Hostile environments, Part #2: Republic of the Congo
This is the second in a series of essays providing practical advice to business and diplomatic travellers on travel to specific hostile environments. This essay is about travel to the Republic of Congo.
The first thing to know is that this is not the same country as the Democratic Republic of Congo, an adjacent country formerly known as Zaire. Both countries are extremely bad; but they are bad in different ways. We will cover the Democratic Republic of Congo in a later episode in this series; this article is about the Republic of the Congo.
You will need a visa and it will be expensive. The most important thing to write on your visa application form is the word "l'huile". Otherwise your visa will be denied. It is not particularly straightforward to get a visa for the Republic of the Congo (they don't have that many embassies), without the right sort of connection (invitation from an oil company, the United Nations, etcetera). However transparently forged documents do appear to be acceptable visa support according to sources we know. (We have not tried this ourselves.)
The European flights to the capital, Brazzaville, tend to go from Paris as a rule. Arrival at the airport is fairly civilised. (Contrast departure, discussed below.) There is air conditioning, border guards, lots of normal things that give the illusion of normality. Have your hotel (there is only one remotely tolerable; it is extortionately expensive; get used to it and pay) send a car to collect you. Do not try the airport taxis. Taxis in Brazzaville are very bad, because they are not four wheel drive jeeps; and those sorts of cars are the only kind that can navigate Brazzaville's outrageously appalling roads that for the most part are just sewers of mud. Regular taxis will just get stuck in the mud, whereupon you will attempt to walk and you too will be stuck in the mud: in a large city with appalling maps. Hotel car is a necessity.
Brazzaville is not dangerous physically; but virtually everything else that could be wrong with an African city, is wrong with Brazzaville. The internet access is faltering to non-existent. The domestic telephone network is barely operational. Orientation is nightmarish because the city is just a sea of mud and shacks, with the occasional palm tree. You will be so covered in mud within five minutes of leaving your hotel on foot, that you will need to go back and change all your clothes and have a thorough bath. The city is full of crawling insects. It is bakingly hot and humid all day, every day. You will be having lots of interactions with mud. There are routine horrendous thunder storms that compound the quantity of mud. Wash all clothes in your hotel sink, naturally. Do not give them to others to wash or they will be returned ruined.
If you have found the correct hotel, then it has more than one restaurant and you should confine your eating habits to them. Duplomats' children tend to dominate the swimming pool. The bar is a collection of most unenticing prostitutes. You will spend a lot of your time in Brazzaville extremely bored. Bring a series of good books to read.
The people of the Republic of the Congo are actually rather friendly, particularly if you speak French. They will happily guide you through some mud fields if you ask them for directions. This author tried to walk from the only tolerable hotel to the Parliament building, what appeared to be a ten minute walk from the map. He got lost within 30 seconds of leaving the hotel, asked a man in a suit for directions, whereupon that man guided him through mud and forests for some 45 minutes. Upon reaching the Parliament, both visitor and guide were covered head to foot in mud, both wearing suits. Thankfully so was everyone else, so it did not seem to be a problem sitting in the Parliament Chamber and even giving a speech to the Parliamentarians caked head to foot in mud.
The reverse travel procedure involved hailing a local taxi that got stuck in the mud. See above for the results.
You might imagine that you would like to walk round the city centre to see its sights. Disabuse yourself of this notion immediately. The city centre is a series of 1950's neo-brutalist French concrete structures, covered in mud. You will not be eating in any of the local restaurants; you can forget that idea entirely. You can walk down the corniche of the Congo River, at nightfall, watching simple wooden boats cross the Congo River vastly overloaded with passengers to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the opposite bank and visible from Brazzaville. The river is some miles wide at this juncture. A lot of those boats won't make it. Obviously you won't be travelling to Kinshasa that way. Instead you will be paying up to USD1,000 for a 15 minute 'plane ride, possibly the most expensive commercial airline ticket in the world proportionate to distance travelled.
Naturally you should not attempt to travel outside Brazzaville. There are few roads to speak of, and those there are are focused on mud. You will probably simply die, surrounded by and stuck in mud. Do not believe the stories of unlimited mineral wealth. The Republic of the Congo does indeed have massive mineral wealth, but it is mostly inaccessible by reason of the territory's natural environment hostility. You can't get to the deposits, and you cannot get the equipment to the deposits, because everything is forest, sweltering heat, jungle, and mud.
The French oil workers in Pointe Noire on the west African coast fly in and out of that place directly to foreign countries on chartered aircraft. Do not attempt to go there. It is unbelievably ghastly, a beach composed of oil and mud, and full of depressed alcoholic French oil company employees all realising that the colossal money they were offered wasn't worth it.
Departing Brazzaville, the immigration and customs officials become aggressive and often demand money improperly. The majority of departing flights are several hours late and end up departing in the early hours of the morning; the air conditioning was turned off while you were trying to sleep on a plastic chair. The joint sense of relief when you finally board the 'plane is palpable.
When you return to civilisation, go immediately to a doctor specialised in tropical diseases to have the severe malaria strain you have contracted notwithstanding your meticulous prophylactic regime treated with a strong course of Doxycycline. Do not seek medical help in Brazzaville or anywhere else in the Republic of the Congo.
The Republic of Congo is very bad; but it is not the worst country in the tropics. We will come to that particular jurisdiction a little later in this series.