendour and variety, deserves to be seen, appreciated and protected.
Isn’t it dangerous?
It’s true that the DRC is a deeply troubled country. Beginning with the arrival of Europeans in the late fifteenth century, and the subsequent colonisation in 1885 by Belgium, extensive pillaging of the country’s rich natural resources, slavery and war mar its history.
Although the DRC enjoyed some prosperous years in the 1950s, the country fell apart again after independence in 1960 and continues to face waves of violence and war, kept at bay only in some regions by the huge UN peacekeeper presence.
It’s because of this that the DRC still struggles to break free from its reputation as a country of ‘darkness’. The reality is that the DRC now, as ever, faces the huge challenges of protecting its rich and varied landscape, saving its precious wildlife and creating a more prosperous future for its people in a complicated political and economic climate.
So is it actually safe to visit?
It’s possible to visit parts of the DRC safely. The safest and most touristed areas of the country are Goma, Virunga National Park and Bukavu in in the east, and the capital Kinshasa in the west.
Given that there are still serious security threats in the DRC for tourists, it’s best to visit with a tour company who will know how best to keep you safe.
The eastern region of the DRC where Virunga is located is still troubled by armed rebel groups, so tour operators will arrange armed escorts to accompany travellers at all times.
Where should I go?
There are only a couple of regions of the DRC that travellers can visit at present. One of these is the spectacular Virunga National Park, home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. This is Africa’s oldest national park and is famed for its thick forest, towering mountain peaks and ancient swamps.
On the western side of the DRC is its capital Kinshasa: the world’s second largest French-speaking city. It’s known as the heart of central African music, and the bars in Bandal or Matonge are worth visiting to sample the local nightlife.
After the chaos of Kinshasa, a popular stop off is the crescent shaped Tchegera Island in Lake Kivu – perfect for a couple of days relaxing or kayaking on the lake.
Can I go hiking?
With its expanse of vast mountain ranges and thick rainforest, the DRC offers some top-notch hiking. There are lots of options in Virunga National Park, including various hikes to see the legendary mountain gorillas, but adventurous hikers will also want to tackle Mount Nyiragongo.
This active volcano towers over Goma in eastern DRC, emitting an eerie red glow from its bubbling lava lake as darkness sets each night.
The hike takes around six hours, climbing to 3470m through humid tropical forest, over scraggy lava rocks and past steaming geysers, before being plunged into mist at the top. At the summit, hikers camp in small huts on the crater rim, from where the boiling waves of lava can be heard crashing over each other like water in the ocean.
The evening is spent gaping in awe into the molten, fiery heart of the earth, and watching as the crusted top of the lava lake rhythmically separates, revealing bolts of luminous orange liquid below.
How do I get there and around?
It’s difficult to obtain a visa for the DRC without having a tour booked through a reputable company. If you’re travelling independently, it’s best to book your accommodation, transport and activities in advance and use these details for your visa.
To get to Virunga, you can fly into Kigali in Rwanda and then take a three-hour taxi ride to the Goma border in the DRC where your tour company will meet you.
If you’re heading to Kinshasa, you can fly direct with reputable airlines from Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Brussels and Paris.
Internal flights are not recommended; most of the aviation companies have poor safety ratings.
What about insurance?
Many insurance companies refuse to provide cover for areas under a travel warning, so if you already have a policy, check it’s valid in the DRC before you go.
There are a number of companies offering insurance for the DRC, including AMREF, who provide air ambulance evacuation services across the African continent, and Battlefield, who provide comprehensive travel and medical insurance for the region.
Where can I find out more?
For more information about visiting Virunga National Park, head to visitvirunga.org, and to understand more about the challenges of protecting the DRC’s wildlife watch Virunga Movie. If you’re visiting Kinshasha, kinshasa-congo.com has some useful information on the city.