While most people visit Mbanza Ngungu for the caves, the town itself is incredibly interesting to explore, with its colonial architecture and train station and repair yard.
Located in an area of Bas-Congo characterized by rolling hills, the weather is more temperate in Mbanza Ngungu than in the rest of the province. Though the day we visited was plagued by unending rain, we’ve driven through on beautiful sunny days, which I’m sure must be delightful.
The town is the third largest in Bas-Congo, with a population of about 120,000, though the old colonial center is pretty compact and very walkable. Before 1904, the town (which was mostly just a stop along the railroad back then) was called Sona Qongo. In 1904, it was named Thysville after Albert Thys, a Belgian businessman who was involved in building the railroad and the Congo Free State’s early economy (i.e., probably responsible for the enslavement and death of many, many people). The name Mbanza Ngungu, like so many others, came during Mobutu’s authenticité campaign.
In the center of town, the railroad station and repair yard sit opposite the government administrative buildings. The station itself has become home to a few dozen people who live both in the indoor spaces and abandoned railway cars opposite. Lots of people walk on the tracks and the platform, so it’s easy to check out the station, though you probably don’t want to go poking too closely into people’s living spaces.
Adjacent to the station is the repair facility, which incorporates both a number of old train cars and engines (some from the 1980s are still in working order) and a very large facility to repair trains. The facility is still working, though the number of employees has gradually decreased as people have retired and they haven’t hired anyone new. (There’s not much work to do when the trains haven’t run for years.) Though we visited on a holiday, there was a manager and guard on duty, so we explained we would like to look around, and though they thought we were a bit bizarre, they consented to let us look around and take photos. At first they suggested we should pay, but they gave up that request pretty quickly. I would guess if you try to visit during work hours, you might have a bit more of a challenge getting as unfettered access as we did.
The most striking thing about the facility was the obvious effort that is put into keeping everything clean, organized, and in working order when no one can even know if the trains will ever run again.
We did not try to go inside the government buildings opposite the train yard, but we did enjoy walking around and checking out their exterior features. Then we meandered up some of the roads behind them, past the Université Kongo, the shell of an old hotel in front of which some vegetable vendors sit, and a number of really cool old colonial houses. The old part of town is small enough that it’s easy to wander a bit without getting lost, and no one seemed fazed by our presence except for the vegetable ladies who asked we not photograph them.
Because of its climate, the Mbanza Ngungu area also produces a lot of produce (you may notice the constant stream of folks coming to sell what they’ve grown as you travel to the caves), so it’s a great place to stop and buy some if you haven’t stocked up outside of Kisantu.
A trip to Mbanza Ngungu town can be combined with the seeing caves and Kisantu, or if you have more time, with the Kimpese waterfalls or a full on Bas Congo beach vacation.
When to Go: Any time of year is good. The road is paved the whole way there.
How to Get There: Take the Route de Matadi. Mbanza Ngungu is about 34 km after Kisantu. There are signs to let you know you are in town. Once you get to the old part of town, the railroad yard on the right is pretty hard to miss.
Travel Time: Two and a half to three hours.
Risk Assessment: Be sure to announce your presence if you visit the railroad yard so as not to ruffle any feathers.
Accommodations: There are a few guesthouses, including one at the university, but we have never spent the night there. We stayed at the Hotel Belle Vue in Kisantu, which was fine, and also camped near the caves and at the Kimpese falls.