Finding your way around isn’t always easy in the Congo, writes author Sean Rorison.Read more...
Congo - When and where to visit
There are only two seasons across the Congos: dry and rainy, though depending on where you are, the times for these will change. In the rainforest the rainy season arrives like clockwork in the winter, from about October to April; frequent downpours and scattered clouds will greet the traveller, and could heed movement across the moist and muddy lowlands. In general, through the northern belt of equatorial rainforest the rainy season runs from October to April, and in the Katanga region the rains come from December to March.
Monsoon rains are the norm, meaning short outbursts of rain that will last one or two hours and drench everything in sight. These tend to occur in the afternoon and early evening. Temperatures in the plains of the south of DR Congo can be as much as 35°C in the summer, but averaging about 25°C across the rainforest, with heavy humidity. In the mountains along the east it can get cooler in the day and evening, sometimes going as low as 10°C.
The Congos have two seasons: dry and rainy. In the dry season the roads tend to be better for overlanding, though it can get hot and dusty at times. In the rainy season some roads may be impassable due to mud and flooding, so visits into the deep rainforest are usually done in the dry months. There is an exception to this as the southern reaches of DR Congo are in the African savanna belt and experience a later rainy season, but can be oppressively hot in the summer.
There are many high points across the region, mostly natural – such as the towering Ruwenzori Mountains in the east, which are climbable along a trail of guesthouses to the peaks. The Congo River is a sight to behold anywhere along its banks, and the history of central Africa’s largest river is a great one. For sworn urbanites who don’t mind a little squalor the opposing cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville are unique – no other capitals exist so closely to each other, and no other neighbouring cities in such close proximity could be so different. Pointe Noire has developed into a small expatriate enclave with fine restaurants and fishing tours for the francophone world, but there’s no reason why the English-speaking world can’t join in. For the truly adventurous there is always the possibility of overlanding through the DR Congo, something rarely done but sure to give a dedicated traveller some serious bragging rights.
The vast majority of people visiting the Congos these days do so for the wildlife, and specifically the gorillas. Most people will go with a noted tour group as obtaining permits and transport to these areas is still not simple for a solo traveller. I would also highly recommend sticking with one certain region if you will be visiting for only a few weeks, as traversing the Congos from place to place can be a lengthy endeavour. While gorillas do make their homes near the borders of Rwanda and Uganda it is on the DR Congo side that they reside in larger populations. Arriving in Rwanda and Uganda and taking a tour into the parks along the eastern border is a great option for some short-term wildlife viewing.
Brazzaville can also be a good base from which to explore the wildlife of northern Congo, and taking a tour through the Lefini Reserve or further north in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park will be rewarding. Odzala Park in the north is also making a resurgence with a focus on high-end, all-inclusive tours for tracking western lowland gorillas.
From Rwanda, a great circuit would begin in Goma with a hike to the top of Mount Nyiragongo, followed by a visit to the mountain gorillas near Djombe. Then travel south by a fast boat (canôt rapide) to Bukavu, visit the eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and then leave through the Ruzizi border crossing to Cyangugu. This would take roughly a week, and you would see some of the best sites the DR Congo has to offer.
Likewise, a visit from Uganda could begin in Bunagana with a visit to the mountain gorillas of Djombe. Then, continue north to visit the Rwindi Plains, the gorillas of Tshiaberimu, then continue east from Beni to see the hippos at Ishango and climb the Ruwenzoris at Mutwanga before departing at Kasindi. I’d recommend two weeks for this programme.
Arriving and departing from Pointe Noire would give the opportunity to visit Point Indienne and Diosso, the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Conkouati-Douli National Park over a week. For a two–three-week journey, head north from Brazzaville to begin with the Lefini Reserve and Odzala Park. Or conversely, join a tour and visit Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park by plane.
From Lubumbashi, if you can rent a vehicle, both L’Upemba parks and Kundelungu could be visited over two weeks as well as the town of Likasi. From Kinshasa with your own vehicle, heading southwest to Bas-Congo to visit Zongo Falls, the Mbanza-Ngungu caves, Matadi, Boma, and Moanda would make a good two-week trip.