Stay safe & healthy
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen more than its fair share of violence. A number of ongoing wars, conflicts, and episodes of fighting have occurred since independence, with sporadic, regional violence continuing today. As a result, significant sections of the country should be considered off-limits to travellers.
In the northeastern part of the country, the LRA (of child-soldier & 'Kony' fame) continues to roam the jungles near the border with the CAR/South Sudan/Uganda. Although a few areas very close to the Ugandan border are relatively safe to visit, travel anywhere north and east of Kisangani & Bumba is dangerous.
The regions of North & South Kivu have been in a state of continuous conflict since the early 1990s. The days of the notoriously bloody violence that occurred during the First and Second Congo Wars (during which 5 million died in fighting or through resulting disease/famine) officially ended with a peace treaty in 2003. However, low-level violence spurred by several warlords/factions has occurred ever since and this region is home to the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world (as of 2012). Hundreds of thousands live in refugee camps near Goma. In April 2012, a new faction—"M23"—arose, led by Gen.Ntaganda (wanted by the ICC for war crimes) and has captured/attacked many towns in the region, where they are accused of killing civilians and raping women. This has been the most serious crisis since the end of war in 2003. In mid-July, they threatened to invade Goma to protect the Tutsi population there from "harassment"; the UN peacekeeping mission quickly responded that they would reposition 19,000 peacekeepers to protect Goma & nearby refugee camps. How serious the threat of fighting in Goma remains to be seen BBC report) The only safe areas in North/South Kivu are the cities of Goma & Bukavu and Virunga National Park, all on the Rwandan border.
The dangers to visitors are far beyond conflicts, though. After Somalia, the DRC is most likely the least developed country in Africa. The road network is pathetic. The country's roads are in very poor condition and travel over long distances by road can take weeks, especially during the wetter months. Even some of the country's "main" roads are little more than mud tracks that can only be travelled by 4x4 or 6x6 trucks. The DRC has just 2250 km of sealed roads, of which the UN considers only 1226 km to be in "good" condition. To put this in perspective, the road distance east-west across the country in any direction is over 2500 km (e.g. Matadi to Lubumbashi is 2700 by road)! Another comparison is that there are just 35 km of paved highway per 1 000 000 people—Zambia (one of the poorest African countries) and Botswana (one of the richest) have 580 km and 3427 km per 1 000 000 people, respectively. Public transportation is almost non-existent and the primary means of travel is catching a ride on an old, overloaded truck where several paying passengers are allowed to sit atop the cargo. This is very dangerous.
Congolese planes crash with depressing regularity, with eight recorded crashes in 2007 alone. Despite this, the risks of air travel remain on par with travel by road, barge, or rail. The notorious Hewa Bora airlines has gone out of business and the creation of a handful of new airlines between 2010 and 2012 should lead to improvement in the safety of air travel in the DRC. Avoid at all costs, old Soviet aircraft that are often chartered to carry cargo and perhaps a passenger or two and stick with the commercial airlines operating newer aircraft (listed above under "Get around/By plane"). If you are still fearful of getting on a Congolese plane and aren't as concerned about cost, you can try flying with a foreign carrier such as Kenyan Airways (which flies to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, & Kisangani) or Ethiopian (Kinshasha, Lubumbashi). Just be sure to check the visa requirements to transit.
Travel by river boat or barge remains somewhat risky, although safer than by road. Overcrowded barges have sunk and aging boats have capsized travelling along the Congo River, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Before catching a ride, take a look at the vessel you will be boarding and if you don't feel safe, it is better to wait for the next boat, even if you must wait several days. Most of the country's rail network is in disrepair, with little maintenance carried out since the Belgians left. A few derailings have occurred, resulting in large numbers of casualties. Trains in the DRC are also overloaded, don't even think about joining the locals riding on the roof!
Crime is a serious problem across much of the country. During the waning years of Mobutu's rule, Kinshasa had one of the highest murder rates in the world and travel to Kinshasa was comparable to Baghdad during the Iraq War! While violence has subsided considerably, Kinshasa remains a high crime city (comparable to Lagos or Abidjan). Keep anything that can be perceived as valuable by a Congolese out of sight when in vehicles, as smash-and-grab crime at intersections occurs. Markets in larger cities are rife with pickpockets. Keep in mind that the DRC remains among the 3-4 poorest countries in Africa and compared to the locals, every white person is perceived as rich. Be vigilant of thieves in public places. If travelling in remote areas, smaller villages are usually safer than larger ones. Hotel rooms outside the biggest cities often don't have adequate safety (like flimsy locks on doors or ground-level windows that don't lock or have curtains).
Taking photos in public can be cause for suspicion. By some accounts, an official permit is needed to take photos in the DRC. Actually they will likely be difficult or impossible to find or obtain. Do not photograph anything that can be perceived as a national security threat, such as bridges, roadblocks, border crossings, and government buildings.
Additionally, the DRC has very poor health care infrastructure/facilities. Outside the capital Kinshasa, there are very few hospitals or clinics for sick or injured travellers to visit. If you are travelling on one of the country's isolated, muddy roads or along the Congo River, you could be over a week away from the nearest clinic or hospital! A number of tropical diseases are present—see "Stay healthy" below.
You will need a yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the country by air (this requirement is often ignored at land entry points - particularly the smaller ones). There are health officials at some major entry points, such as the airport in Kinshasa who check this before you are allowed to enter.
Congo is malarial, although slightly less in the Kivu region due to the altitude, so use insect repellent and take the necessary precautions such as sleeping under mosquito nets. The riverside areas (such as Kinshasa) are quite prone to malaria.
If you need emergency medical assistance, it is advised that you go to your nation's embassy. The embassy doctors are normally willing and skilled enough to help. There are safe hospitals in Kinshasa, like "CMK" (Centre Medical de Kinshasa) which is private and was established by European doctors (a visit costs around US$20). Another private and non-profit hospital is Centre Hospitalier MONKOLE, in Mont-Ngafula district, with European and Congolese doctors. Dr Léon Tshilolo, a paediatrician trained in Europe and one of the African experts in sickle-cell anaemia, is the Monkole Medical Director.
Drink lots of water when outside. The heat and close proximity to the equator can easily give those not acclimated heatstroke after just a few hours outside without water. There are many pharmacies that are very well supplied but prices are a few times higher than in Europe.