Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville) is the third largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is the capital and largest city of the vast Orientale Province (roughly the size of Spain) in the Congo Basin. The city is found at the furthest navigable point on the Congo River upstream of Kinshasa/Brazzaville at the end of the Boyoma Falls, a series of cataracts along a 100 km stretch of the river. The city's name comes from Swahili for "the city on the island" due to the number of tributaries in the area that almost completely separate Kisangani into a collection of islets.
The city was founded in 1883 as a colonial outpost and trading centre by Henry Morton Stanley. It was named Stanley Falls Station (or Stanleyville) and was located at the furthest navigable point up the Congo River from Kinshasa (then Leopoldville). It was initially successful, but East African slavers soon arrived (erroneously called "Arabs", but actually from Zanzibar) and after minor conflict, the city was abandoned in 1887. After negotiations with the 'Arabs', the Belgians were given limited control of the Eastern Congo under authority of the notorious Zanzibar slaver/ruler Tippu Tip. By the late 1890s, the region was once again firmly under the control of the Belgians and Stanleyville was the capital of the prosperous Eastern Province of Belgian Congo.
In 1958, the city was a stronghold of Patrice Lumumba's independence movement. After his assassination in 1961, Antoine Gizenga set up a government in Kisangani to compete with the national government in Leopoldville. Stanleyville served as the capital of the independent, secessionist state "Republic of Congo" set up by the Simba rebels. When the rebels began to feel their movement was destined to defeat, they began taking hostage all white persons in the region they controlled. Over 1800 Europeans & Americans were held hostage at the Victoria Hotel in Stanleyville for 111 days. Belgian, U.S., and Congolese paratroopers landed at the airport one night, stormed the hotel (with only 60 hostages killed), secured the airfield for evacuation flights to land, and managed to airlift 1800 hostages & 400 Congolese to safety over the course of two days. The airlift coincided with the arrival of pro-Leopoldville mercenary fighters who soon managed to quash the Simba rebellion. The city would also see two unsuccessful mutinies in 1966 & 1967 where gendarmes loyal to ousted politician Tshombe (exiled to Spain) rioted and mutinied against Congolese troops, amid rumours that Tshombe was plotting a return to power in the Congo.
In 1998, the city became a forward base for rebel leader Laurent Kabila and his foreign mercenaries (over 30,000 Ugandan, Rwandan, & Burundian soldiers) on their march to Kinshasa to overthrow Mobutu. However, fighting between Hutu & Tutsi mercenaries spread to the local population (opposed to the presence of foreign mercenaries), resulting in some bloodshed. In 1999, the city saw the first open fighting between Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers in the Second Congo War, resulting in 3000 civilian deaths in the city. Soon after, a prolonged battle between Ugandan and Rwandan forces resulted in the destruction of about one quarter of the city, resulting in thousands of deaths. Yet another fight, in June 2000, left thousands more dead in the city. When the Second Congo War ended, Kisangani was under the control of Rwanda-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy - Goma.
Today the city is a quiet commercial centre in the middle of the jungle. Despite a population of 1.2 million, Kisangani's isolation results in limited opportunities for economic growth and for a city its size, there's not much to see or do. The city is exceptionally diverse with over 250 cultures represented and no one, single ethnicity or place of origin dominating the city's cultural identity.
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Being very near the equator and in the middle of the jungle, you might suspect the city has a wet, tropical climate...and it does! Humidity is high year-round, averaging 86%! Temperatures are fairly stable year-round, too, averaging 31°C/20°C (88°F/68°F). The record low is just 16°C (61°F). Rains are heavy throughout much of the year, with a relatively dry (or "less-rainy") season from December to early March. Total rainfall for the year is 1620mm (63.78 inches) with the rainiest month being October with 218mm (8.58in), while the driest is January with 53mm (2.09in).
The city is served by Bangoka International Airport (IATA: FKI). Domestic flights to Goma and Kinshasa on CAA & FlyCongo along with service to Kindu on CAA.
Simi-Simi Airport is the city's original airport. Located near the center of town (its runway points directly at downtown), it is now a military airfield, although it handles the occasional private or U.N. flight.
As the end of the navigable stretch of the Congo River, Kisangani was formed largely to unload cargo and transfer it to train to bypass the cataracts. There are irregular ferry services running between Kisangani and Kinshasa which take about 2-3 weeks. Most of these are old barges tied together and crowded with people riding atop cargo, although a few steamer vessels run this route too. Overcrowded ferries are common and there have been a few instances of them capsizing, so choose carefully. If you are lucky, you can negotiate with the captain for a private room (literally) or a bedroom. Many of these ferries are supplied with food from people who bring boats from shore full of goods to trade/barter. A unique and classic trip, it's only for the hearty, experienced traveller (although still preferable to travelling overland).
Kisangani is difficult to reach by road. The only relatively "easy" route into the city is the newly rehabilitated National Route 4 which runs to Bukavu and the Rwandan border. Much of the road is sealed, but slow-moving trucks and pedestrians & people on bikes keep the speed of vehicles down. You should expect to encounter a handful of military/police checkpoints where you will likely be harassed for a bribe. The route isn't terribly safe, with frequent reports of bandits setting up roadblocks and robbing motorists. Additionally, safety in North/South Kivu is still shaky. You are best off traveling with a trucker or other local vehicle. If traveling in your own vehicle (especially a non-DRC vehicle), try to travel with a local or convoy for safety and to avoid excessive harassment at checkpoints.
Other roads in/out of the city are mostly muddy tracks only suitable for large 4x4 or 6x6 trucks. However, road repairs are a high priority in the region and many roads are being groomed or repaired. Ask for advice from locals about the condition of roads in the region. Travel from other major cities in the DRC can take weeks and isn't a very pleasant experience!
A train line runs south to Ubundu, mainly to haul freight travelling by boat around the cataracts. You should inquire at the train station for tickets and the next train as the trains run on erratic schedules.
Given the city's isolation in the jungle (and relatively difficult routes to navigate here), there are surprisingly few vehicles in the city, aside from cheap motorbikes. Most locals get around on foot or use bicycles (and similar wheeled contraptions). Petrol is expensive.
Taxis are hard to find. If you need to travel across the town (or to the airport), you should make arrangements for vehicle hire a day or two in advance! For rides to the airport, expect to pay USD20-40. If you don't mind getting a little dirty/dusty and holding on for dear life, many motorbike owners will let you hop on for a small charge.
- 1 Boyoma Falls. On the edge of Kisangani, these are the last cataracts on the Congo until Kinshasa/Brazzaville. Fishermen set up conical traps for fish and can be seen tending to these traps. Fortunately, the fishermen have realized that tourists want to see them and reportedly will charge a large fee to see them (USD20!!) and/or photographing them.
- 2 Kisangani Cathedral.
- Villa of the "African Queen". One of the white villas, falling apart, on the isles, is a former hotel and hosted the actors of the movie African Queen: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
- Congo boat rides. See the "get in" section for details. A trip by boat along the Congo is one of the world's greatest wild adventures. Trips by pirogue for a few hours or a few days can be arranged in most cities along the river. Only a couple tour operators in the country offer these rides, but if you speak good enough French or Swahili, you can probably talk a pirogue owner into a short trip (make sure you understand what you're doing & where you're going).
The food supply in Kisangani is heavily dependent on the arrival of barges. The few restaurants that can be found in the city are expensive. Food stores have very little refrigerated foodstuffs (and it's always hard to tell if these items have been properly transported to remain fresh). Street stalls serve up chicken & fish. Fruits, vegetables, & nuts can be found in the central market and from various vendors across the city.
A couple of establishments serve local beers. A bar at Linoko Beach serves beer with great views of Tshope Falls.
Les Chalets Hôtel & Le Palm Beach are the best bets in town, with modest facilities. At the ends of the spectrum, there are no upscale hotels in the city and numerous hotels that are acceptable by D.R.C. standards, but rather squalid by Western standards (no air-con, no running water).
- 1 Les Chalets Hôtel, 4 Rue de l'Industrie, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. satellite TV, air-con, fridges, hot water, pool, bar (limited selection), restaurant, and even a (slow) wired internet connection near reception.
- 2 Palm Beach Hôtel, Av Colonel Tshatshi, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Air-con, TV, pool, restaurant (expensive), & bar