The Republic of Congo is an interesting country and to a large extent unspoiled and undeveloped, as Eben Delport recently found out.
Before independence in 1960, the Republic of Congo was part of French Equatorial Africa and was known as Middle Congo. During the 1960s it became known as Congo Brazzaville, after its capital, to distinguish it from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
After our brief visit to the group of South Africans farming north of Dolisie – described in the previous issue – we continued our journey towards Brazzaville and then to the north, in search of gorillas.
It was with a sense of adventure that we travelled into the “unknown”, on some very tricky roads and terrain, making it an experience second to none!
The season in which you plan to go into this area is of great importance because the roads can become very difficult and dangerous in the mud. Luckily, the Chinese construction companies are busy everywhere in Congo Brazzaville, and the roads are improving month by month. Nevertheless, it took us 18 hours to travel just 280km on the national N1 route from Dolisie to Kinkala (80 km before Brazzaville).
The city of Brazzaville was founded in 1880 by a Franco-Italian explorer named Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, and it retains much of its French flavour. In the area close to the Congo River, tree-lined boulevards give way to pastel-coloured colonial buildings and grand Catholic churches and memorials.
The outskirts of the city, where the majority of the people live, are very different from the city centre – like most cities, I suppose. Brazzaville may lack a lot of traditional tourist attractions, but it certainly makes up for this in charm.
One of the things that has stood out for me, travelling through the south-western countries of Africa (Angola and the Congos) is that, in general, the people are very friendly and courteous. The organised chaos of traffic is a case in point. There is no aggression involved. There may be very few traffic lights, stop streets and other road signs, but by some miracle things just seem to flow, even in the big cities where the traffic is always heavy.
Taxis are the preferred mode of transport. It is interesting that in the bigger cities the taxis are all painted the same colour. For instance, in one city the taxis are all green, and in another they are all red.
The rural economy in Congo Brazzaville is a mixture of subsistence hunting and agriculture. There is an industrial sector based largely on oil and support services. The oil and forestry industries make up the bulk of the economy, and natural gas is increasingly being converted to electricity rather than being flared. New mining projects, particularly iron ore, will also contribute largely to the country’s revenue.
Despite both Congos being among the least visited by tourists in Africa, they have tremendous potential because of the dense forest areas, great rivers and waterfalls, and unique wildlife. For off-road travellers, there is spectacular scenery and a real sense of adventure.
We went in search of the Western Lowland gorillas, which are threatened with extinction because of the illegal baby trade, habitat destruction, the threat of the Ebola virus and the illegal bush meat trade.
We visited the Lefini Game Reserve, but unfortunately did not have time on this trip to do it justice. One needs proper planning and plenty of days to be able to appreciate the reserve and see the Lowland gorillas in the wild.
In Lefeni, gorillas that had been freed from captivity are released on islands in the Lefini River, where they live in family groups in their natural habitat.
The sight of gorillas in the wild is an unforgettable experience. We met a group of infants that had been saved from the illegal trade and were being looked after close to the main campsite. They will eventually be released at an older age to join other groups.
Although it initially did not appeal to me to see “semi captive animals”, seeing the baby gorillas being fed proved me wrong. It was one of the most touching experiences of my life. The young gorillas have been given a second chance at life and will be released in an environment where they can grow up in the wild – free and among their own kind.
Exploring the river islands and seeing a group of reintroduced gorillas that now live freely in their natural habitat, along with babies that have been born since the reintroduction, is the highlight of a visit to Lefeni Park – and possibly of any overlanding “career”.