This Handbook contains everything you need to know about this Secret Compass cultural immersion expedition to the Republic of Congo.
Read on to discover our ethos and team-centred approach and for the nitty gritty like flight and visa advice, insurance requirements and kit recommendations. Use the buttons below to ask questions or to apply for this team or, once approved, to secure your spot on this expedition team with a Booking Form and a £400 deposit.
Arrive: by 2000 on 14 July into Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.
Depart: leave Brazzaville any time after 2000 on 28 July.
Insurance: ensure you have comprehensive cover.
Docs: send your flight, insurance and passport copy in.
Balance due: 90 days before departure on 15 Apr 2018.
Experience a unique way of life and culture within a small community of Pygmies in the Congo rainforest whilst living amongst them for a short period of time.
To reach the community, we’ll use packrafts to navigate a remote jungle river for two days before arriving at one of the villages. From here, the agenda is in the hands of the Pygmies, depending on the community’s activity at the time. We will live with them in the villages, assisting with daily life; collecting water, cooking and domestic chores and joining them on hunting or gathering sorties.
Remote jungle expedition
Travel deep into the heart of the Congo basin by packraft.
Gain a rare and privileged insight into the Pygmy way of life.
Learn about a hunter/gatherer lifestyle.
Understand local flora and fauna and how it is used.
You need to organise your own international flights. We have a unique partnership with Student Universe (a specialist division of the Flight Centre Travel Group and no, you don’t have to be a student to use them). The dedicated Secret Compass team understand us, our destinations and use global buying power to save you money and offer security along with a 24-hour assistance helpline. Fill in a free, no-obligation Flight Request Form or call (UK) 0844 560 9799 for assistance in booking international flights.
It is advised that you book a flexible flight ticket that can be changed or refunded if the expedition dates are changed or if it is cancelled for any reason. See our online Terms and Conditions.
You need to be at the team hotel in Brazzaville by 2000 on the 14 Jul 2018. The expedition officially ends on the 28 Jul 2018. As a contingency, we suggest you do not book onward travel before 2000. Please be aware that most flights depart Brazzaville either late at night or early in the morning.
Travel insurance that provides cover for emergency repatriation in case of a medical emergency is compulsory for all expeditions. You should be aware that many standard insurance policies may not cover you adequately for all aspects of a remote expedition and so we strongly recommend that you purchase a suitably designed insurance policy. Secret Compass cannot comment on the suitability of your cover so if you are in any doubt please contact your policy provider and ask them to confirm that you are covered to our minimum standard (below).
Emergency medical repatriation (to home country) including any associated expenses abroad of at least $500,000.
Activities: ensure that any expedition activities are included, these could be trekking, horse riding, rafting, MTB etc.
Geographical region: check the geographical region you are going to is insured (often the US and Canada or countries such as Afghanistan are not insured).
Foreign Ministry advice: check your insurance is not sensitive to any travel warnings issued by your respective foreign ministry. In the UK, many insurers will not insure you when the Foreign Office warns against travel to this area. Foreign Office advice will not necessarily mean we cancel an expedition or do not travel to a particular area. Please check @FCOtravel and the Travel Aware site.
Dates: make sure the period of cover begins at the departure and ends at the return to your home country. Many flights take a day or two and time zones vary. Insurance companies may prejudice your claims due to this.
Pre-existing medical conditions: disclose these to your insurance company and to Secret Compass.
Prior to travel Secret Compass will require the name of your insurance policy provider, their 24-hour emergency contact number and your policy number. For full information on travel insurance and links to suggested companies, please visit the insurance page on our website.
Visas are your responsibility. Most visitors to the Republic of Congo require a visa and processing time for these can be in excess of three weeks. Please check with your nearest embassy or consulate for the latest advice. A comprehensive visa advice document will be provided nearer departure.
You should have a passport valid for the duration of the expedition and your travel dates. The Republic of Congo does not require any validity beyond this, but we recommend you have 6 months remaining before expiry. Please send a clear, colour copy of your passport to Secret Compass ahead of the expedition and carry photocopies with you on the expedition in a safe place.
Yellow Fever Vaccination
All team members will require an original valid yellow fever certificate, issued more than 10 days before the start of the expedition. WHO advice now states that Yellow Fever Vaccinations are valid for life instead of the original 10 years claimed – please note that this information is not widely known so if necessary you should insist on a medical practitioner issuing a new, valid certificate or extending the expiry on your existing one. Do not accept an exemption certificate as an alternative to a vaccination certificate, as these too are not widely recognised.
About Secret Compass itineraries
Please remember, this itinerary acts as a framework plan. It provides guidance as to our intentions but may not be followed religiously. This is an adventure and by definition the outcome is uncertain. The leadership team will adapt, flex and change the plan depending on the numerous frictions you may encounter along the way.
Day 1: Jul 14 – Brazzaville
Arrive in Brazzaville and make your way to the team hotel by 2000 to meet your leader for an expedition briefing. This will be followed by a welcome meal to help you get to know your fellow teammates, the expedition leader, and the expedition’s guiding anthropologist Camille Oloa Biloa, who previously spent six months with the community.
Day 2: Jul 15 – Oyo
A full day driving north through the Republic of Congo in a 400km (~six hour drive) to Oyo where the team will stay in a comfortable hotel for the evening.
Day 3: Jul 16 – Ouessa and Pokola
After breakfast, you’ll continue the journey to Pokola. This involves driving 420km (~5 hours) to Ouessa where you will catch a ferry over the river. From here, it is around another ~45 minutes to Pokola where the team will stay for the night after buying provisions and gifts for your hosts.
Day 4: Jul 17 – Bangui Motoba
Departing from paved roads today en route to Bangui Motoba around 200km along a decent dirt road from Pokola (around 2.5 hours). After stretching your legs and a packrafting training session, you’ll start your journey downstream along a remote river in the jungle with a ~10km paddle. This evening you’ll make camp alongside the river and wild camp in hammocks.
Day 5: Jul 18 – Packrafting
A full day of packrafting along the same remote river today with the aim to cover in the region of 25 km before wild camping again in the jungle.
Day 6: Jul 19 – Arrive with the Pygmies
Completing your river journey this morning, the team will trek through the jungle for 3-4 hours to reach one of the Pygmy villages and your hosts for the next few days.
Day 7 – 11 – : Jul 20 – 24 – With the Pygmies
The team will join in with daily life amongst the Pygmy community, aiming to integrate as much as possible, be it helping to forage and hunt, collecting wood or water, the team will be helping with their daily activities. The pace of life and exact activities will be dictated by the community hosting our team – patience and an open mind are essential! Depending on where the communities are distributed at this time, the team may continue their journey, walking into the forest for a few more hours to one of the other tribal villages. Also depending on the location of the village you are staying with, you may begin your journey back to the river on the afternoon of day 11.
Day 12: Jul 25 – Back to Pokola
For the return to Pokola, the river journey will be completed in motorised boats to maximise the time spent in the jungle. This will take around 6 hours to reach the vehicles for the drive back to Pokola.
Day 13: Jul 26 – Oyo
Today will be spent on the road back to Oyo including a return ferry crossing before reaching the hotel.
Day 14: Jul 27 – Brazzaville
Drive from Oyo to arrive back in Brazzaville in time to explore the city, enjoy a hot shower or relax with a drink. This day may be used as contingency for delays or unexpected events earlier in the expedition.
Day 15: Jul 28 – Brazzaville
Aside from a celebratory team lunch, serving as additional contingency in case of delays, today is effectively a free day in Brazzaville to explore the city or relax with a beer and a great opportunity to re-acclimatise before leaving the Congo. The expedition officially ends today with teammates free to depart after 2000.
All our expeditions are achievable by people with an active and healthy lifestyle and although the main challenges faced in this expedition will be cultural, this is an arduous expedition that will test you and at times you may be sore, tired, hungry and possibly wet. You must be prepared physically and mentally for the expedition and for living in basic conditions for the duration. Please ensure that you train for the expedition and arrive fit and ready to go. You will be required to be fit enough for the following.
Daily activity: Walking through jungle on hunting and gathering trips. Trekking between camps.
Trek: Up to 10km through jungle.
Paddle: Up to 25km a day on flat water.
Carry: Up to 20 kg whilst hiking to the village.
Swim: be comfortable in water and able to swim at least 200m unaided. Be comfortable with the prospect of being thrown into water.
Terrain: On uneven, narrow paths or through undergrowth in tropical forests.
Climate: Hot, humid forest, temps averaging around 30C. Possibility of tropical downpours
No previous experience of jungle trekking is necessary to join this expedition but team members would benefit from building up to carrying 20kg over varying terrain. You do not need to any prior packraft experience, there will be a training session dedicated to packraft skills at the start of the expedition. It would be beneficial to have some form of paddling experience e.g. a taster session at your local kayak club or one of our Adventure Academy UK weekends so you can get a feel whether this expedition is for you.
There is a high risk of malaria in the Congo, please bring appropriate prophylaxis. There is a risk of yellow fever in all areas of this country. Under International Health Regulations, a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for all travellers.
It is strongly recommended that you have a dental check up prior to departure. Dental problems far from help are very unpleasant.
On expedition your feet will often be wet with sweat or river water. It is ESSENTIAL that you bring foot care items to ensure your feet do not deteriorate. Anti-fungal cream is essential and you will be pre-treating your feet morning and night with this during the expedition. Anti-fungal foot powder is also important, to dry your feet off quickly in a humid environment. It is also wise to bring rolls of zinc oxide tape to protect your feet against blisters and a pot of Vaseline.
Congo uses the Central African franc (CFA), a stable currency also used by five other countries in the region. Euros are the best currency to bring, though you can also change US dollars and British pounds in Brazzaville. Whichever currency you bring, make sure your foreign bills are in pristine condition. Crédit du Congo, Ecobank and BGFI Bank all have ATMs in Brazzaville that accept Visa, MasterCard and Plus cards. Travellers cheques are not widely accepted. Secret Compass always suggest carrying an emergency fund of $100-$200 in cash.
The expedition is all inclusive once you meet with the team in country so you won’t need much money, just for some souvenirs on the way, alcoholic drinks or for (discretionary but always appreciated) tips.
The following is the recommended kit list for the 2018 cultural immersion expedition to Republic of Congo. At several points during this expedition you will be required to carry all of your own kit along with a share of group food, cooking equipment, paddling equipment and the medical and communications pack.
Secret Compass have arranged team members discounts with Cotswold Outdoor, Nordic Life, Outdoor Hire and Expedition Kit Hire, details of these will be sent through on booking.
Baggage and sleeping
RUCKSACK: 60-70ltr, all your personal gear needs to fit easily into this pack and have enough room for a hammock, food and share of group equipment provided by us as well as a packraft and lifevest.
DAYSACK: ~20ltr, to carry essentials with you during the day’s activities from camp.
WATERPROOF RUCKSACK LINER: Sealable “canoe” or “dry” bags made by Podsac or Ortlieb. You need a large one to line your rucksack as it will likely get wet.
SMALLER DRY BAGS: As above, but smaller bags to put essential items in. The large rucksack liners sometimes leak so anything important needs to be waterproofed individually.
SLEEPING BAG: Rated to comfort +10ºC. Lightweight and packs as small as possible.
WATERPROOF WALLET: For your passports, money and personal documents.
2x LONG SLEEVE SHIRT: Quick drying long sleeve (for sun and insect protection) shirt or top (not cotton).
2x TREKKING TROUSERS: Thin trekking trousers that dry quickly and are comfortable.
1x SWIMWEAR: Board shorts are useful for packrafting and swimwear can also be used whilst washing.
4x HIKING SOCKS: Light weight trekking socks that fit well with your boots.
WALKING BOOTS: Ensure your boots are worn in and comfortable. Specific desert or jungle boots are ideal. Try and avoid Gore-tex boots as your feet find it harder to breathe and the boots do not dry easily when wet. It is recommended that you visit your local outdoors store for advice on fitting.
TRAINERS OR RIVER SHOES: Around camp and on the river. Ensure secure and comfortable and they are robust enough to wear on the banks and when portaging through the jungle. Not flipflops.
WIDE BRIMMED SUN HAT.
GLOVES: Paddling or cycling gloves are great for preventing blisters when packrafting.
MUG: Metal mugs are great for use over fires.
BOWL: Wide, shallow bowls are most versatile.
CUTLERY: Long handled spoons are great for use with ration packs on the river.
WATER BOTTLES OR BLADDERS: You need to carry at least 3 litres of water between a water bladder, bottles or a combination.
Health and hygiene
WASHBAG: This shouldn’t be large, only bring the essentials.
SOAP: Anti-bacterial and BIODEGRADABLE
WET WIPES OR BABY WIPES
ANTIBACTERIAL HAND GEL: Bring enough for the entire trip.
SANITARY PRODUCTS: Bring ziplock bags for carrying out.
LIP SALVE WITH UV PROTECTION
VASELINE: Keep readily available on to prevent chafing skin and heel friction blisters.
AFTER SUN/MOISTURISER (Optional)
FACTOR 30+ SUN CREAM
Small First Aid Kit
A team medical kit with a comprehensive primary care provision will be carried.
A WATERPROOF BAG OR TUPPERWARE BOX: Keep kit dry and safe
PAINKILLERS: Ibuprofen and paracetamol
ZINC OXIDE TAPE AND SMALL SCISSORS
COMPEED BLISTER PADS: Please note that Compeed produce several similar looking blister packs for corns, etc. Please ensure you purchase the standard/original item
DIARRHEA TABLETS: Imodium
REHYDRATION PACKS: Enough for at least 4 litres – consider Nuun or Xero tablets (non-caffeinated) rather than dioralyte which only makes small volumes of ORS.
PIRITON TABLETS: For allergies
EURAX CREAM: For bites
ANY MEDICATION YOU NORMALLY USE: Find out the generic/chemical name for your medication in case you need to source more in-country. Please also check that your medication is legal in your destination. You MUST make Secret Compass aware of any medical conditions before you travel.
HEAD TORCH AND SPARE BATTERIES: Petzl Tikka head torch or equivalent.
SUNGLASSES: With UV-filter lenses
GAFFA TAPE: For emergency repairs to your kit, you can take some off the roll and wrap it around something else in your kit
SPARE BOOT LACES
SMALL SEWING KIT
RE-SEALABLE PLASTIC BAGS: For dirty washing, wrappings etc.
Secret Compass organises expeditions, not sightseeing tours. Our expeditions are team-centred, flexible and dynamic. Teams are managed on the ground by Secret Compass staff: industry-leading professionals and guides of the highest calibre. They put the structure in place for your team to have an incredible experience while achieving your expedition’s aims. Secret Compass teams often go to places that others don’t. This makes our expeditions truly different, taking you beneath the skin and beyond the headlines of the world’s most remote reaches. Inspired by history’s great explorers and challenges, you’ll be set ambitious goals and will overcome similar hardships to those experienced on the audacious journeys of the past.
Remember this is not an organised tour. It is an adventure. More often than not expeditions don’t run smoothly. The nature of the areas we operate in mean that we will encounter a number of challenges that we expect everyone to meet and relish. Friction and hurdles are all part and parcel of an arduous expedition and also to our success as a team. These make the journey more interesting and are often the best and most amusing parts when looking back. Each expedition is thoroughly reviewed upon return and team members will have the opportunity to provide feedback which helps to inform planning for future expeditions.
Local partners and bureaucracy
Our teammates can only achieve the extraordinary with the help of people in the communities we travel through. NGO and aid workers, guides, fixers and interpreters all work extremely hard and are generous in their hospitality to us and our teams: visitors in their land. They are crucial to our success. Please remember and respect that their perspectives and concepts of time, environmental responsibility and customer service might differ to yours. Occasionally there is no established protocol for outside visitors which means we encounter local power struggles or disagreements. Our leaders have years of experience in delicate negotiations like these and conversational chess – especially through an interpreter – and these interchanges are often memorable parts of any expedition.
Infrastructure and natural events
The areas we travel to are often especially remote. Transport infrastructure can be ageing, inadequate or non-existent. Flooded roads, collapsed bridges, fallen trees and vehicle break-downs are all to be expected. Our teams thrive on overcoming challenges like these – be prepared to get stuck in and occasionally push! Natural phenomena like desert sand storms, early monsoons, landslides across key routes, winter coming early, gale force winds and driving snow can all make for a more interesting time on the expedition.
In some areas, we rely on local food sources. This can often be outstanding (but can also be very average) and we always make the best out of the resources available. In other cases, we will supply filling and high-calorie dehydrated expedition foods (ration packs).
Part of a team
Secret Compass fosters a team mentality across all its expeditions and projects. Like all teams you will have a leader who will give direction to your progress. Crucial to your team’s success – especially when the going gets tough – is the attitude of the teammates working together to achieve the aim. You really are part of a team, not a cosseted guest on a tour. We ask teammates to muck in and help out any aspect of the expedition, from fetching water and helping to prepare and cook food, to carrying some group kit and equipment if required. The working language of all teams is English.
There really is no typical expedition member, though everyone needs to be fit, healthy and ready to take on the expedition’s aim by the time of departure. Participants range from 21 to 65+ in age and come from all over the world. Backgrounds include contract workers and engineers, IT specialists and students, teachers and literature lovers, journalists and keen photographers and so many more. What bonds our pioneering teams is their shared spirit of adventure and their sense of humour and positive outlook. A good teammate looks on the bright side when the 4×4 breaks down, the rain comes early and when a meal is distinctly pedestrian. Our teammates help, look out for and encourage each other when needed. Our teams have done us proud in working together to achieve their common goal: the aim of the expedition. If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right expedition company.
You need a robust, spirited and can-do attitude to cope with demanding days and rough camping in rugged and wild places. You’ll cover good daily distances (generally carrying your own kit and equipment), eating expedition foods or relying on local food sources. These elements combine to create the unique character of each expedition. On expedition, challenges, frictions and changes to plans are inevitable. Teammates should meet and relish these as an integral part of any arduous expedition and its ultimate success. Such things make the journey more interesting and are often the most memorable parts when looking back.
Secret Compass is an expedition company not a tour company. Expeditions contain inherent risk. This is part of the appeal for teammates. We do not make expeditions safe as, by definition, that is impossible. We construct and implement a three-staged risk management approach to reduce risk to what we perceive as a tolerable level.
We conduct a thorough risk assessment of potential hazards and threats that may be encountered on the expedition and provide recommendations to reduce the likelihood of harm occurring/ severity if it does occur.
As part of our expedition plan, we detail actions to be taken to implement and resource the recommendations of the risk assessment. This includes a detailed medical and communications plan.
The expedition leader is responsible for dynamic risk management on the expedition itself.
Key risks encountered on this specific expedition include insect-borne diseases such as malaria, climatic injury such as dehydration and heat stroke as well as road traffic accidents. This is the jungle so there are also an array of animals which can be hazardous, in the region there are snakes, forest elephants and buffalos. As part of the journey will be made in packrafts there is also the potential of water based injuries, slips, trips and falls and RTA’s. If you would like to see the full Risk Assessment for this expedition, please email email@example.com
Incident management and medical
As part of the safety plan, Secret Compass has a full incident and emergency plan for medical and other emergencies. This will be discussed in full at the arrival brief, so everyone is aware what action will be taken. In summary, incidences are usually managed on the ground by the expedition leader in the first instance with remote support from Secret Compass’s 24 hour Operations Room before evacuation to the nearest appropriate medical centre.
It is your responsibility to understand the risks associated with adventure travel in remote areas. You also must understand that medical evacuation will take an extended period of time (potentially up to 2 days) and will require wilderness extraction techniques and long carries by stretcher. In-country search and rescue and emergency services are very basic or non-existent and the expedition will rely on internal resources for medical evacuation. By joining this expedition, you accept the risks associated with the venture. If you require any more information on specific risk management for this expedition, or would like to speak to us about our medical planning prior to the trip, please get in touch.
Read team Testimonials or watch this short video featuring expedition teammates (filmed on location in Ethiopia) for an insight into life on expedition.
Between 250,000 to 600,000 Pygmies are estimated to be living in the Congolese jungle. Most communities are partial hunter-gatherers, living partially but not exclusively on the wild products of their environment. They trade with neighbouring farmers to acquire cultivated foods and other material items; no group lives deep in the forest without access to agricultural produce.
The Pygmy culture is still unique with a strong egalitarian ethic running throughout. Famed for their affinity to music, it permeates their daily life, facilitating dance to connect with forest spirits called mokondi (Edjengi being the most powerful), who have the role of helper or provider. The forest dances are a moving connection with the spirits and a unique privilege to witness. The Pygmies still use hunting and gathering as their primary source of food. Whilst co-habitation with Bantu peoples has meant that they do have access to crops and jungle rivers bring trade, the most reliable source of food remains the forest.
Secret Compass is working with anthropologist Camille Oloa Biloa, who spent 18 months living with this community as part of her PhD research. She has developed deep, enduring relationships with the community meaning her unique access and understanding of the community will guide us throughout the trip and ensure that we behave and act appropriately whilst we’re hosted by the villages.
This expedition will cover a variety of terrain on small trails and hunting paths or off-track through the jungle. Progress may be slow and the distances covered aren’t large but rugged terrain and jungle humidity will add to the challenge, particularly when trekking to reach the Pygmy villages with full packs. The river journey will be on flat water with no rapids or waterfalls.
The Republic of Congo features a fairly steady climate, reaching around 30C during July although even lower temperatures can be uncomfortable due to the high levels of humidity in the jungle.
Brazzaville “Maya- Maya” airport is located in the city – team members are responsible for their own transfers between the airport and the accommodation at the start and end of the expedition. Transfers are available by taxi or may be arranged through the hotel (information will be sent out nearer departure).
The team will stay in a comfortable hotel in Brazzaville at the start and end of the expedition, rooms will be on a twin-share basis and the hotel will be able to store any luggage which isn’t required for the expedition, any extra nights outside of the Secret Compass itinerary can be booked directly with the hotel. Whilst through the Republic of Congo, comfortable hotels will be used on a twin-share basis. Whilst out in the jungle, the team will be camping using hammocks provided by Secret Compass, these will be carried by the team members in addition to their personal equipment, paddling kit, food and cooking equipment.
Whilst on the journey up we will be eating basic meals in local restaurants. On the river, we will be using dehydrated rations for two days. Once in the community, we will be eating basic staples in line with our hosts. Expect bland, repetition and small quantities. You will likely lose weight. Teammates with dietary requirements are welcome to apply for this expedition and should state their specific requirements when applying – Secret Compass will be in touch to discuss your specific situation. It is recommended that you bring a favourite snack or cereal bar for each travel day as a morale boost.
Here are some frequently asked questions that are specific to this expedition. Read our general FAQ too for questions such as ‘how do I join an expedition’ and more. Can’t find your answer? Contact SCHQ.
I’m a vegetarian. Can I join?
Those unable or unwilling to eat as the Pygmies eat (which will include meat caught locally) may be required to bring their own suitable alternative. This should be discussed with Secret Compass when applying as there is a cultural implication.
Secret Compass staff will be carrying at least two methods of communication, usually a Satellite Phone and a DeLorme two-way communication device. These will be used for regular updates to head office and for emergencies. Unfortunately, routine communication between team members and family/friends is not possible – please reassure them that no news is good news! If there is an emergency and someone needs to contact a team member, they can contact Secret Compass’s Operations Room on +44207 096 8428 who will endeavour to pass a message on within 24 hours.
Will there be telephone signal?
There will be mobile phone coverage in Brazzaville at the beginning and end of the expedition. There will not be signal in the jungle. Joining this expedition with the mindset of escaping technology and the day-to- day routine is advisable.
Can I charge electricals?
This will be very challenging with limited access to power once the trekking and packrafting begins. Please ensure that you are self-sufficient in terms of charging your appliances by bringing things like spare batteries or power packs to avoid frustration. Lightweight solar panels are also useful but due to the shade of the jungle, might not work as well as usual.
How can I find out more?
Apply for this expedition team using the button on this page to receive your Expedition Handbook with fuller details. Secret Compass is then on hand to answer any questions or to firm up your place on the team.