For those ready to heed the call of the wild, and not afraid of real, genuine adventure, the Congo awaits.
Population: 4.3 million
Foreign visitors per year: 85,000
Population of western lowland gorillas: around 125,000
Languages: French, Lingala, Munukutuba
Major industries :oil, timber
Unit of currency: Central African franc (CFA)
Cost index: gorilla trekking permit CFA190,000 (US$400), seven hour bus ride CFA19,000 (US$40), budget hotel room CFA10,000-16,600 (US$20-35)
Why go ASAP?
Go ape for the jungles of the Congo.The Congo. Few words conjure up such images of exotica:sweltering jungles populated by chest-thumping gorillas, paddle-wheel steamers sailing down mud-brown rivers a mile wide, pygmies dancing in honour of forest spirits, masses of elephants and hooting, swinging troops of chimpanzees.
The Congo (not to be confused with the neighbouring, and far more unpredictable, Democratic Republic of Congo) stands on the cusp of a new era. It’s got oil, it’s got timber, it’s got a rapidly expanding infrastructure and after many turbulent years it’s finally safe and stable. But more than anything else the Congo, with its stash of national parks and other protected areas covering enormous swathes of barely touched rainforest filled with the calls of great apes and lumbering elephants, has the potential to become one of Africa’s finest ecotourism destinations.
Right now foreign tourists are as rare as an albino gorilla, but the Congolese government, looking at the money generated by safari-royalty nations such as Kenya and Tanzania, is keen to change that and knows that it’s the nations apes and elephants (albino or not) that will bring in the punters. And so, over the past few years, it has set to work rehabilitating old national parks, establishing new ones and updating the tourism infrastructure.
This revamping culminated in the recent opening by Wilderness Safaris of two upmarket safari lodges deep in the gorilla-infested forests of Parc National d’Odzala. With their unveiling, those of us with an inner Tarzan can now paddle pirogues down backwater rivers and come face to face with Congolese megafauna in relative ease and comfort.
So, for those ready to heed the call of the wild, and not afraid of real, genuine adventure, the Congo awaits.
Festivals & Events:
The Congo doesn’t go in for big crowd-pleasing festivals and events. Local village festivals celebrating marriages, circumcisions, deaths and births are the most common, as are those performed by the BaAka and others in honour of forest spirits. By their nature these are always spontaneous affairs and you’d be lucky to witness one. Of the nationwide events the biggest is National Day Congo on 15 August when military parades in Brazzaville and other towns mark the anniversary of independence from France.
Life changing experience:
Being led by a barefoot BaAka (pygmy) guide through a Congolese swamp for an up-close-and-personal encounter with a rough-and-tumble family of western lowland gorillas is an experience that can be both humbling and inspiring – or, when a big male silverback comes crashing through the forest towards you, just plain old terrifying.
Roads. Most of us take them for granted, but for as long as anyone can remember a road in the Congo generally meant a large, muddy pothole. Today work crews are busy up and down the country laying down tarmac and opening up areas that have been almost inaccessible for, well, forever really.
Making headlines around the world (but sadly not appearing to make much difference), the surging demand for ivory products in parts of Asia is fuelling a poaching epidemic that’s decimating elephant populations across Africa. The hardest hit areas are the lightly policed and often poorly protected forests of Central Africa and some experts believe that at current rates forest elephants could be extinct in Central Africa within a decade.
Most bizarre sight:
In the far north of Congo, and surrounded by almost totally unexplored and unmapped swamp forest, is the near perfectly circular Lac Tele (Lake Tele). This is one of the remotest corners of Africa and it’s thought the forests around the lake are home to an estimated 100,000 lowland gorillas as well as masses of chimpanzees, forest elephants and buffalo, as well as BaAka groups living an almost totally traditional lifestyle. But according to the local BaAka, Lac Tele is also home to something even more formidable than a gorilla: the legendary mokele-mbembe, a large semi-aquatic creature that is described as being similar to a sauropod, a type of long extinct dinosaur.