Visiting the Central African Republic as a traveller or a tourist is not the suicide mission that many think it is. Yes, this one of the least stable, poorest and most corrupt countries on the African continent, but as with any “dangerous” country, there are parts that you would want to avoid, but there are bits are safe to visit.
Getting here is not easy, nor is it cheap, but if you are prepared to spend the money and make the effort, then a unique human and wildlife experience await.
Despite living in the country, I am afraid I have very limited geographical experience of CAR. This is not a guide to travel in the whole country, I can only advise on travel to the southwest corner, the Sangha-Mbaere province. So the advice here is based around the assumption that you want to come and visit the Dzanga-Sanga National Park, with the village of Bayanga as your starting point in CAR.
Why to come & what to do when you are here
Dzanga-Sangha National Park should be at the very top of your to do list for CAR. It is one of the best ways to experience a pristine part of the great Congo Basin rainforest and the best reason to visit this part of the world. It is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, with incredible wildlife viewing opportunities: unique big mammals, incredible bird-watching and a fascinating forest environment.
Another reason many people visit is when they are trying to visit every country in the world. Many “country collectors” pass through and this particular part of CAR is probably the easiest way for you to “tick” this country off your list.
There are three main activities in the park:
- Visiting Dzanga Bai. This is a forest clearing which is arguably one of the natural wonders of the world. A stunningly beautiful place with an unparalleled wildlife watching opportunity. You are almost guaranteed to see incredible numbers of Elephants. It is very normal to see over 100 Elephants in one go, plus a range of other animals from Water Buffalo to Bongo. Trips can be arranged through Sangha Lodge if you stay there, or direct from the Park HQ in Bayanga.
- Viewing the Gorillas. One of only a couple of sites on the planet where you can approach habituated Lowland Gorillas. A must for any nature lover.
- Viewing the Mangabeys. While they lack the size and beauty of the Gorillas, the Agile Mangabeys are fascinating. It is a rare opportunity to track a wild, but habituated, group of monkeys. They have fascinating behaviour and biology and this can be done as a inexpensive extension to the Gorilla
There are other activities too. The local BaAka pygmy community provides an interesting opportunity to explore another culture. You can visit their villages, go into trips into the forest with them, join a “net hunt” and listen to performances of their music. You can also go for boat trips on the Sangha River, fishing is possible too. There are also some beautiful waterfalls around the river with short hikes to view them.
The “security situation”
It is an obvious thing to say that this is a volatile part of the world. The situation can change very quickly and what looks like a “sleepy little village” can erupt into violence within days or hours. So that is the caveat. However, broadly, life here is safe enough for a Westerner. We walk around Bayanga village with no problems. We go out for beers in the evenings, walk down side streets in the dark, again, no problems. If you are white, then you will of course be in a massive minority (there are less than a dozen white people living in the area), and it will attract attention and curiosity, but it does not make you a target as it does in some parts of Africa. People will greet you and are pleased to see you. Asking around, I cannot uncover a story of a white person being mugged, attacked or in any way harmed. During the crisis in 2013, yes expats fled from all parts of CAR, but despite all the brutality, there were very few expats or white people hurt in that crisis. If you are a Muslim from Chad, then yeah, you are going to have problems. But if you are an expat from Europe, no one is going to have a problem. You will be, as much as you ever can be, safe.
A visa is required to travel to the Central African Republic for most nationalities and it must be arranged in advance. Check with your government to see if you need one. It is not possible to get a visa when you arrive at Bayanga airport, nor at the land borders. If you live in Europe your best bet is the Embassy of the Central African Republic in Paris. They do not have a website, so working out exactly what documentation you need to give them can be a little tricky. Your best bet is to phone them to ask for exact costs and visa requirements (though, you’ll have to speak in French as no-one speaks English).
I provided them with the following, which seemed to work: my passport, two copies of their “Visa Request Form”, two passport photos, a copy of my yellow fever certificate, my travel itinerary (i.e. proof of my onward travel from CAR), proof of funds (a copy of my bank balance), proof of my home address, a medical certificate of health (I got my doctor to give me one) and a letter of invitation.
I paid €155 for a three month visa, however you might be able to pay less and get a visa for a shorter duration.
Where to stay
If you’ve spent all the money and hassle to actually get here, there is only really one place worth staying: Sangha Lodge.
Again, not cheap, but considering the incredibly remote location, it is worth the money to have a comfortable bed, flushing toilets, hot showers, cold beer, great food and an incredible river view.
English is not spoken by local people. Sango is the lingua franca, but French is very widely spoken. If you have a basic ability in French, then you will be fine.
How to get here
The first step is to get yourself to Yaoundé, in Cameroon. All the onward travel options start from here. Please note that this is just a basic introduction to the options to give you an idea. I hope to comprehensively update this “how to get here” section, with exact travel times, contact details and accurate costs in coming months.
The quickest option, but the most expensive. There are no scheduled flights, so a plane must be chartered. Often this is done through a American missionary organisation, SIL (while they technically do not operate a commercial service and exist to transport missionaries and NGO workers, they do take paying “customers” on request). Chartering a plane on its own costs around €2,500. However, if a plane has already been chartered and there is a spare seat, these can be purchased for around €1,000 per person. The flight from Yaoundé to Bayanga takes 3 hours.
Hiring a car and a driver (having your own driver is highly recommended) will cost you around €500. Using all the daylight hours, the journey from Yaoundé takes 2 nights and 3 days. There are basic, relatively cheap accommodation options in towns on route as you travel west through Cameroon.
By public transport
This is by far the cheapest option, but naturally takes longer. While in theory this journey could be done in 3 to 4 days, if a bus breaks down or a connection is missed, it can take up to 6. Cost should be less than €50.
If you are seriously interested in any of these options, get in contact with me and I can provide you with further details (people to contact etc.).