Tucked into Africa’s Congo Basin is a paradise long dismissed by the outside world.
Congo: it’s a moniker that is at once intriguing and terrifying. It conjures images of impenetrable forests and crackpot dictators, elusive creatures and tropical disease. It’s a burden of a name for the Republic of the Congo, for this unassuming Central West African country is frequently mistaken for its volatile and sometimes Ebola-stricken neighbour, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Yet a map of Africa gives the lie to such misconceptions, for the DRC is a behemoth of a nation and its troubles are confined mostly to its easternmost provinces, half a continent away from its smaller, less populated and far more peaceful namesake.
It’s this confusion, along with an underdeveloped tourism infrastructure, that has sequestrated Congo-Brazzaville (as it’s also known) from Africa’s well-trod safari trail. Yet the country’s centrepiece, Odzala-Kokoua National Park – a two-hour charter flight from the capital, Brazzaville – is a protected wilderness area within the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest (after the Amazon) and filled with species so numerous they haven’t all been counted. “No-one has written a field guide to Central Africa,” says guide Alon Cassidy. “Not even all of the trees have been named.”
Among the most charismatic of its inhabitants are forest elephants, sitatungas (aquatic antelopes), chimpanzees and the critically endangered western lowland gorilla. Though hunting and poaching have long threatened their habitat, conservation programs implemented by the not-for-profit African Parks (Prince Harry is president) in partnership with the Congolese government are helping to revitalise the park and uplift local communities.
Tourism, meanwhile, has been boosted by the development of three luxury eco-camps and a charter flight service from Brazzaville. The Classic Safari Company can create itineraries that include accommodation in treehouse-like suites suspended above the rainforest, plus year-round activities such as gorilla treks and on-foot safaris through a mosaic of savannah, salt marshes and secretive, barely charted forest.
SEE ALSO: 10 Decadent African Wellness Retreats