The Democratic Republic of Congo is a riot of colour, noise and magic.
In the capital, Brazzaville, all the action happens in the Poto-Poto area, where the best dressed and dynamic go. Crazy braids and sharp make-up stand out defiantly from electric blue and dazzling green dresses, but try to take a picture at your peril. Boutiques and salons are everywhere, with hand-drawn images proudly advertising that perfect look.
Papaya, bananas and lychees sit in baskets on pavements opposite buzzing bus stops, where people shout, cajole and strut through the crowds; passing shops playing Congolese rumba (well, Brazzaville has been designated a UNESCO city of music!). Anything and everything is sold, fake sunglasses, shoes and bags, eggs, chickens and phones; but in the middle of this you find French pastry shops selling teeth tingling, sugary treats alongside roasted peanuts.
Despite this increasing modernisation, the Congolese have a passion for the past. The bones of the European explorer – De Brazza – after which the city is named, are buried here along with those of his family. This is the man who bought more fireworks than firearms to win over local tribes and convinced them to come together under the French flag.
Head out into the wildlife parks however and the forests are just as lively. The camps at Lango and Ngaga allow you to explore the wilds in comfort – but even after the private plane to Odzala National Park, getting to the camps themselves, still requires a bone-jarring ride on terrible roads. Just make sure all the zips on your bag are tight to stop anything being flung out of the vehicle. For those with smaller budgets but a bigger appetite for adventure, head to the ( even more) remote north and Nouabale Ndoki national park to join primate researchers from the wildlife conservation society for some wild eco-tourism.
Your rewards for the effort? Coming face to face with endangered western lowland gorillas in forests that defy description. Giant ferns, towering above you, where everything grows big so you experience nature on an epic scale. Giant butterflies flash blue and red and as monkeys alarm calls ring out across the forest, startled hornbills take flight. The night is no less engaging – eyes shine in the spotlight on night walks, scorpions glow in trees and hundreds of tiny fireflies glitter in the swamps. You might even see a family of forest elephants by moonlight.
Traditional villages sit side by side in many of these areas, as increasingly endangered animals, (bushmeat, skins and bones) satisfy two of the counties basic needs – food and magic. Offerings are made to appease the Ejengi forest spirit that roams the Congo at night.
If all this sounds prehistoric, then good – it is – and just to prove it there are even rumours of Africa’s very own loch ness monster hiding in Lac Tele – the Mokele-Mbembe. Sounds far fetched? Scientific expeditions as recently as 2002 think there’ something out there…
By now you should have gathered that this is not a place for everyone and definitely not for the faint-hearted. The Congo is hot, humid and physically demanding and whilst things won’t always go to plan, who wouldn’t want to explore a country where you find magic, glowing animals – and if lucky, a dinosaur? Best start applying for your visa now…