Sudan

Pyramids On Mars

Sudan capped off a tour of the horn of Africa that was full of misplaced assumptions before visiting. We’d figured Addis Ababa would be without issues. We thought Eritrea would be a repressive and unpleasant place to visit. We thought Somaliland might feel somewhat unsafe. With Sudan, well, we actually thought this might be the sketchiest part of the trip. Their president, a military dictator who came to power through a coup thirty years ago, has active warrants for crimes against humanity and genocide, is responsible for the country being under international sanctions, and is currently experiencing a bit of domestic unrest. Sudan currently has protests going on at a level that hasn’t been seen in a generation.

It started with bread and fuel shortages. Protesters were put down violently, and a physician rendering aid was killed. Now, physicians and other workers are striking. Gas lines have waits of two days or more to fill your tank. There are heavily armed military and police throughout the country, ready to tamp down any unrest that boils over. On our arrival day, protesters (at an area we later visited) had been teargassed. International news coverage of Sudan seems to show mobs of pissed off people turning over cars and lighting things on fire. On top of that, Sudan is lumped in (unfairly, I think) with a number of other countries with a reputation for Islamic extremism. With all of this background, you’d think this would make for a very unsafe and generally unpleasant visit. We were definitely concerned ahead of time. After touring the country for a week though, I can’t really point to any instances where I felt unsafe or where anyone tried anything shady with us.

Our visit was focused on making a loop through some of the famous Nubian pyramids and other archaeological sites. After touring Khartoum a bit and settling in, we packed up for a road trip out of the capital. This started multiple days of no internet… well, also multiple days of no running water or electricity too. Maybe that was the more significant part from a comfort standpoint. Totally worth it though. The first drive to Old Dongola was about 5-6 hours over straight, well-maintained roads. There were dust storms that day that reduced visibility to only a few car lengths. We made it to Old Dongola, a site of old Islamic tombs as well as churches and temples, just before sunset. After touring an active archaeological site there the next day, we hit the road again for a few hour drive to Karima and Jebel El Berkl, seeing some of our first pyramids and lower Egyptian kingdom sites. Over the next couple days, we moved through Meroe, Naga, and Musawarat, getting our fill of visiting pyramids and camping in the desert. Every sunset looked like something out of Star Wars. The iron in the sand made it a deep orange color, making it look like a Martian landscape.

Desert camp near Old Dongola

Every sunset was gorgeous, and exactly the same

In Khartoum, life is largely similar to other African metropolises. It’s underdeveloped, there is a lot of poverty, but there are also pockets of affluence: 5-star hotels, nice restaurants, and well-stocked air-conditioned shopping malls. Outside of the capital though, life is starkly different. People living as nomads in the desert or in tiny villages completely off the grid. Much of daily life seems to revolve around procuring water and basics for survival. We saw that in rural Eritrea and Somaliland as well, but life in the desert in Sudan looked much more harsh. Far outside of the cities, the civil unrest in Sudan seems to be completely absent. Many of the nomads and herders in the desert probably don’t even know or care who the president is. For us though, moving through different places, there were definitely hints of the current problems. Our driver spent most of a day and night, while we were touring or sleeping, trying to get a tank of diesel. Ultimately, we skipped a line that would take days to progress through by him showing the security forces that he actually had a group of Americans with him. We joked that we could make a racket having people pay us to ride with them so they could skip the fuel line. We never had any food shortage issues, but the memory of that seemed to be fresh, with our guide making a bread run and assuming they would be out. Sudan definitely has elements of a police state already, with checkpoints throughout the country.

Huge lines at every station with fuel, 2+ days waiting for locals

As a tourist though, you’re insulated from the hassle for the most part. The president made a decree that basically translated as “don’t mess with tourists”, and security forces stay well clear. At many checkpoints, we hopped over to the left lane and drove against traffic, bypassing huge queues of cars waiting to be screened. Unsurprisingly, there are also problems with the local currency. Like other dictatorships experiencing inflation, there is an “official” exchange rate as well as a thriving black market exchange for foreign currency. We exchanged a little on the street just to feel out the going rates, but it wasn’t enough of a difference (as easily scammed foreigners) for us to exchange much on the black market. We’re talking double-digit percentage differences, rather than four-digit percentage differences, like in Turkmenistan. Even with that inflation though, people are still having trouble getting their salaries. Our guide works as an archaeologist for the government and hadn’t gotten his official salary in over two months. Now that I think of it, that actually sounds a bit like a developed country I’m familiar with. In any event, tourists bringing in hard foreign currency make a pretty big difference for the people you do business with. What I would consider a “typical” tip for a guide after several days work is the equivalent of several months of local salary. We were really well taken care of by Abdul and Jamal at Real Sudan tours, highly recommend them.

This wraps up our Africa tour, but we’ve got another trip in a couple weeks, visiting a number of Caribbean island countries.