Democratic Republic of Congo
Carpeted by huge swathes of rainforest and punctuated by gushing rivers and smoking volcanoes, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) is the ultimate African adventure. As much a geographical concept as a fully fledged nation, DRC has experienced one of the saddest chapters in modern history, suffering a brutal twentieth century of colonial exploitation, authoritarian madness and what has been dubbed Africa’s first ‘world war’, which finally ended in 2003 with the rise of the Kabila political dynasty.
While real stability remains many years away, the cautious development of DRC’s enormous untapped mineral wealth and the presence of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force have bred optimism among its tormented but resilient population. At the same time, a small but fast-growing tourism industry, centred on the incredible Parc National des Virunga, has seen travellers return to what is easily one of Africa’s most thrilling and challenging destinations.
NyiragongoPerhaps DRC’s most magnificent single sight, active volcano Nyiragongo soars above the city of Goma and the surrounding Virunga National Park and sends plumes of smoke into the sky, before becoming a flaming beacon visible for miles around after sundown. The trek to the top is an absolutely unmissable experience, with those who undertake the five-hour climb being rewarded with views into the volcano’s explosive lava lake below.
Parc National des VirungaDRC’s magnificent calling card is Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park and home to mountain gorillas, chimpanzees and the incredible, active Nyiragongo volcano, which can be climbed on a thrilling two-day expedition. Having been the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga in 2014, the park has been growing fast in popularity and its management team have risen to the challenge by impressively improving its accommodation and facilities. Do not miss this incredible place.
Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary
- Ninety minutes west of Kinshasa, just beyond the city’s sprawl, this excellent project provides a home for orphaned bonobos. Long thought to be chimpanzees, bonobos are actually a separate species known for being much more peaceful than their cousins. They’re also endangered, with only around 50,000 surviving in the wild. Trails here lead around the large, forested enclosures, but the playful bonobos often hang out right at the front, especially in the morning.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest city, Kin (as locals universally call it), sprawls seemingly forever from the banks of the Congo River to its distant shanty towns. Shot through with chaos, music and a lust for life that is as infectious as it is overwhelming, Kinshasa is a city you experience rather than visit. While it has the same maniacal drivers, dismaying poverty, mounds of trash, terrible air pollution and persistent street hawkers that you’ve seen in many other African cities, here it’s all bigger, faster and louder than you’ve probably experienced before, and there’s no better place for a whirlwind introduction to Congolese life.
Other Places Of Interest
Kisangani was known in colonial times as Stanleyville, and it is where the Lualaba River ‘becomes’ the Congo River. Despite being the same river, they were named at different ends, and each part has since retained its original name. Even though it’s the third largest city in DRC, Kisangani is a real backwater, and few travellers make it here. It feels far more authentically Congolese than either Kinshasa or Goma, however, and its sandy streets, raucous riverside market and the steamy brown Congo River all produce a languorous air that’s infectious. The city was founded by Henry Morton Stanley in 1883 as the last point ships can travel upriver from Kinshasa before being blocked by the Boyoma Falls, a 100km stretch with seven treacherous stretches of rapids.
This likeable border town on Lake Kivu is unlike anywhere else in DRC, being home to an enormous UN and NGO presence that gives it an unusually cosmopolitan feel. Having been almost wiped off the map by the eruption of the nearby Nyiragongo volcano in 2002, Goma has done much rebuilding in the past decade and a half, and as a result the city has a surprisingly attractive centre. Indeed, it’s fascinating to visit the parts of town that are covered in the lava field, and see how the resilient locals have gone back to their lives and rebuilt their houses in these new and challenging conditions.
People generally visit Goma en route to tracking mountain gorillas, climbing Nyiragongo or trekking the Rwenzori Mountains. The city itself has no proper attractions, but it’s a great pre- and post-Virunga hang out, with some excellent sleeping and eating options.
Parc National de Kahuzi-Biéga
South Kivu’s star attraction is this national park, where you can track habituated eastern lowland gorillas (Grauer’s gorillas). The park also contains a chimp orphanage at Lwiro, where between 40 and 50 chimps are kept in excellent conditions.