Congo ExploredStyle: PioneerGroundbreaking tours to unique destinations
Duration: 13 days
Type: GroupSmall group tours with a maximum of 12 travellers
Most nationals will require a visa to visit the DR Congo. Congolese Embassies or Consulates can be found in major cities around the world including London and Washington. At the time of writing the visa costs £40 in London. You will be required to produce a ‘notarised’ Letter of Authority which we will provide. You may also be asked to produce a letter from your employer and possibly a recent bank statement as proof of sufficient funds. A valid Yellow Fever certificate will also be required to obtain your visa.
Regulations do frequently change though, so we advise that you check the current requirements with your nearest embassy.
There is departure tax of US$50 for international flights and US$10 for internal flights, which must be paid at the airport. Please note that there are no taxes to be paid upon arrival, despite what airport officials may tell you. If you are asked for payment upon arrival, you should insist to see a representative from our local partner.
Health and Immunisations
As with travel to most parts of Africa, we strongly recommend that you contact your doctor’s surgery or a specialist travel clinic for up-to-date information, advice and the necessary vaccinations. For a visit of less than one month, almost certainly you will be advised to have immunisations against the following: Diphtheria and Tetanus, Hepatitis A and B, Polio and Typhoid.
Anti-malaria medication will also be required and the use of a DEET-containing insect repellent is highly recommended.
In addition you must hold a valid Yellow Fever Certificate and this will be required to support your visa application.
What should my travel insurance policy cover?
• medical and health cover for an injury or sudden illness abroad
• 24 hour emergency service and assistance
• personal liability cover in case you’re sued for causing injury or damaging property
• lost and stolen possessions cover
• cancellation and curtailment (cutting short your trip) cover
• Extra cover for activities that are commonly excluded from standard policies, such as certain sports
The policy should cover the whole time that you are away.
Your policy may also have:
• personal accident cover
• legal expenses cover
Common travel insurance policy exclusions
Always check the conditions and exclusions of your policy:
• most policies will not cover drink or drug-related incidents
You must take reasonable care of your possessions or your policy will not cover you.
The local currency is the Franc Congolais (CDF). For current exchange rates visit www.xe.com. Our advice is to travel with US dollars cash. Notes should be new or in a good condition. We recommend that you keep your money concealed at all times in a money belt.
Where currency can be exchanged
Exchange facilities are available at Kinshasa’s airport and the capital’s major banks. Outside of Kinshasa facilities will be limited.
Credit cards and travellers cheques
As a general rule we advise against taking travellers’ cheques as these will be difficult, if not impossible to change. The use of credit cards is limited to the top hotels in Kinshasa. As a sensible ‘back-up’ your card provider may be able to arrange an over the counter cash advance from a Kinshasa bank – but you should check with your card issuer before travel.
Best time to go
Apart from high altitude areas, most of the country is hot the year round, lingering around 30°C during the day, with some relief at night. Rainfall is scant along the tiny coastline and increases further inland. A dry period affects most of the country between June and September.
As a general guide the best time to visit is December to February for north of the equator and April to October when travelling south of the equator. For our Congo Explored trip, the drier periods in Equateur Province are from January to March and July to September.
The official language is French. There are many local languages, the most widely spoken being Lingala, Swahili, Tshiluba and Kikongo. Other than with your guide, you will find little English is spoken.
Approximately 50% Roman Catholic, with the remainder of the population following other beliefs, including indigenous religions.
Food and drink
On our tours in the Congo you will be accompanied by a cook. Breakfast is usually continental style, including sliced bread and rolls with butter, cheese, ham/salami and jam. Lunch and dinner consist mainly of local specialties. Fresh fruit and local snack foods are served as lunch on board. The main course of dinner normally consists of meat, poultry, fish or pasta with vegetables, rice, potatoes or 'Foufou', a local side dish made from the manioc plant.
If you have any special dietary requirements you must notify us at the time of booking. While we will make every effort to cater for you, we cannot guarantee that this will be possible.
Your tour includes all meals, with drinking water when travelling outside of Kinshasa. You will have the opportunity to purchase local alcoholic beverages and other drinks. Prices start at $1 for a local beer. Congo is generally a cheap country and you can assume a simple lunch will cost no more than a few dollars.
Our tours in the Democratic Republic of Congo use 4wd vehicles – typically Landcruisers.
We also use scheduled flights. It should be noted that Congolese carriers do not meet the standards required and accepted in Europe and the United States and are prohibited from operating in the EU.
Our River Expedition uses a 34m long wooden boat, equipped with two powerful outboard engines. Although a traditional boat it is of course equipped with full safety equipment, toilet facilities, a generator, lighting and freezers for food and drinks. A cook and an English speaking guide accompany the trip throughout.
Our Congo Explored trip will also use dug out canoes, approximately 15 metres in length and a metre or so in width.
Travelling in the destinations that we visit requires a good deal of understanding that often standards simply won’t be as they are at home. While we aim to make your trip as comfortable as possible, please be aware that we are often visiting remote or less developed regions that may have little infrastructure. While we aim to make your trip run as smoothly as possible there may be times when we need to ask for your patience while we rectify any problems.
The Congo is not an ordinary holiday destination. It is one we do not recommend for first time visitors to Africa. Endemic corruption is a way of life and part of the country’s culture
What to take with you
First Aid Kit
The first thing on your list should be a first aid kit. Whilst there is no undue cause for alarm, travellers are best advised to travel well-prepared: adequately immunized, with sufficient supplies of prescription drugs, along with a medical kit.
When it comes to clothing it is usually recommended that lighter clothes are worn through the day, and warmer ones at night. A hat is also advised to be worn through the day to protect from the sun, along with at least one piece of waterproof clothing for any days that the weather may be wet or windy.
You will need to bring a light sleeping bag or sleep sheet on our trips in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Footwear is a main priority on this tour. Comfortable walking shoes/boots are recommended. For our Congo Explored tour we recommend taking some shoes to walk through water – some trails can be partially flooded.
Your luggage should not exceed 20kgs (44lbs). One large rucksack, and one small hand luggage rucksack is acceptable. We advise you to travel with a rucksack or soft bag rather than a suitcase.
Suncream/sunblock is a must. When out on tour, it is important to have suncream with you, as there will not be any services nearby in which to provide it.
Insect repellent, including a bite spray will be useful to have. As our tours in the Congo involve camping, a torch (flashlight) is essential.
If you will be using a camera which needs film, it is recommended that a supply is taken with you, as it is not always available locally. For those with digital cameras, we would advise you to take a spare battery.
This tour does not require any special degree of fitness but you will find it more enjoyable if you are reasonably fit.
Cultural and environmental guidelines
You may come across beggars while on tour. Every traveller has different perspectives on this and ultimately the choice is up to you. Many sources recommend that you watch to see if local people give, and then follow their lead with genuine beggars. We do not recommend giving money, sweets, pens etc to children as this can encourage a begging mentality and can lead to children choosing to beg rather than go to school.
Haggling is a way of life in Africa when making many purchases, especially with tourist souvenirs. Usually, but not always, the vendor will start with a price that is higher than they are prepared to accept, and the buyer is expected to haggle. There are no hard and fast rules with this – some vendors may initially quote a vastly overinflated price, others may start with a price close to the true value, while others may just present you with one price and not be prepared to discuss it. Although many tourists may feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that this is best entered into in a relaxed manner. Once you have agreed upon a price, it is extremely bad form to then not pay this. Please also bear in mind that a small amount of money to you can be a relatively large amount for the vendor, and that it is not necessarily best practice to ‘beat the vendor down’ to the lowest possible price. Remember that they also have a living to make.
You will be spending time in some of the most pristine rainforest environments on earth on our tours in the Congo. It is important to ensure that they stay this way. Please make sure that you take any rubbish back to the lodges and camps with you where they can be properly disposed of – this includes cigarette butts as well.
Please do not buy any products made from endangered species – this is not sustainable and hastens the species’ decline.
You should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph and respect their decision if they say no. In more remote areas women and older people often do not want to be photographed. Some people may also ask for some money – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot - in return for a photo. Taking photos of military installations, state buildings, and airports can lead to problems with local authorities. If you are unsure about whether it is acceptable to take a photo, please ask your tour leader or guide.
We do not recommend tipping on this trip – all members of staff are paid well and this can cause problems between the guide and other service providers. If you would like to leave some money behind, please speak to your guide about a donation for the development fund, which is reinvested in the communities that you visit.
Foreign Office Advice
At the time of writing the British Foreign Office (FCO) advised against non-essential to travel to the whole of the country. In addition the FCO currently advises against all travel to most north eastern and eastern areas of the Congo, although these are not areas visited on this tour. It is likely travel warnings will remain in place for some time to come, and we are only able to accept a booking on the basis that you are aware this is the case and confirm that you are still happy to travel irrespective of the current FCO advice.
Furthermore, it is the clients’ responsibility to ensure that they hold full travel insurance which includes medical repatriation.
You should check the validity of your insurance with your provider, given the travel warnings in place. We can however, help you organise insurance which will continue to be valid.
It should be noted that this information applies to British citizens. Other nationals are asked to check the current position of their respective government.
Public Holidays in DR Congo:
1 Jan New Year's Day
4 Jan Commemoration of the Martyrs of Independence
17 Jan National Heroes' Day
1 May Labour Day
17 May National Liberation Day
30 Jun Independence Day
14 Oct Youth Day
17 Nov Army Day
25 Dec Christmas
Dates are for guidance only and may vary year to year
Generally electrical supply is 220-240V AC (50 Hz) and uses European two circular pin style plugs.
Congo: Democratic Republic and Republic - The Bradt Guide
King Leopold’s Ghost
In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz
Facing the Congo
Canoeing the Congo
IMPORTANT NOTES – PLEASE READ
Please note that the information provided is correct at the time of writing but may change. It is intended as a guide only. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health visit www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk or contact your local healthcare provider.
In addition we strongly advise you to check the information and any travel advice provided by your government. For British citizens you should visit the Foreign Office website www.fco.gov.uk.
Furthermore, you should be aware that any travel warnings or advisories may affect the validity of your travel insurance. Therefore, at the time of booking your tour it is essential you check any restrictions on cover with your insurance provider.
Issue Date – 16/4/13
For possible changes to this dossier please visit www.undiscovered-destinations.com or call +44 (0)191 296 2674
The Democratic Republic of Congo is an unimaginably vast country, in the very heart of the African continent. Its name evokes a myriad of emotions and images – trepidation, fascination, the worst excesses of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, a briefly shining hope of the post colonial world that descended into the chaos of Mobutu’s Zaire and never fully recovered. Today the DRC remains largely unexplored by tourists, and hidden from the consciousness of the western world, emerging only from time to time in frightening reports of its various conflicts. But for those willing to look beyond the scant news headlines the Democratic Republic of Congo offers a travel experience that cannot easily be surpassed. To travel here is to feel as if one is breaking new ground, visiting communities that truly are ‘off the beaten track’ and exploring cultures that make little concession to the modern world. There is no doubt that travel in this region can be very challenging and at times problematic, but for the intrepid traveller there can be no finer goal than this magnificent country, hidden away for so long but slowly emerging to retake its place as the giant of Africa.
The earliest contact between Europe and the Congo dates back to the late fifteenth century, at a time when very little was known about Africa beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. While the rest of Europe slumbered, the small kingdom of Portugal sent sailors to explore the Atlantic coast of Africa, setting out where none had dared to go before, inspired by a number of different motivations. Not least of these was a desire to break the stranglehold of the Moors on the trade across the Sahara, and avail themselves of the riches that mysteriously appeared from the camel caravans making long journeys through the desert. Secondly, the Portuguese wanted to find a sea route to the Indies. And of course, a desire to establish overseas colonies for itself played no small part. But perhaps the most intriguing of these causes was the search for the mysterious priest-king Prester John, a mythical figure from the east who had supposedly sent letters to the courts of Europe centuries before and spoke of a land of immeasurable riches whose subjects were devoted to Christianity. This notion never left the imagination of medieval Europe, and over the hundreds of years that passed since these letters several expeditions had been sent out in different directions, often never returning, none of which managed to establish the precise location of this land. However by the fifteenth century it was generally accepted that the kingdom of Prester John lay in Ethiopia, known to be in the east of Africa but so far ‘undiscovered’. Portuguese ships went ever further around the Atlantic coast, hoping to round the continent and reach this fabled land.
One of these expeditions was led by the now famous navigator Diego Cao, who turning south at the Bight of Benin discovered the mouth of an immense river, so powerful that it disgorged fresh water into the sea some miles away from the coast. He found a land populated by the BaKongo people, ruled over by a powerful king, the ManiKongo, and a highly militarised civilisation which surpassed all others in the area. Various subsequent missions established diplomatic and trading links with the country, and the Catholic Church established a strong although never completely secure presence there, with the ManiKongo and many of his noblemen and subjects becoming baptised, and the sons of BaKongo chiefs being sent to Portugal for education. In return the Portuguese sent artisans, craftsmen, soldiers and teachers to reside in the cities of Mpinda and Mbanza, with the aim of assisting the ManiKongo in ‘modernising’ his kingdom. This first contact proved admirable, with both nations dealing with each other on a more equal basis than would be subsequently seen between Europe and Africa for many centuries. It was not long however before this changed. With the discovery and colonisation of the New World, and the unquenching thirst for workers to service the plantations established there, the slave trade reared its head and soon became the most profitable form of commerce to be grasped Africa. Although practised in regions of Africa before European involvement, it had never been on such a scale and of such a brutal character. Portuguese traders demanded more and more human cargo for the ships making the ‘Middle Passage’ and began to bypass African middlemen, making slaving raids themselves into the uncharted interior. The kingdom of the BaKongo found itself enormously destabilised, a situation which provoked rebellions from vassal states, internecine warfare, and predations by the fearsome Yaka tribes to the east, warlike and cannibalistic. Although various churches persisted and from time to time attempted to make converts among the people, there were to be no more ambassadors to Portugal, no more European technical advisers, and the 16th and 17th centuries were characterised by immeasurable turmoil from which the kingdom never truly recovered.
Although the Portuguese had ‘discovered’ the Congo in the late fifteenth century, unnavigable rapids and cataracts upstream had prevented them from doing much more than exploring the coastal belt. In 1816, motivated by a desire to map the River Niger, Britain sent an expedition led by James Tuckey to the Congo. One of the popular theories of the time was that the mouth of the river would in fact be found to the Niger, and a separate expedition had been sent to follow Mungo Park’s route along the Niger, with the intention of joining up somewhere in the middle. The Tuckey expedition however was less than successful. Although they managed to penetrate 150 miles further up the river than any European had gone before, inexplicably the expedition turned back and sailed home to Britain.
At this time, the Congo was not known to be the great river that it is, and European attention was focussed more on mapping the Niger and Nile rivers. It was however on one of these expeditions, to discover the source of the Nile, that the missionary turned explorer David Livingstone found the source of the Congo River, although this was not known at the time. The country however was being explored, little by little, by slaving caravans from Zanzibar which penetrated ever further westwards in search of fresh slaves, and Livingstone spent some time in their company in the east of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zanzibari Arabs had already established numerous bases in the region as depots for slaves and ivory.
Livingstone died without ever having proven his theory, but his mantle was subsequently taken up by the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. On a mammoth expedition, Stanley, having ‘discovered’ Livingstone, set out to settle once and for all some of the key remaining mysteries of African geography. His aims were to circumnavigate Lake Victoria, explore the Great Lakes, and trace the course of the Lualaba River, which Livingstone had thought would lead into the Nile but which educated opinion of the day was coming to believe actually lead into the Congo. Stanley was warned by the Arabs of the dangers facing him on the Lualaba, of interminable forest and warlike tribes, but managed to convince the notorious slave trader Tippu Tip to provide him with a caravan to explore further. He found the warnings to be more than accurate, and his expedition up the river was plagued by hostile and cannibalistic tribes, sickness, lack of supplies and overwhelming exhaustion of his men. Pushing through against all odds, and carrying their boats through the jungle when the river turned into impassable falls and cataracts, Stanley’s team eventually became the first expedition to trace the course of the Congo, from the Lualaba to the Atlantic Ocean, and Stanley returned home a national hero.
On his return, Stanley attempted to persuade Britain to sponsor further exploration of the Congo, convinced that this would be the great pathway into the African interior that could be used to open up the continent to commerce, Christianity and civilisation, the ‘three C’s’ that motivated so much of 19th century exploration. However this was still before the European powers became obsessed with the ‘Scramble for Africa’, and he found the British to be less than keen on his project. One person that was interested however, was King Leopold of Belgium, who saw the possession of African colonies as a way to make his tiny new nation great. Under the philanthropic guise of his International African Association, Leopold enlisted Stanley to mount an expedition into the interior, with the ostensible intention of establishing trading bases, roads and railroads in order to develop the region for commerce and for the good of the local populace. Stanley’s second expedition to the Congo built stations on the river, signing treaties with local chiefs along the way, but as he progressed further eastwards he found that the Arab slavers had followed his footsteps previously, making slaving incursions further and further from their bases to the west of Lake Tanganyika, and wreaking havoc on the area.
After much political wrangling and horse trading among European powers and the United States, the Congo Free State was established as a national entity. Leopold however had found little enthusiasm among the Belgian government for his goal of obtaining overseas colonies. Undeterred he made himself, through his supposedly philanthropic organisation, rather than Belgium, the effective owner and ruler of this new state – a bizarre state of affairs in which a private individual owned a vast swathe of Central Africa. He soon found himself in competition for control of the vast riches of the Congo with the Arabs who had settled in the east, sparking a war against them which eventually he won.
At around this time the development of the automobile industry in the western world produced an almost insatiable demand for rubber, a resource of which the Congo had plenty. Leopold’s Congo Free State devoted itself to this industry, with agents being given virtually free reign to employ whatever methods they considered necessary to meet quotas demanded by the state. Abuses were not just widespread – they became policy, as forced labour was introduced, and ruthless agents took villagers hostage to ensure that others would collect the rubber they needed. Dissent was met with brutally, villages were razed to the ground and floggings and amputations became common punishments. This was perhaps the Congo’s darkest hour, and all pretence at developing the country for the good of its people had been abandoned. At this time, the young Joseph Conrad took employment in the Congo, so horrified by its excesses that he was inspired to write his masterpiece, ‘Heart of Darkness’. Conrad writes that travelling here ‘was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on the river as you would in a desert…..this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.’
Leopold worked hard to ensure that reports of the atrocities in the Congo never reached the outside world, but inevitably they did, this secrecy blown wide open by campaigners such as Edmund Morel and Roger Casement on investigative forays into the country. The scandal that this caused in the outside world eventually forced Leopold to relinquish his Congo Free State to the reluctant Belgian government in 1908. No-one knows exactly what gains Leopold made from his private African kingdom but it is estimated to be in many millions of dollars, an absolute fortune at the time.
The technological developments of the age soon made it possible to realise large scale extraction of the resources of the Congo Free State, in particular the vast mineral wealth of the Katanga region in the south west. Accompanied by this was a dramatic transformation of the country, as Belgium built new roads, railroads and cities, and implemented a framework of social services to cater for health and education. However, for all its development, Belgium failed in every way to prepare the Congo for independence, believing this to be unnecessary and improbable. They had drastically misread the prevailing political mood. After the examples of countries such as Ghana, granted independence by Britain in 1957, the Congolese were impatient. In 1959, riots broke out in the capital Leopoldville, shocking Belgium and prompting it to grant independence to the country in 1960. At this point there were less than twenty Congolese university graduates in the entire country, and no experience in government participation. At such short notice, the Congo struggled with its new found status. Trouble at army garrisons, still commanded by Belgian officers, quickly erupted into countrywide riots, lootings, murder and rape, in which the European population were targeted, prompting a mass exodus. Without European expertise, and with virtually no experience among the Congolese, the administration and economy broke down. Added to these problems was the attempted secession of the mineral rich state of Katanga.
Joseph Mobutu, head of the army, seized power from the coalition government, sending the president, Patrice Lumumba, to Elizabethville, where he died in mysterious and less than savoury circumstances. The international public outcry caused Mobutu to subsequently resign, but the country continued its descent into chaos. Foreign mercenaries were employed in Katanga, other states announced their secession, and the Congo degenerated into civil war. In 1965 Mobutu seized power once again by means of a coup, and set about destroying any opposition, creating a one party state that was to persist for many years. He instigated his famous policy of ‘authenticite’, nationalising foreign property and businesses and changing the Belgian names of cities to ‘authentic’ African names. Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Stanleyville became Kisangani, and the Congo was renamed Zaire, an ancient Portuguese corruption of the word ‘nzere’, meaning river. Mobutu’s absolute control of the Congo allowed him to plunder the resources of the state on an unparalleled level, and inspired the term ‘kleptocracy’ to describe his style of government. Famously, he once pronounced to his people that it was okay ‘to steal a little’, giving official sanction to the culture of corruption that still persists in the country today. Despite his overwhelming abuse of power, Mobutu was seen as an ally of the west for his staunchly anti-communist stance in the Cold War, and it was not until its decline that he found himself unable to garner support among western nations.
The 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda forced much of the Hutu population and Interahamwe militias into the area around Goma, destabilising the region. Interahamwe continued targeting both Rwandan Tutsis and the Tutsi population of eastern Zaire, prompting Rwanda to back Laurent Kabila to enter the country to flush them out, but also as a vehicle for expanding their claims to the country and appropriating some of its riches. Kabila and his army moved further westwards and eventually toppled Mobutu, the dictator fleeing to Morocco by plane where he died in exile a few years later. Despite high hopes however, Kabila turned out to be little different to his predecessor, installing himself as yet another dictatorial ruler and crushing all opposition. Uganda and Rwanda moved to oust him by invasions of the east of the country, now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kabila bolstered his support with armies from Chad, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, engulfing the Congo in a devastating war in which millions of people, mostly civilians, would perish.
Laurent Kabila was eventually assassinated and succeeded by his son, Joseph, and the DRC is making gradual steps towards change and progress, aided by the UN and various European initiatives. Slowly it is recovering from centuries of abuse and exploitation, the scars of which are taking time to heal. It will be some time, if ever, before the Democratic Republic of Congo is widely considered to be a destination for tourism. In our eyes, that is what makes it such an exciting travel destination – somewhere that you will not find backpacker hang outs, established tourist sights or scores of western visitors following the same well-trodden path. To journey through the DRC is to be at the very forefront of travel, to have that sense of wonder that increasingly so many other places no longer instil. Put simply, a trip to this giant of a country, so integral to Africa itself, is one of the most exciting trips you could ever make.