The ultimate Bas Congo trip, which can include detours to any of the many sights along the way, is a road trip to Muanda. Though it’s good to take a week for the trip, allowing two days to drive each way and some time to relax at the beach, we’ve heard of people doing it over a long weekend. We left early on Saturday morning and headed out of town. The first part of the trip, though beautiful was not particularly exciting since we’d driven as far as Kisantu before. After Kisantu, we passed through Mbanza Ngungu and Kimpese, checking out the Kimpese hills from a distance for future climbing possibility. As we approached Matadi, we were struck by the bamboo tunnels created by stands of bamboo on both sides of the road. We tried to stop and have lunch in one, but the mosquitoes pushed us to higher, drier ground.
We arrived in Matadi around 2 in the afternoon and did a bit of exploring to figure out a place to stay and see what there was to do in town. We heard from some friends that people at the Hotel Ledya would be able to help us arrange a trip to the Diogo Cão rocks, where he inscribed his name in 1485, or the Inga Dam, but we asked they seemed to be pretty clueless about what we were talking about. I’m sure with more digging you could arrange a trip, but we decided we were okay with just hanging around town for the afternoon and then heading to the beach in the morning. We got some lunch at the Hotel Ledya and checked out their kids’ play park, which was completely empty even though it was a Saturday afternoon. We didn’t stay there, though, because it’s pretty expensive (around $100 a night), but if you are looking for a nice place to stay, it’s probably your best bet. Heading back downtown, we decided to stay at the Hotel le Petit Jardin, which did not really have a garden, but provided very basic rooms with air conditioning for a negotiable price around $30. We had some Lebanese food, walked around, bought a Jingle All the Way video in Dutch, and got accused of trying to smuggle our friend’s baby out of the country because we were walking toward the port.
The next day, we continued the journey early in the morning, and the first highlight was crossing the Pont Maréchal Mobutu, a huge suspension bridge across the Congo River that the Japanese built in 1983. When you get to the far side, there’s a small park where you can get out and check out views of the bridge and Matadi. Make sure you don’t lose your receipt from the toll because you have to show it on the other side of the bridge. We continued on to Boma, and the road definitely deteriorated. While it is still paved to Boma, there are large patches of where the road is broken. Road-wise, this was our least favorite part of the journey since we found the road from Boma to Muanda not bad even though it isn’t paved. You pass through lots of villages and bamboo tunnels. It took about 3 hours. On the way there, we just drove through Boma without stopping, knowing that we would stop on the way back. After Boma, the land is flatter, and you can see the river for a while before returning to rolling hills. Again about 3 hours from Boma to the coast, but if it has rained a lot, I’m sure it could take longer.
Finally arriving at the ocean, we were greeted by Kabila’s face on a billboard to remind us that, yes, we were still in Congo. We first checked out the Hotel New Cliff, which is right where main road ends at the beach. It’s the most expensive place to stay at about $80 a night, but the beach there is not very nice. We did return for dinner one night, which was fine but not particularly amazing. Turning right right before you hit the water leads you to other hotels and the Catholic mission. We also stopped by the Hotel Mangroves, which was $50 a night and a bit run down but full. We continued on to the Catholic mission where we stayed. There we paid $35 a night for an air conditioned room and breakfast. The air conditioning didn’t work when the power wasn’t as strong, so we ended up switching to a room with a fan facing the ocean and were comfortable there. The best part of staying at the Catholic mission was that it is right next to the beach access point. Since there are cliffs along the beach, you have to use the one available staircase to get down to the beach so it was really nice to be able to easily walk there from where we were staying.
We headed down to the beach and discovered that Sunday is the day that everyone in Muanda goes to the beach. You even have to pay access the beach on Sunday, and there are police officers telling people not to get in the water (because they are afraid of drunk people drowning, I think). The beach is packed, and there are a million places to grab beer and fresh seafood. Monday morning at the beach was the opposite. We found the beach completely empty, picked a great place to sit under a tree, and alternated between relaxing and swimming. And even when there’s no one at the beach, there are still a few guys with coolers who will sell you drinks. Most of the week we did about the same, but we found time for a few more adventures.
We met some American oil workers who suggested we go to Bon Soir for dinner. The restaurant/bar on the road between the paved road and the Catholic mission was awesome. We went ahead of time and told the owner what we wanted and when we’d be there. We arrived to a delicious feast that was only $15 a person (with lots and lots of leftovers, which he suggested we take home, but we declined since we didn’t have access to a fridge). Highly recommended. Another highlight was a trip to the Parc Marin des Mangroves. The priest at the mission connected us with a guide, Louis. He came the night before to discuss which tour we were interested in, but he said he prefers a couple days’ notice before arranging a tour. There were three choices:
-A trip to Bulambemba Island – On the way to the island you see mangroves and tons of crabs. The island itself was used as a staging area for the slave trade, was taken by the Germans during World War II (and the giant guns are still there to prove it), and housed a prison used mostly for political prisoners during both the Belgian and Mobutu eras (Lumumba, Gizenga, and Tshisekedi all did time there) so there’s lots to see. At the end you can have a lunch of fresh cossa cossa.
-A trip to the shell island – This island is completely covered in shells leftover from years and years of dinners. There’s a picturesque village, and you can relax in the bar while some nice ladies prepare you a lunch of, you guessed it, cossa cossa. They also have set up a small guest house if you want to spend the night. On the way you’ll see lots of mangroves, birds, etc.
-A trip to see the hippos – Far upstream (this is actually easier to do coming from Boma), there is a pod of hippos. You can go from Muanda to see them, or a possible alternative is to take a boat from Boma to Muanda instead of driving and see them on the way. You’ll also see mangroves.
We chose to combine the first and second options so it turned into a great full day outing. I forget the prices, but you have to pay for park passes, a guide fee, and gas for the boat. We also gave the boy who was helping the guy out a tip. I think the food was included in the guide fee. It worked out to somewhere more than $100 a person, but it was definitely worth it for the one of a kind experience.
The other thing you can do in Muanda is to drive to Banana and see the mouth of the Congo. When you reach the end of the paved road at the beach (check out the little cabin where the fiber optic cable comes out of the water), turn left and continue on the paved road. We actually didn’t feel like trying to convince the guards at the entrance to the army base that we had a legitimate reason to be there so we didn’t continue, but others have told us that they were let on the base easily. Sadly after four wonderful days hanging out at the beach, we started back toward Kinshasa. In Boma, we stopped at Stanley’s baobab. The $5 entrance fee seems a bit steep to see a tree, but there’s also a little museum and a guide who will tell you about the history of Boma. The tree itself was pretty cool. The Boma tourism office is also located there so if you are interested in seeing any of the other sights of Boma, like the Lady Alice canoe, they will take you.
We actually spent way more time than expected at the baobab tree because we were waiting for some folks from the World Wildlife Fund who worked at the Biosphere de Luki to take us there. In the end, they ended up giving us directions, and we went on our own. It’s about 20 km past Boma on the way back to Kinshasa (though you do have to go a bit out of the way to get there). At the Biosphere, there’s a research station on the top of a hill looking out over the forest where you can stay (it’s $20-25 a person depending on which rooms you choose). It’s beautiful and reminded us of something out of Lost. When we got there, we got a guide to take us on a short walk in the forest. It was already about 4 p.m. so we couldn’t go far, but he did say that you could do much longer hikes if you wanted to. He did a great job explaining all the different types of trees and the kind of research that is being done there. You have to bring your own food, but they will cook it for you if you would like. We hadn’t done much preparing but still enjoyed our meals of canned beans and instant noodles.
The next morning we made the trek back to Kinshasa. It was a long drive but doable in a day, and we made it home well before dark.
What to Bring: While stopping along the way for fruits and veggies is a great idea, you should also bring some food for picnic lunches and snacks.
When to Go: Anytime, but maybe be wary if it has rained a lot.
How to Get There: Take the Route de Matadi to Matadi and then follow signs to Boma. After that there are a few turns, sometimes with signs and sometimes without, so it’s always good to stop and ask if you aren’t sure you’re heading the right direction.
Travel Time: 12-15 hours each way.
Risk Assessment: Probably the trucks on the road are the most dangerous part of this trip.
Contacts: Catholic mission – 0997155378 Louis at Parc Marin des Mangroves – 0819046212 or 0899596180 Prince and Bhely at Biosphere de Luki – 0990916494, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0997545744, email@example.com