The caves (which Wikipedia calls the Thysville Caves; Thysville is the former name of Mbanza-Ngungu) are located near Mbanza-Ngungu, about 150 km from Kinshasa. Wikipedia also asserts that the cave complex is 750 square kilometers in size, which is not surprising because they are massive. The caves are known for the threatened blind fish (Caecobarbus geertsii), which are only found in this complex of caves, nowhere else in the world.
There are three caves you can visit though we only have explored one for ourselves:
Lukatu (ex Randour) – The closest cave to Mbanza Ngungu at 2 km from the town, it’s possible to walk from the town to this cave (with good shoes, the road and caves can be muddy and slippery). This cave is 10 km long, and it’s possible but difficult to see the blind fish there. It’s difficult to access during the rainy season.
Dimba ou Finzolua Ndombolozi (ex Tordeur) – The big cave is the most visited. 5 km from Mbanza-Ngungu, you could also walk if you have some time. The cave is a huge tunnel, which was “discovered” by a Belgian colonel named Tordeur in 1915. Visitors usually descend almost a kilometer into the cave, but you can go even farther. We’ve heard that a lot of the stalactites and stalagmites have been damaged by frequent visits. It’s known for bat guano, which people harvest and use for fertilizer (and they grow lots of Kinshasa’s produce in this area). You will probably see bats here and in the Ngovo Cave. Also difficult to access during rainy season.
Ngovo – 13 km from Mbanza-Ngungu, this is the cave we visited. The mouth of the cave looks like something out of Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones with vines and water falling down the cliff face. There are old stone and metal stairs leading down into the caves and at various points in the cave where it’s slippery or steep. The tunnels are massive; it feels like being in a subway tunnel. After a 500 m walk, you make it to the underground waterfall and pools where the blind fish live. A village guy brought a sieve with him and caught one of the blind fish in it for us to look at. They are small but pretty amazing, with red spots where the eyes once were. Walking to the cave wasn’t hampered by the rain, but the road was really bad so again rainy season is probably not the best time to go.
We went to the Tourism Office in Mbanza-Ngungu and hired a guide. Actually our guide was just the guy who worked at the office, but we’ve heard from others sometimes they will call a different guide for you. He suggested we go to the Ngovo Cave because the others would be difficult to access with the rain. I don’t know how much more difficult they could have been than the treacherous times we experienced on the road, but he said the tall grass would make it hard to get down to the caves so who knows. He started out saying $100, and we decided on $70. I’m guessing he would have done it for less, but it was a holiday and we didn’t have a lot of time so we decided not to press our luck bargaining harder. Of the $70, $10 went to the village chief and $5 each went to two guys from the village who went down into the cave with us. So he made $50 off of the trip. He did a good job explaining the cave and knew his way around well, but he wasn’t much help pushing the car out of the mud.
Some friends have camped out there (because their car got stuck). There’s not really a particular campsite, but if you check with the chief of wherever you are, you can find a place to camp.
What to Bring: Good flashlights/headlamps, small change to pay the gang of guys who are going to push your car out of the mud, the guys who go in the cave with you, and the chief.
When to Go: Dry Season! The road is extremely muddy in the rainy season; we lost control of the car and got stuck 3 times. We’re quite lucky we didn’t roll over down a mountain.
How to Get There: Take the Matadi Road to Mbanza-Ngungu. The Tourism Office is located right behind the Tribunal de Grand Instance (in the center of town across from the railway station). If you want to try and get to the caves by yourself, continue past the Tribunal and take the first paved lefthand turn. Continue on this road after the paved part ends. The first two caves are close to the road (I think); for the third, you will have to ask for directions when you arrive in the third village. It’s best to take a guide with you as the caves are big, dark, and confusing.
Travel Time: About 3 hours from Kinshasa.
Risk Assessment: Slippery roads on the sides of mountains can be quite dangerous. Dry season is the best time to avoid risk. A guide will help you stay safe and not get lost inside of the caves.
Contact Info: 081 051 4196 – Tourism Office. You can call ahead or call if you show up and the office is closed. We called, and someone showed up in about 30 minutes.