Congo Safari: Understanding the Congo
The Congo. Surely there is no other destination in Africa whose name has a greater resonance. A land of rainforest, rivers and swamps, thunderstorms and heat. And a place of astonishing wildlife: monkeys, forest elephants and buffalo as well as gorillas and pangolins and the extraordinary bongo antelope.
The Congo is also the destination that carries with it the most uncertainty for the safari traveller. What is ‘the Congo’? There’s the river of course, but also two countries with ‘Congo’ in their name. Where do you go – and how do you get there? And when? There must be a rainy season to avoid. What sort of activities do you do on a Congo safari? And the big question: Is it safe?
Time for some answers. Let’s start with the geography.
WHAT IS ‘THE CONGO’?
Running through equatorial Africa, the Congo River divides two countries as it makes its way to the ocean. One is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), previously the Belgian Congo and later Zaire. The other is The Republic of the Congo, formerly a French colony and much smaller than the DRC.
It’s still a bit confusing so common practice is to refer to each by use of their capital city. The DRC is Congo-Kinshasa, and the Republic of the Congo is Congo-Brazzaville.
IS THE CONGO SAFE?
It certainly is if you travel to the areas dedicated to eco-tourism and wildlife conservation. These economic activities empower local communities which in turn protect the natural environment and those who come to see it. And sure, it can be a tough climate – this is the tropics after all – but the Congo has two drier seasons: December to February and June to September. Visiting at these times is always going to be more comfortable and reduce the risk of malaria.
WHERE DO YOU GO?
The best Congo safari experiences are found in Congo-Brazzaville where a number of protected conservation areas combine to offer a diverse Congo Basin experience. It’s a complex project, involving charities, science and tourism, but the result is a functioning Congo experience that is relatively easy to access as a visitor.
HOW DO YOU GET THERE?
This is where you need a specialist operator. You’ll fly into the capital – Brazzaville – and switch to a smaller plane and then most probably to a boat to reach your camp. It sounds like a challenge but there’s no need to organise it yourself. Everything is arranged by the safari operator from the moment you land until the time you leave: meet and greet, transport, accommodation, gorilla-trekking permits, arrival permits, and all the covid protocols.
WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE?
The main reserve is Odzala-Kokoua National Park and its adjacent conservation areas. There are several lodges scattered throughout them, each offering a different aspect of the Congo Basin. By combining destinations, the safari traveller can trek for lowland gorillas as well as watch herds of forest elephant and buffalo wallow in red mud. Canoe adventures take you down hidden backwaters to find forest birds and a bit of luck may get you a sighting of a rare pangolin or a shy bongo antelope, the totem of the dark forest.
The lodges are comfortable and well-equipped. Ngaga Camp – the gorilla-trekking camp – has en suite chalets raised on stilts overlooking primary rainforest while Lango Camp has grandstand views over wetlands where bright flocks of parrots fly in to eat the mineral-rich mud. Accessible by air, Mboko Camp lies under trees next to a fresh river and offers game drives on wide-open grasslands as well as forest walks and kayaking.
It’s an experience that is gaining in popularity and the benefits can be felt throughout the region. Another rainforest camp has opened – Sangha Lodge – and this one is in the neighbouring country of the Central African Republic; another example of the power of conservation when all the role players are involved. A bit of light perhaps, in what was once the heart of darkness.
OKAY, I’M INTERESTED: HOW DO I DO IT?
There are options. You could choose a rainforest camp to add onto a more traditional itinerary in East or Southern Africa and enjoy a 2 or 3-day Congo safari. If you have more time available, you should combine various Congo camps for a more immersive and diverse experience.
Here’s a selection of what is available – feel free to contact us for more ideas and information: