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Democratic Republic of Congo

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Travel Guide Africa Democratic Republic of Congo

Were you looking for the other Congo? That's the Republic of Congo.

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Introduction

Fruit Bats

Fruit Bats

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Once known as Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa’s third largest country. The land is home to great stretches of savannah, as well as dramatic volcanic mountain peaks in the east.

Currently, the situation is volatile, particularly for foreigners. The United States recently renewed its recommendation for travellers to stay away from the country, especially areas outside the capital of Kinshasa.

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Brief History

The area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was populated as early as 10,000 years ago and settled in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. by Bantus from present-day Nigeria. During its history the area has also been known as Congo, Congo Free State, Belgian Congo and Zaire. The Kingdom of Kongo was a powerful kingdom that existed from the 14th to the 18th century. It was the dominant force in the region until the arrival of the Portuguese. Second in importance was the Anziku Kingdom.
The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through the Association Internationale Africaine, a non-governmental organization. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On November 15, 1908 King Léopold II of Belgium formally relinquished personal control of the Congo Free State. The renamed Belgian Congo came under the administration of the Belgian parliament. The Belgian administration might be most charitably characterized as paternalistic colonialism. Roman Catholic and Protestant churches dominated the education system and the curricula reflected Christian and Western values. In 1948 Christian missions controlled 99.6% of educational facilities. They had little regard for native culture and beliefs. Native schools provided a mainly religious and vocational education.
The Congo was granted its independence on June 30, 1960, adopting the name "Republic of the Congo" (République du Congo). As the French colony of Middle Congo (Moyen Congo) also chose the name Republic of Congo upon receiving its independence, the two countries were more commonly known as Congo-Léopoldville and Congo-Brazzaville, after their capital cities. President Mobutu changed the country's official name to Zaire in 1966. The current name was adopted in 1997. During the first 6-7 years of the Democratic Republic of Congo, there were two wars, under the rule of Laurent-Desire Kabila and later his son Joseph (from 2001 onwards). Upon taking office Kabila called for multilateral peace talks to end the war. He partly succeeded in February 2001 when a further peace deal was brokered between Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda leading to the apparent withdrawal of foreign troops. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, arrived in April 2001. Talks between Kabila and the rebel leaders, held in Sun City, lasted a full six weeks, beginning in April 2002. In June they signed a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo.
DR Congo had a transitional government in July 2003 until the election was over. A constitution was approved by voters and on July 30, 2006 the Congo held its first multi-party elections since independence in 1960. After this Joseph Kabila took 45% of the votes and his opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba took 20%. That was the origin of a fight between the two parts from August 20-22, 2006 in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa. Sixteen people died before policemen and UN mission MONUC took control of the city. A new election was held on October 29, 2006, which Kabila won with 70% of the vote. Bemba has publicly commented on election "irregularities," despite the fact that every neutral observer has praised the elections. On December 6, 2006 the Transitional Government came to an end as Joseph Kabila was sworn in as President. Currently, the position of the country is still extremely unstable and various parts are still off-limits for travellers, as it is just to dangerous.

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Geography

The Democratic Republic of Congo is situated at the heart of sub-Saharan Africa and is bounded by (clockwise from the southwest) Angola, the South Atlantic Ocean, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika, and Zambia. The country lies between latitudes 6°N and 14°S, and longitudes 12° and 32°E. It straddles the Equator, with one-third to the north and two-thirds to the south. The size of Congo, 2,345,408 square kilometres, is slightly greater than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway.
The massive expanse of lush jungle covers most of the vast, low-lying central basin of the river, which slopes toward the Atlantic Ocean in the west. This area is surrounded by plateaus merging into savannas in the south and southwest, by mountainous terraces in the west, and dense grasslands extending beyond the Congo River in the north. High, glaciated mountains are found in the extreme eastern region (Rwenzori Mountains). The name for the Congo state is derived in part from the river. The river basin (meaning the Congo River and all of its myriad tributaries) occupies nearly the entire country and an area of nearly 1,000,000 km2.
On 17 January 2002 Mount Nyiragongo erupted in Congo, with the lava running out at 64 km/h and 46 metres wide. One of the three streams of extremely fluid lava flowed through the nearby city of Goma, killing 45 and leaving 120,000 homeless. Four hundred thousand people were evacuated from the city during the eruption. The lava poisoned the water of Lake Kivu, killing fish. Only two planes left the local airport because of the possibility of the explosion of stored petrol. The lava passed the airport but ruined the runway, entrapping several airplanes. Six months after the 2002 eruption, nearby Mount Nyamulagira also erupted. Mount Nyamulagira also erupted in 2006 and again in January 2010.

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Regions

A new constitution approved in 2005 has divided the country into 26 reasonably autonomous provinces, one of which is the capital, Kinshasa. Until these new provinces are formed in February 2009, the existing 11 provinces are:

  • Kinshasa
  • Province Orientale
  • Kasaï Oriental
  • Kasaï Occidental
  • Maniema
  • Katanga
  • Sud-Kivu
  • Nord-Kivu
  • Bas-Congo
  • Équateur
  • Bandundu

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Cities

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Sights and Activities

Okapi Wildlife Reserve

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is located in the Ituri Forest in the northeast of the country near Sudan and Uganda and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is mainly a protected forest because of its special inhabitant: the Okapi. This animal is widely known because of its mix of zebra and giraffe characteristics and although it bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe. Unfortunately, because of the politicial and economical situation in this part of the country, the reserve sees just a few visitors and several of its staff have been gone since poachers and others entered the reserve. Apart from the Okapi, many monkey species and the forest elephant live here as well as several local tribes who actually live in peace with the natural environment.

Virunga National Park

Gorillas in the mist

Gorillas in the mist

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The Virunga National Park is what Bwindi Impenetrable is to Uganda or the Volcanoes National Park to Rwanda: a large protected mountainous wilderness, mainly to preserve the last several hundreds or so of the Moutain Gorilla and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late seventies of the twentieth century. Chimpanzees, forest elephants, giraffe and even okapi can be found here, although there numbers have diminished in recent years because of the unstable political and economical situation. Still, travellers who can't get a permit in Rwanda or Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas, might be lucky to get one here as chances are better and it is cheaper, 'only' 350 USD compared to 500 USD in the other two countries. The main access point is from Rwanda to Goma but entries from Uganda might be possible as well, just check in advance regarding the visa and safety regulations during the time you will visit.

Mount Nyiragongo

Virunga volcanos - view from the Sabinyo hike

Virunga volcanos - view from the Sabinyo hike

© All Rights Reserved aidni

Mount Nyiragongo is an active stratovolcano, located in the Virunga Mountains, just within the borders of the Virunga National Park. It's just about 20 kilometres north of Lake Kivu and the populous city of Goma and therefore is one of the 16 potential deadliest volcanoes in the world, which are on the Decade Volcano List(see below). The top of the volcano lies at 3,470 metres above sea level and the main crater is about 2 kilometres wide. The crater lake is one of the most voluminous in the world and before the major eruption of 1977 the depth was around 600 metres, although it's considerably less now. The volcano has another major eruption in 2002 (lava flowed down to the Goma airport and even into Rwanda!) and again has been active continuously since 2010, but this activity is limited to the crater area. It's a popular daytrip for hikers and can even be undertaken from nearby Rwanda.

Kahuzi-Biéga National Park

The Kahuzi-Biéga National Park is located in the east of the country near Lake Kivu and the border with Rwanda and together with the frontier are of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, forms one of the last remaining areas to preserve the mountain gorilla. The park is not as much visited as the other mountain gorilla parks and numbers may have declined more seriously here since civil war started. It also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Salonga National Park

Also a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Salonga National Park protects the largest tropical rainforest reserve in Africa and is located in the Congo Basin. Animals here include species like bonobos (one of four human apes) and rare special species like salonga monkeys, Tshuapa red colobus Zaire peacocks, forest elephants, and African slender-snouted crocodiles. Although you are likely to see many animals here you won't see anywhere else in Africa, the park is not visited that often and safety forms the main problem for travellers these days.

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Weather

Apart from the higher parts of the country, the Democratic Republic of Congo has a tropical climate with generally hot and humid conditions. Rainfall is high throughout the country but there are some differences.
The northern parts of the country (for example Kisangani) has rain during every month, but with two season when rain is heaviest and more probable. These periods are March - April and September - November, though differences with other months are not that big. January is quite dry. Temperatures here are around 30 degrees Celsius during the day and 20 degrees Celsius at night with no considerable montly variation.
In the south on the other hand there is single wet season from November to March (for example Lubumbashi). Here, May to September are almost completely dry. In the case of Lubumbashi temperatures are around 25 to 30 degrees Celsius year round, but night can be very cool during the dry season, averaging only around 6 or 7 degrees Celsius. From October to April, nights are considerably warmer, around 15 to 16 degrees on average. Of course, here this also has to do with altitude (1300 meters above sea level). Lower areas have warmer nights (and days).
Kinshasa has temperatures of around 30 degrees celsius during the day, 20 degrees at night and there is a rainy season from November to April while June to September is almost completely dry as well.
A small coastal strip of the country has roughly the same climate as northern coastal areas of Angola, with warm weather but much less rain compared to places inland.

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Getting there

Plane

N'Djili International Airport (FIH) near the capital Kinshasa is the main international airport in the country. Hewa Bora Airways is one of the largest airlines in the country, flying to and from Brussels, Douala, Johannesburg, Lagos and Lomé. Air France flies between Kinshasa and Paris. Other destinations with several airlines are Brussels, Harare, Bujumbura Brazzaville, Kigali, Pointe-Noire, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Casablanca and Luanda.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies to Kinshasa from Amsterdam via Nairobi.

By Train

There are no trains that travel into the country.

By Car

The land border with Angola is open via the town of Matadi, but expect harsh conditions, bad roads and bribing at borders. It's not advised to cross the DRC by car in general and few border crossings are open to independent travels by car. The best ones are with Rwanda and Uganda.

By Bus

Crossing to Rwanda is possible but only the one between Gisenyi and Goma is considered relatively safe at the moment. The one at the southern end of Lake Kiva, between Cyangugu and Bukavu is less safe, mainly on the DRC side. Crossings with Uganda are open but it's easier and safer to travel to Rwanda where it's just a short hop to the DRC and Goma.

By Boat

Boats travel across the Congo River between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, roughly every two hours or so.

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Getting around

Plane

Note that flights with any of the airlines of the DRC is amongst the most risky travelling business in the world. Although most planes of course will make it to the destination, accident rates are relatively high and all airlines are not welcome in Europe for example. That said, it is sometimes the only way and maybe even safer than travelling overland as this will impose risks of bandits or road accidents.

Hewa Bora Airways flies between Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Mbuji Mayi and Wimbi Dira Airways between Gbadolite, Gemena, Goma, Isiro, Kananga, Kindu, Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kalemie Mbandaka and Mbuji-Mayi. Compagnie Africaine d'Aviation has an extensive network between Basankusu, Bumba, Goma, Kalemie, Kananga, Kikwit, Kinshasa, Kisangani, Lisala, Lodja, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka, Mbuji-Mayi and Tshikapa.

By Train

Train travel is possible, but really not recommended, as services are poor and slow.
The main domestic railway runs from Lubumbashi to Ilebo, with a branch to Kalemie and Kindu via Kabalo and Kisangani. Another one runs from the capital Kinshasa to the port of Matadi.

By Car

Getting around by a rental car or your own car is possible, but roads are in an extremely poor conditions and many parts are muddy. Sometimes, bridges which use to cross rivers or other geographical features, are damaged. Only in an immediately around bigger cities the roads are in an acceptable condition. You can rent a car on a few airports and you need an international driving permit. Traffic drives on the right.

By Bus

Buses travel between most major cities and towns, but are crowded, slow, uncomfortable and unreliable.

By Boat

Theoretically, there should be regular passenger services along the Congo River between Kinshasa, Kisangani and Ilebo. Services are not scheduled though and are very unreliable mainly due to shortages of petrol. Still, it might be one of the most memorable and even safest modes of transport, albeit the slowest as well. It is a great way to meet people, that's for sure.

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Red Tape

All nationals need a visa to enter the DRC. Some people may obtain one on the international airport in Kinshasa or the most popular border crossing near Goma (with Rwanda).

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Money

See also Money Matters

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Health

See also Travel Health

Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering the Democratic Republic of Congo. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering overland.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Democratic Republic of Congo. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.

Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue is present in the country as well, mainly in and around urban areas and other places where there are many people.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a very unstable country. Some areas, like the capital Kinshasa and a few other places can be visited without too much trouble, though always check the latest safety situation. The eastern portion near the border with Rwanda (around Goma) is popular with people who want to visit the Mountain Gorillas in the DRC. Although it is mostly fine, things have been unsafe during parts of 2008 and early 2009.

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is: 243
To make an international call from the Democratic Rupublic of the Congo, the code is: 00

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Quick Facts

Democratic Republic of Congo flag

Map of Democratic Republic of Congo

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Capital
Kinshasa
Population
53,620,000
Government
Dictatorship
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant), Kimbanguism, Islam
Languages
Kongo, Lingala, Luba-Kasai, Congo Swahili, French
Calling Code
+243
Nationality
Congolese
Local name
Republique Democratique du Congo

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