A Review of the Bradt Congo Guidebook

Sometime back, when preparing for my maiden voyage to DR Congo, I wrote about the Bradt Congo guidebook. It has the distinction of being the only recently-printed guidebook on Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as the Republic of Congo. It’s also the only one in English that is current, being that Lonely Planet’s ‘Zaire’ guide is a bit out of date. Now that I am back from gallivanting around DR Congo, I can give the book its due.

The author, Sean Rorison has done a fine job of covering a massive area with poor transportation and next to no infrastructure. As I mentioned in the previous article, he doesn’t mess around when talking about the situation there. He goes in to great detail of all the restaurants, hotels, and history really well. The background provided in the book is a great summation of the history and current situation of DR Congo that prepares the traveler for what they are about to experience once setting foot in the country.

Of course, DR Congo it’s not for the easygoing traveler who thinks that Prague is really crazy to visit because it’s “scary” Eastern Europe. Unlike a book on say, Hawaii, Rorison doesn’t work to sell the reader the destination but actually prepare them for the trip. In essence, it does what a lot of guidebooks are missing the point of doing these days (I’m looking at you, Fodors).
It lays out pretty much everything that’s touristic to see in any of the towns, which is not that much. It also gets in to the practical aspects of getting around the country, which are not easy. This is one point that might need to be developed more in a future edition (if there is one) is that one of the only airlines that was safe to fly on, Hewa Bora, has not really ever been that safe to fly on and got a whole lot less safe in April and should not be flown on if one enjoys living.

Other basics are covered well, including hospitals (try not to go), women travelers (not advised to go solo), embassies (register with yours there), and Article 15 (a remnant of Mobutu times that is an unstated law essentially allowing mass corruption). That being said, there are a few things that could be done to spruce the book up a bit. One thing is to go in to better detail on budgeting. While costs are always changing (getting more expensive), I can’t see how you can survive in a place like Kinshasa on $40 a day. A hotel that’s at a high enough level to avoid getting scabies is a minimum of $70 a night. Food can be cheap, but one must be willing to adventure a little.

There really needs to be a bigger section on the N’Djili Airport in Kinshasa. That’s a wacky place that’s not the easiest thing to navigate. While getting better, it’s still not like any typical concept of an airport that most anyone from the US or Europe will be used to. Additionally, just getting to and from it is an ordeal that isn’t given enough print in the book. The same should be said of the airport in Bukavu, although to lesser degrees.

Another thing that would really help is to lay out itineraries in the various areas. Congo isn’t like European destinations wherein spare time can be filled by just wandering the city. It takes a long time to get anywhere and do anything there, so you really need to be pretty anal retentive when making plans, unless of course you just want to sit around in cafes watching the hustle and bustle, which will inevitably happen even if you don’t intentionally plan it.

Obviously, one can’t cover everything and it’s good to see that Rorison mentioned Patisserie Nouvelle in Kinshasa, but he missed the restaurants of Surcouf and Chantilly which are great spots. And while the coverage of Uvira is far too short, he does a good job with Bukavu and an even better job with Goma, as well as an entire section just on the Ruwenzori Park. I really enjoyed the sidebar on, “Where t-shirts go to die”, which is a good read and very true if you’re ever curious as to where your donated clothing ends up in the world.

The one gleaming thing that is nearly not covered at all are the expats. I assume that this must be the author’s and the editor’s decision, as it’s an aspect of DR Congo that is unavoidable. The book doesn’t really get in to how the UN (as well as other NGO’s) blanket the country and you will most definitely run in to expats as there are literally thousands of them in the country. I can understand that when writing a guidebook to a country that you want to talk more about the country than those who outsiders to it, but unlike expats in Spain, those in Congo are really part of the whole writhing mess that is Congo. They can also be a good source for local information for first timers to the country as well.

But in closing, despite my small nitpicks, this is a great guide to the Congos. Rorison and Bradt could have easily have done a half-assed job since they’re heading in to a region that has next to no competition, but in the end, they produced a very worthy guide that is a gleaming example of what Bradt does best in that they cover regions that are undiscovered.

Update: On Bradt’s website, I noticed that there is a section for author updates for out of date information, which is fantastic. For instance, the Serbia author has put in a good deal of data. I hope that Rorison can do this as well when he has the time.

Update 2:Well, I’ve just heard back from the author and he has clarified a few things for me. His daily cost estimates are indeed accurate based on the lowest, subsistence travel possible and one can indeed stay for $9 a night in Kinshasa if one is willing to sleep in the filthiest room ever of a “hotel” that is part of a bar. He also said that he did indeed leave out the expats intentionally as they form a sort of a parallel existence to that of actual Congo, which I have seen to be very, very true as based on my own observations.