The Congo is best known for the corruption and civil wars that have plagued the country since independence was granted in 1960. The long years of conflict have taken their toll on both the economic and natural state of the country, but there are still many sites of immense beauty across the Congo that are rarely seen on our televisions. Situated along Africa's west coast and bordered by Angola, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, and Gabon, the Congo is a fusion of grassland, inland highlands and equatorial rainforest which account for its fascinating selection of wild animals and colourful birdlife.
'The Congo' is the name given to two smaller countries: the Republic of Congo (ROC) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). It is the DR Congo that has seen the worst of the Congo's conflict. Since the end of the country's five year civil war in 2003 a fragile peace has reigned, but there are still large areas of the DR Congo over which the Kinshasa government has little control, and in those areas tensions have remained particularly high and sporadic violence is commonplace. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Department urges UK nationals to seek the latest advice when planning a visit to any part of the Congo and visitors are advised to be particularly careful when travelling around the DR Congo.
The Congo has a tropical climate, remaining consistently hot and humid all year round, particularly in its equatorial regions. Annual temperatures average between 21C and 27C. The rainy season lasts from October to May with the Congo's northern rainforests having an annual rainfall of 1100 mm.
Things to do and see
Whilst tourism has not thrived easily in either of the Congolese countries the Republic of Congo is more accommodating to visitors than the DR Congo and it is relatively easy to access any of the major towns situated in the R.O.C.
Once the seat of French colonial rule and today the capital city of the R.O.C, Brazzaville is one of the Congo's safer cities. Situated on the bank of the Congo River, it was once a major trading point before the civil war broke out. Today, natives are still trying to recover from the damage of the war, but the city's PotoPoto district has a thriving nightlife and it is safe enough for visitors to wander about the candlelit night market and experience the Congolese music playing in the roadside bars and nightclubs. During the day-time the national museum is well worth a visit as is the Basilica of St Anne, the municipal gardens and the house constructed for de Gaulle when the city served as the capital of Free France.
Over to the east, Kinshasa is the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo and is most renowned for the rich collection of prehistoric and ethnographic artefacts at Kinshasa University. The city is neighboured by the fishing port of Kinkole and the beautiful Gardens of the Presidential Farm of Nsele. Like Brazzaville, Kinshasa has a lively nightlife and vibrant markets, but its districts sprawl with shanty towns and there is a large amount of poverty and political unrest in the city.
Back in the Republic of Congo, the coastal town of Pointe Noire is the country's official tourist resort and a lively beach town which has become wealthy through oil and wood exports, although very few locals have seen the fruit of its wealth. The town has an abundance of lively bars and restaurants and is one of the few places where backpackers are likely to meet fellow travellers. Whilst the Pointe Noire has a long stretch of coastline its beaches are largely dirty and overcrowded. For a more peaceful alternative backpackers should head 15 miles north to the town of Pointe Indienne where few visitors populate the beach and the jungle provides shelter from the sun's oppressive rays.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Congo is its wealth of wildlife, which is best experienced in any of country's national parks. In the DR Congo, the Upemba National Park is intersected by the River Lualaba and marked by several lakes which are home to crocodiles, hippos and many species of birds. The Garamba National Park covers 990,000 acres of parkland and is host to lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and giraffes. Lions and elephants are also found in the Virungu National Park which, situated across two mountain ranges, is most renowned for its mountain gorillas.
As well as mountain and jungle, the Congo is dotted with freshwater lakes. One of the southern most lakes is Lake Albert which contains more fish than any other in Africa and Lake Edward, which is home to a breathtaking selection of colourful birdlife. In the R.O.C Lac Bleu offers some good fishing opportunities. Waterskiing has become a popular activity on the Congo and Kouillou Rivers since the war ended.
In addition to its wealth of lakes and rivers the Congo is marked by numerous tumultuous waterfalls. In the southwest of the DR Congo lie the Inkisi Falls, a spectacular display of water which falls an impressive 60m. Close by, in the region of Mbanza-Ngungu are a network of caves which, coupled with its good climate, make the region a popular site for visitors. Also in the Mbanza-Ngungu region are the Gillet Botanical Gardens, where an extremely rare breed of orchid famously blooms. Over in the ROC the Loufoulakari Falls are held to be the most impressive falls in the Brazzaville region and the Gorges of Dissio run through spectacular cliffs in the village of Loango, 20 miles from the popular city of Pointe Noire.
The DR Congo also hosts the Ruwenzori range of mountains, peaking at the Pic Marguerite which stands at a breathtaking 5119m, with the snowline starting at 533m. The mountains offer some of Africa's most spectacular scenery although much of the landscape was damaged when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted in 2002.
The Republic of Congo has an international airport at Brazzaville which is served by Sabena airlines, and it also has domestic flights which travel from Brazzaville to Point-Noire, stopping in Loubomo and Ouesso. A train service runs three times a day from Brazzaville to Point-Noire, via Loubomo and from Loubomo to Mbinda and there are also steamers and barges which run up the Congo and Ubangi Rivers linking Kinshasa to Brazzaville. Alternatively taxis and mini-buses link most major cities and are probably the most efficient way of commuting around and between cities. It is possible to hire cars in Brazzaville but very few of the roads are sealed meaning they are virtually impassable during the rainy season. Whilst Brazzaville and Pointe Noire are relatively secure, the consulate is currently advising that visitors make every effort to travel between the two towns by air rather than by road as the risk of hijacking between cities is high.
With its turbulent economic climate the Congo is an extremely cheap backpacking destination and budget accommodation in the Republic of Congo is available in Brazzaville, Pointe Noire and Loubamo. In other towns accommodation is sparse and there are very few hotels or hostels anywhere in the DR Congo. The average cost of a basic hotel room anywhere in the Congo is between £3 and £7 per night with high standard rooms being as little as £15 per night, but self-catering accommodation is a much more expensive alternative.
In general, hotels in Brazzaville are cheap but of a very poor standard with the exception of 'Le Meridien Brazzaville.' A beautiful hotel situated in a peaceful residential area close to Brazzaville's city centre, 'Le Meridien Brazzaville' has good facililtes with an excellent restaurant selling French and African cuisine. On the whole, hotels in Pointe Noire are cleaner and of a higher quality than those in Brazzaville although as with most accommodation in the Congo, facilities are still relatively basic.
Health Care Issues
It is useful to remember when visiting the Congo that, if any medical treatment is required medical providers may not accept payment through an insurance company and you will have to be paid for in full immediately following the treatment. It is advisable to have access to cash from credit card or wire transfer and to accept treatment from licensed medical personnel in order to claim a full insurance reimbursement later on. It is also highly recommended that travellers seek medical advice regarding the necessary vaccinations as risk of disease is high, particularly in the DR Congo.
Foreign and Commonwealth advice London provides up to date advice for travelling to the Congo