Often confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaïre), on the opposite side of the Congo River, Congo (which is officially known as the Republic of Congo and also sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville) offers a friendlier and altogether less threatening version of its sprawling neighbour.
Noted for its lowland gorillas and wild chimpanzees (the country contains over 80% of the world’s population), Congo is characterised by dense rainforest and impenetrable jungle juxtaposed against a narrow 169km coastal strip that plays host to a nascent oil industry. Outside the French-flavoured capital of Brazzaville, attractions include the surf beaches of Pointe-Noire, the white-water Congo River rapids and – in 13, 600-sq-km Odzala National Park – one of the Africa’s largest and least known tropical ecosystems.
Wildlife aside, Congo remains a largely unknown quantity to most outsiders, with little tourist infrastructure and a recent six-year civil conflict scaring off all but the most intrepid travellers. But with a pathway to peace in progress and old feuds and disagreements temporarily – or permanently – forgotten, change flickers tantalisingly on the horizon.
Congo’s greatest asset is the Congolese. Musicians, cooks, philosophers and table-football enthusiasts, the people of this ex-French colony are undoubtedly one of its most engaging national exports. Ignoring adversity and ever curious of visitors, this is a nation of people eager for a good laugh. Be open and respectful and you could be invited to share the joke.