Finding your way around isn’t always easy in the Congo, writes author Sean Rorison.Read more...
Congo - Travel and visas
The catch is that if you apply for a tourist visa overseas, they require more documentation regarding your stay – including a confirmed hotel reservation, confirmed round-trip tickets, references from your home country and possibly even a bank statement. Charges for the DR Congo visa can be high, but on the other hand, arriving at a border crossing in the DR Congo with a visa already in hand can save you a large amount of trouble. In my experience none of the documentation required for obtaining a visa in your home country is checked upon arrival in the DR Congo.
Visas are required by every nationality for entering the DR Congo. When crossing from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, Bujumbura to Uvira, and Rwanda into the eastern DR Congo visas may be issued on arrival for a fee – sometimes this has been redacted, however, depending on how relations between their neighbours ebbs and flows. Visas are not available at any airport.
Abridged from the Getting there and away sections in Congo: the Bradt Travel Guide
Kinshasa is the major point of arrival in the region and well connected to the outside world: from Europe there are frequent flights from Paris and Brussels on Air France and SN Brussels Airlines respectively. Regionally there are flights to almost every nearby capital such as Luanda (with TAAG Angolan Airlines), Libreville (with Air Gabon), Douala (with Cameroon Airways), and Hewa Bora Airways does a short hop across the Congo River from Brazzaville. There are also reliable flights on major African airlines to Johannesburg, Addis Ababa and Nairobi with South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. Lubumbashi is gaining ground as an international port of entry. Arrival by air can be a harrowing experience – if you have people to meet you it will be less of a hassle, but chaos, bribes and random searches of luggage (with things going missing afterwards) are all too common. Have your luggage locked and wrapped prior to checking in, and be prepared for a shock of the senses the moment you depart the aircraft. Have US dollars ready in small denominations, and allow an hour or two for some friendly arguing with officials.
Republic of Congo
To the Republic of Congo, your options are limited for flying. The only airline offering any real frequency to the country is Air France (www.airfrance.com), which flies a small aircraft three times weekly direct from Paris to Pointe Noire. They also fly a much larger plane four times weekly to Brazzaville. However, their prices reflect their monopoly on this route – flying direct from Paris to Congo will set a traveller back a small fortune. You can also reach Brazzaville with Ethiopian Airlines (www.flyethiopian.com) via Addis Ababa, for about a third of the price, when the ticket is booked a few months ahead. There is a lesser-known twice-weekly flight from Johannesburg to Brazzaville with Interair South Africa (www.interair.co.za) – also known as Inter Aviation Servi. Regionally, Pointe Noire and Brazzaville are well connected – Air Gabon flies to both cities from Libreville (when they do fly, as they have had continuing financial problems for several years), and TAAG Angolan Airlines flies from Luanda. Cameroon Airways flies from Douala to Brazzaville, sometimes via Libreville, but the status of the airline is patchy at best, with frequent reports of them being bankrupt.
Passenger liners are a thing of the past to Boma, but cargo shipping is alive and well – though the usual historical problems have never really gone away, with the rail line from Boma to Kinshasa being a little unreliable at the best of times. Nonetheless shipping has become a critical industry from the coast and into Kinshasa.
Republic of Congo
If you need something heavy sent down, you can get it shipped to Pointe Noire quite easily. Pointe Noire is, in fact, the only deep-water port in Africa south of Dakar and therefore sees plenty of ships passing through.
Overland and border crossings
The DR Congo has numerous border crossings with its nine neighbours, and most of them will let foreigners cross. To Congo-Brazzaville, you can either take the public ferry for very little money or arrange a ride on a canôt rapide, which costs around US$20 and includes a person who will handle your border formalities for you – which is a good thing in a country where doing it yourself can mean any number of extra ‘fees’.
To the Central African Republic, the three primary crossings from northern DR Congo into the CAR are from Bangui to Zongo, Mobaye and Bangassou. Relations with the CAR have effectively returned to normal, but crossing to either Mobaye or Bangassou should be assisted by local advice – even at the crossing near Zongo, this will not be a charge-free excursion. Keep in mind that to reach Sudan from the DR Congo you’ll be crossing from war-ravaged Haut Uele Province into war-ravaged southern Sudan.
There are several crossings to and from Uganda, which are well trafficked on both sides. For Rwanda, Gisenyi is right on the border with the DR Congo, and this is a good crossing place if you want to visit Goma, a large town right on the other side, and a good base for surrounding areas. However, readers have reported that as of January 2009 you need a letter of invitation from someone in Goma in order to be allowed across. From Burundi, the DR Congo border is tantalisingly close to Bujumbura but also extremely volatile and prone to closures. Interestingly enough, travelling from town to town along the eastern DR Congolese border is best done via neighbouring countries.
From Zambia, the principal crossing is at Kasumbalesa to Chillilabombwe. Kasumbalesa is a vibrant town packed with trucks and plenty of low-budget restaurants and hotels for passing travellers. Foreigners are common here and officials are used to some level of efficiency. Transport onward to Lubumbashi, by private taxi or by minibus, is simple to arrange. And finally to Angola, the primary crossing is on the northern frontier at Matadi – it is open for business and sees traffic in both directions. The crossing in Katanga Province at Dilolo is closed, covered with landmines, and obviously inadvisable. Even though eastern Angola’s civil war is now in the past, this area is definitely off-limits until further notice.
Republic of Congo
From the DR Congo, frequent ferries run between Kinshasa and Brazzaville both on fast motorboats called canôt rapides, and on the crowded public ferry. There are boats that head south from Cameroon into Ouesso and onward boat transport south to Brazzaville. Cabinda’s border with Congo at Pointe Noire is open, provided you are willing to pay for access: about US$100 will get you across, not including a fee for a vehicle. From Gabon there are two options that bring you to Dolisie: the most common route is from N’Dende south, taking about three days. Less common is from Bakoumba to Mbinda, and then south via a once-weekly train connection – border officials on the Gabonese side are famously corrupt and transport is intermittent. It is also possible to cross from Franceville to Okoyo, though the road is bad and this area is known for outbreaks of the Ebola virus. From Cameroon head towards the southeastern most corner of the country, to a village called Bolozo, and then cross the river to the large town of Moloundou. Motorboats can also be hired for a journey along the river to Ouesso.
Travel around the Congos enough and you will have no choice but to purchase a domestic flight – the roads, when they exist, are bad and certain regions are, as mentioned, still emerging from war. In Congo-Brazzaville domestic flights are generally inexpensive, starting at US$50 from Dolisie to Pointe Noire and generally no more than US$75 for the longest stretches such as Brazzaville to Impfondo.
The air network in the DR Congo is extensive, with numerous small operations running flights to most major towns. Their schedules can change quickly, and often their equipment is dangerously old. Both countries have some of the worst aviation accident records in the world. Therefore if you can find a more reputable carrier flying your route, I’d highly recommend you pay the premium and take it. However, in recent years the DR Congo has scrutinised its domestic airlines closely and many have lost their aviation licences – including the venerable Hewa Bora Airways, suspended in July 2011 after yet another crash. Airlines start and stop with such stunning regularity in the DR Congo that it is difficult for a guidebook to advise a traveller on which airline to take. Every time one airline stops, another starts, with varying routes but always similar prices. Major cities are always connected to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi or Goma at least once a week, and between these three cities one can get to the others almost every day.
The costs for flying across the country are extortionate – I have paid US$421 for a one-way flight from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi. Other long-range flying is similarly high, such as Kinshasa to Goma at US$300 and Kinshasa to Kisangani at US$250. Even short flights such as Kinshasa to Boma will cost about US$100. The only reliable method of finding out which domestic flights are leaving on a given day is to show up at the local airport and enquire – most of these airlines are not registered on international booking systems. In fact, many of them do not even keep computer records.
Good old Kisangani barges run from Kinshasa to Kisangani these days, sometimes, unreliably. At the time of writing the frequency was three times a year, with an estimated travel time of one month (this does not count the organised tour that does the route from Kisangani to Kinshasa, which takes two weeks). Further south, the adventurous can try their luck at local boat transport to Kindu, but this cannot be guaranteed even under the best conditions. There is usually some sort of transport along the waterways of the Congos, but this is often slow – though in some areas such as the central DR Congo, it may be the only real option available.
Roads in the Congos, when they exist, vary from bad to virtually non-existent. Road transport between major towns is frequent enough, often on massive trucks that you can see packing for long journeys in Kinshasa and Pointe Noire. In Katanga around Lubumbashi the roads are quickly improving from the border to Likasi, facilitating mining operations, but expect the worst when travelling by road in the DR Congo. If you have your own private transport, this is a good start, but you will need permits, local advice and nerves of steel to travel serious distances overland. For short journeys in the same region, for example Dolisie to Pointe Noire or Beni to Bukavu, road travel is tolerable. Other routes are quickly being opened up to meet the needs of construction companies across the east, and Kisangani to Bunia, as well as Kisangani to Bukavu, are now more or less feasible.
A strange fact of traversing the DR Congo is that it is often easier to travel between towns outside the country – for example if one wanted to travel from Bukavu to Goma, doing so via the paved roads in Rwanda would be a far less difficult task than attempting the harsh road on the DR Congo side. Of course crossing frontiers frequently brings its own sets of problems in this respect – though if in the process of enquiring about the road up ahead there are stories of rebels and police harassing travellers then this is one way to get around them.
Congo-Brazzaville’s famous rail line to the west coast is running on a regular three-times-a-week schedule with two first-class trains and one second- class train. They begin their journey overnight and arrive in Pointe Noire the following evening. The first-class trains are, however, no cheaper than an equivalent flight ticket and don’t expect a pampering for those seats. In the DR Congo the rail service is slowly coming back. From Likasi to Kalemie there is a passenger rail service available, and is accompanied by security through the volatile region of eastern Katanga. A comfortable first-class train service runs from Lubumbashi to Kananga, and from there one can change over to another decent train to Ilebo. There is also a very poor rail line from Kolwezi west to the border with Angola, but no way to cross into that country from there. Trains arrive and depart on a fluctuating schedule and you could be spending days waiting for the train’s arrival. In general, it will depart the day after it arrives.
The glorious old days of overlanding through Zaire have long since passed, and even in those days crossing the country was something only the bravest would attempt. In the new era of the DR Congo the situation is quickly improving – Chinese companies have been working around the clock to repair the road network and previously impossible routes are now easily navigable. As an indication, the old airline TMK Air Commuter in the east stopped its air operations in August 2011 and now does business entirely with a fleet of trucks!
However, some cardinal rules remain for the aspiring Congo overlander. Whatever you do, you absolutely need excessive amounts of time to cross the country. I still recommend a bare minimum of one month to cross, and that is without stopping or making any detours. Enquire at major and minor towns along the way about checkpoints, insurgencies, permits and various other dangers as you continue. Regions can be sealed off by police and army forces for reasons that will likely always remain unclear.
I would recommend that if you are considering crossing the DR Congo overland that you employ a local guide from town to town, and possibly even some security if passing through the central and eastern regions. If you are considering anything between Kikwit and Kindu, I strongly suggest this – show up at the local police station with a grin and a wad of money, and see if they can get someone with a machine gun to ride in the back of the vehicle if they think the road ahead might be hairy. This was how things were done in Ituri for many years.
In the other Congo, travelling north from Brazzaville is not at all difficult. There are a few beaten paths that head to Okoyo and Franceville in Gabon, and the recently repaired road to Ouesso links up with roads to Cameroon. West from Brazzaville, the roads are generally fine, and are quickly being improved by Chinese construction interests – an entire new highway to Pointe Noire should be completed by 2015. The Dolisie–Pointe Noire section was finally completed in late 2011, opening up a route that was only feasible by air for over a decade.
Another way around would be to travel south into Cabinda from Pointe Noire, and then cross into the DR Congo. Make sure you have your permits in order, and even if you do, expect to pay some serious money for the privilege of passing through this area – for vehicles from either Congo, Angola requires export permits to be purchased, which can run into thousands of dollars. It is unclear whether this applies to vehicles registered outside Africa, but enquiries can be made at the Angolan consulates in Matadi or Pointe Noire.
A note of interest is that Google Maps (maps.google.com) now has driving directions built in for both Congos. This can be helpful for having a general idea of how to cross either country, but I would be highly suspicious of their suggested routes – do not follow them blindly, and make sure that the roads they suggest both exist and are navigable!
Whatever you think may be needed on your trip, bring it. There are almost no places to repair a vehicle through either Congo once leaving major urban centres. Bring at least an extra set of tyres (yes, that’s four), enough fluids to replace everything in your vehicle twice, and a self-powered winch for some tight spots. Bring extra parts as well as the tools to fix them. If you’re not a mechanic, take a basic course before setting out: if something breaks, there will be no-one around to fix it, and likely no parts to fix it with anywhere inside the countries. This is by no means a comprehensive list; for more detailed advice, Bradt Travel Guides publishes a guide specifically for overlanding the continent called Africa Overland: 4x4 · Motorbike · Bicycle · Truck, which includes plenty of good advice for getting ready.