Congo rainforest vacations

The Congo rainforest is located in some of the least-explored countries of the world. Anyone thinking of traveling there should go with a tour company that really knows the area – and one company claims to know it much better than most.
On 13 January 2005, Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pleaded guilty to helping finance a failed coup to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea.
“The government simply said, ‘Right, we’re not having any more British people in the country’,” says Aled Evans, from our vacation partner Undiscovered Destinations. As a result, British passport holders weren’t allowed in for a very long time. “It took us a while sweet-talking the embassy, and it was very difficult, but we did end up being able to get visas for our clients.”
The tours were the first for British travelers – which isn’t so surprising for a company that was founded to go to places where no other tours were going. Decades of first-hand experience guiding travelers to destinations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Aled describes as one of the most difficult countries to navigate, means that travelers now come to them looking for something they can’t get anywhere else. If you’ve been on group adventure tours before and you’re looking for a bigger challenge, Aled’s answer is: go to the Congo.

Where can I visit in the Congo rainforest?

The Congo rainforest grows within the 3.7m km2 drainage basin of the world’s second largest river, the Congo. It spans nine countries, extending as far east as Tanzania and south to Zambia, but the bulk of the forest falls within six countries: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

Infrastructure and facilities in forested areas are limited or non-existent. This isn’t somewhere you can go on your own. You always need to be prepared for the unexpected; for things to change or go wrong.

“As they inevitably do,” says Aled. “That’s where we come in. A lot of the things we do include the groundwork and the hard work behind the scenes that people don’t think about. Things like arranging the first visas.” All that leaves you with more time to simply enjoy the experience, which Aled describes as: “Unique. You feel very privileged and also a little bit daunted by it all.”
The trees here are taller than in Asia and the Amazon, and they shelter bigger wildlife: okapi (“zebra giraffes”), forest elephants, hippos and gorillas. But what’s really daunting is realising just how much we have to lose.
“You see, even when I was there 10 or 12 years ago, you could see the deforestation along the banks of the river,” says Aled. “You’d travel 10 or so miles before the rainforest started up again. And thinking back, now, all that area may well be cleared. It’s quite a scary thought.”
Many tours go to areas that aren’t protected by national parks, where logging, legal and illegal, is taking place. Aled hopes that the more travelers who go there, the more value local people can attach to the rainforest, and the more we can help try to protect it.

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Epic expeditions

“This isn’t for someone who’s never been to Africa,” says Aled. “You have to be the right person with the right frame of mind; someone who’s done expeditions before. And if that’s you, then there’s nothing else like it.”

He’s talking about the Congo river expedition, a wild trip dreamed up more than 10 years ago over a couple of pints at the pub. After ironing out the details with the company’s local tour guide, who spends time on the river in his fishing boat, they decided it was a trip that travelers were sure to like.

This is no easy journey; it’s an expedition along a long and powerful river that reaches depths of 220m. There are no set stops. Instead, you’ll land when you see something interesting, to find out who’s in the local village and where to buy supplies, or to camp overnight on the side of the river. The trip, which travels with a crew, cook and guides, is only run once a year and offers the most in-depth experience of the region that it’s possible to get.

As with most rainforest vacations, it’s the interaction with local people that will stay with you as much as anything – the stopping, buying, trading and bartering. As the boat goes past, you’ll have a whole village waving at you.

“We invite travelers to take photos along so they can show photos of their families and where they’re from, where they live,” says Aled. It encourages a bit of cultural interaction, and it’s often the cultural exchanges that travelers really bring back as memories from these trips.

What does a vacation in the Congo rainforest entail?

An open mind

Yes, you’ll need a reasonable level of fitness to make the most of any vacation in the Congo rainforest, but it’s your attitude and open-mindedness that matter more than anything else. “Things will go wrong and do go wrong,” says Aled. “For most of our clients that’s part of the fun, that’s the experience – it’s what it’s all about. If it was easy and everything went like clockwork, then everyone would do it.” It’s true for all travel, but especially in the Congo: if you travel with the right frame of mind, you’ll come away with a much more positive experience.

Cultural tours

Small group tours that combine culture and nature are a great way to discover the rainforest and the people who live alongside it. There are hundreds of different communities living across West Africa and you’ll get to visit some of them, such as the traditional Cameroonian Kingdom of Bandjoun. But best are the casual encounters, like when you’re waving back to the kids who run to greet you as you pass by their villages on your boat. Or the people you meet while traveling on the Cameroonian sleeper train, on which you’ll fall asleep in the southern steamy tropics and wake up in the semi-arid Sahel region in the north.

Gorilla trekking & safaris

Most tours to the Congo rainforest won’t encounter much of the region’s most exciting wildlife – either because the areas you visit are so untouched that they’re practically impenetrable beyond the roads, or because the wildlife simply isn’t there. Deforestation has destroyed too much valuable habitat. However, if animals are what you’re after, book a specialist Congo safari vacation or a gorilla trekking vacation in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in the heart of the rainforest. You’ll be led by – and learn from – leading primatologists who can often locate gorilla families living deep in the forest.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: DFID - UK Department for International Development] [Women: Julien Harneis] [Mother and child gorillas: Johnny Chen] [Gorilla posing: Mike Davison]