Is backpacking in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s most dangerous countries, possible?
Yes. With no Western country recommending that you visit, however, you are in store for a unique experience.
What visa paperwork do I need?
As with this part of Africa, the visa arrangements for DR Congo are fluid. But you need your papers in order. Be careful going with an “informal solution”, as this can get you into trouble later on. The basic rule is that pretty much everybody needs a visa to get into DRC, so you should get one. Follow up with your nearest embassy of the DRC for further information. It may be possible to apply at embassies in other African countries, even if you are not resident there, but be warned that the DRC says this sort of visa isn’t valid for entry unless there is no DRC embassy in the country of your citizenship. Again, this is a bit fluid – get a visa and cross your fingers. If you’re just hitting a national park, some simplified arrangements may apply.
What should the plan be?
Realistically, you’ll not be striking out on your own into the interior to “see what happens”. You’ll want a clear, discrete objective in hand (gorillas, probably in Virunga National Park, volcanoes or the Congo River experience). Otherwise, to go native, it might be best to contact a church or NGO and embed yourself there. So at least folks there will be expecting you and there is somewhere for you to stay and absorb the local situation.
How will I get around the Congo?
The roads are largely shot, depending on time of year and where are you going. DRC has less infrastructure than it had 60 years ago, due to significant recurrent conflicts. You’ll be using minibuses, motorbikes and your own two feet. There are airlines in DRC, and nobody recommends flying them, but sometimes this will be your best bet. Stick with Compagnie Africaine d’Aviation, called “CAA” locally, which has a fairly comprehensive domestic network.
What are the two big cities, and where would I start?
You’ll probably start in Kinshasa or Goma. Both have some direct flights, but you’ll likely be entering from another African country (Republic of Congo, for Kinshasa, and Uganda or Rwanda for Goma). A third city, Kisangani, is where you’d catch a barge down the river to Kinshasa, for the full Congo River experience. This can be done as an assisted tour, for $$$. You can do it yourself, although there have been issues with barges not accepting white folks (“muzungu”) without head office permission and special paperwork. To join a barge, you would catch a flight, probably from Kinshasa, to Kisangani.
A bit about Goma
Smokingunz, a veteran of DRC, writes that “Goma is safe enough during the day, but not even the Congolese are brave enough to venture out at night if they don’t have to.” There’s no electricity and things are pretty chaotic on the streets (you’ll get an idea of how much is going on by the sketch below). The hotels have generators for electricity and hot water during certain times of the day.
Most nomad folks use Goma as the base to get to the “extremely rare gorillas”, also pictured below. There’s a rich volcanic scenery, and much plush jungle characteristic of the eastern DRC.
Image credit: Timoingoma
A bit about Kinshasa
From Kinshasa, the most connected DRC city, you can go out onto the Congo River and explore. You can rent a boat, better if you share the cost with others, and have a BBQ on the boat for a day. The boat will come with a driver. Don’t miss the bonobos by Lac de ma Vallée. The city itself is massive, has a larger range of accommodation options, bars and restaurants than Goma, with fleeting electricity too. Don’t miss the local seafood teamed with a primus beer. With all that nice stuff covered, know that Kinshasa is hard to move around in. Expect to be harassed by traffic police and others, all looking for your money. You should refuse the pressure. Often they’ll say “you need this other document (made up), and the fine is USD 100.” Don’t fall for it. Don’t show your papers to anyone without a uniform and remain calm and firm. Most give up and will let you be.
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Where will I stay?
Backpacking in this area of the world, and especially DR Congo, is different, so you won’t be getting on an app to get your hostel ahead of time. You’ll be using hotels and couch surfing with UN folks/NGO people. Tented camps are common. There are some remarkable crap hotels in Kinshasa, so do your homework ahead of time.
What are some practical tips for the Congo?
- Don’t travel at night.
- Offer to share food with folks around you, particularly if in close quarters.
- Never waste food (if you’re not going to finish some food, please offer it to someone else – wasting food is very impolite).
- Bring a mosquito net and small tent.
- If you’re on the mini-buses, don’t forget to pack sufficient food and water. You can’t really get these things are most places they stop on the journey.
- Bring dried food.
- Basic French would be very useful.
- Bring common Western medicine and pain relief pills.
- Be prepared for hassle. If officials sense it is your first time doing something, they may be more insistent on the bribes etc. Be polite and patient.
What are your friendly tips? Don’t be shy. Let us know by leaving a comment below.