The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of Africa’s most beautiful and largest countries – and one of its richest in terms of its vast mineral wealth – boasts the second largest rainforest in the world; the Congo River, Africa’s most powerful river; five World Heritage Sites; and mountains, fabulous game parks, and rare and endangered animal species. The DRC also has approximately 450 ethnic communities, hence its diverse linguistic and cultural richness.

Because the DRC straddles the equator, with dense equatorial rainforest in its central river basin and eastern highlands, its climate is mainly hot, humid and rainy.

The Congo River and its tributaries flow throughout the entire country, one of the largest rainforest areas in the world. Both the river and the country were named after the ancient Kingdom of Congo that lay at the mouth of the river – the only access to Atlantic Ocean.

Most of the river is navigable, especially between Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, and Kisangani, and a river cruise is an amazing experience. The river has over 30 waterfalls and thousands of islands, at least 50 of which are more than 20km long.

The river near the equator is bordered by lush tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife such as elephant, whereas when the surrounding banks are rich in long grass, buffalos, antelopes, zebras, gazelles, giraffes and other plains game are abundant. The DRC is also known for its bonobos, mountain and lowland gorillas, okapi antelopes, white rhinoceros and Congo peacock.

A mountain gorilla.

A mountain gorilla.

Recent progressive and successful conservation efforts from the DRC itself as well as global conservationists, the European Union, philanthropists and private donors are working hard to ensure that the DRC’s amazing biodiversity will endure for future generations.

Virunga National Park in northern Kivu, a World Heritage Site (inscribed in 1979), founded in 1925 by King Albert 1 of Belgium primarily to protect its mountain gorillas, is famous for some of the finest gorilla watching in the world. A trek into the forest to find these magnificent, highly endangered animals will be any visitor’s experience of a lifetime.

Virunga, which also includes the Rwenzori Mountains, the Rwindi Plains and Lake Edward, boasts awesome scenery and abundant flora, as well as lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, hippo and chimpanzees, plus a huge variety of birdlife. Activities in addition to game viewing and birding include boating, rafting or hiking through the dense rainforest.

The park is also noted for its eight volcanoes, two of which, Nyiracongo and Nyamulagira, are still active. A volcano trek is another awesome experience.

Lesser well known and with fewer visitors than Virunga but equally awesome is the 6 000km2 Kahuzi-Biega National Park, another World Heritage Site, near Bukavu town in the eastern part of the country. It’s a huge area of primary tropical forest dominated by two stunning extinct volcanoes, Kahuzi (height 3 308m) and Biega (height 2 790m). Gorilla trekking is one of its main attractions because some of the world’s last eastern lowland gorillas are found here.

The Rwenzori Mountains (also known as the Mountains of the Moon) that border Virunga National Park lie right near the equator and yet are snow-covered throughout most of the year. The mountains’ fascinating vegetation starts at the forest floor in tropical rain forest, ascends into bamboo forest and culminates in alpine meadows. Forest elephants roam the dense forest that is inhabited by two of DRC’s many ethnic communities, the hunter-gathering nomadic Mbuti and Efe pygmies.

The DRC has significant energy potential thanks to the Congo River, which is 4 700km in length with a flow of 41 000m3 per second, which can be converted into electrical energy. The largest hydropower site is at Inga in Kongo Central province.

Located along the southern bank of the Congo River, directly opposite Brazzaville, the capital of neighbouring Republic of Congo, is the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa. With a population of more than 13-million, it’s reputed to have one of the largest French-speaking populations of any city in the world.

Kinshasa is a hotchpotch of sharp contrasts, with upmarket residential, commercial and business areas, fine hotels, glitzy nightlife, cosmopolitan restaurants and modern shopping malls co-existing with sprawling informal settlements.

A good day trip and a 90-minute drive from Kinshasa is the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary for orphaned bonobos, once thought to be a species of chimpanzee, but now recognised as a separate species.

Although its road and rail systems are generally poor the DRC has a very comprehensive system of airports with both internal and external flight connections.