By Luc Jones
Iâve done many daft things in my 42 years on this planet, but stumbling off a plane, totally hammered onto the runway and into the terminal building at Khartoum airport must rank up there with some of my less clever stunts. The logic was that since Sudan is totally dry, we wouldnât be touching alcohol for the next five days so we might as well fill our boots with the complimentary refreshments courtesy of Qatar Airways on the three and a half hour flight from Doha. Not surprisingly there were only a handful of other westerners on board so the stewardesses werenât holding back on pouring whatever those who were drinking desired. At least in that respect, we did ourselves proud!
Letâs face it, Sudan is hardly a front-runner as a global tourist destination. For starters the President Omar Al-Bashir came to power in a military coup back in 1989 and there have been few signs that heâs in any hurry to vacate his post anytime soon. Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, charged with a campaign of genocide against his own people in the Darfur region, so he no longer leaves the African continent, and is reported to have embezzled state funds to the tune of $9 billion. Hey, when youâre the only guy in charge, whoâs going to stop you, and this is on top of various accusations of harbouring and providing sanctuary & assistance to various Islamic terrorist groups in the region. Back home, the government-backed Janjaweed militia orchestrated a campaign of murder, rape and general terror throughout western Sudan, and I nearly forgot to mention that the country has been governed by Sharia law since 1983. So there you have it; I just had to go!
Before arriving, I had assumed (and this turned out to be a popular misconception about the country) that Sudan would simply be a poorer, less-developed version of Egypt. Another lesser-known fact is that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, even if they are smaller, they can be climbed, it turned out. Khartoum itself feels at the crossroads between the Arab world & black Africa, which is appropriate given that it is situated at the confluence of the White & Blue Nile rivers. Itâs an obligatory spot for a photo opportunity even if the background is hardly spectacular although this is the place where etymologists believe the city got its name; Khartoum means âtrunkâ in Arabic as the landmass between the two rivers looks like an elephantâs trunk â apparently.
Whilst I wouldnât call myself a museum buff, the National Museum of Sudan is well worth an hour of your time, and depicts the country from prehistoric times to the present day. Perhaps surprising for a country, which is 97% Muslim, is how much space is devoted to Sudanâs Christian heritage, and even more surprising is how many churches there are in downtown Khartoum. The capital might be less than 200 years old but has claimed some notable victims in its short history, none more so than the British Army General Charles Gordon, whose Anglo-Egyptian garrison was massacred in 1884 following the end of the siege of Khartoum. Revenge was to be gained in 1898 when Kitchenerâs forced retook the city, defeating the Mahdist forces ay the battle of Omdurman, which is now effectively a large suburb of Khartoum. Their leader, Muhammad Ahmad was killed in the battle of Omdurman, and his tomb can be visited, even by non-Muslims.
Sudanâs real treasures lie outside of the city; the best-known being the Black Pyramids of Meroe, a two-hour drive north-east from Khartoum. Whilst not as big as their Egyptian counterparts at Giza, there are around two hundred and are built with darker stone. Many unfortunately lie in ruins and you can thank the Italian treasure-hunter Giuseppe Ferlini for trashing the tops of them back in 1834 as he dreamed returning home rich. Despite now being a UNESCO World Heritage site, donât be surprised the place is virtually deserted apart from a few locals selling trinkets near the entrance. Although Meroe can be done in an easy day-trip from Khartoum, itâs worth spending the night to see the pyramids change colour at sunset and at sunrise, if youâre up early enough. The grilled chicken dinner was lovely but would have tasted even better with a beer!
Also worthy of a visit is Jebel Barkal in the Northern State, not far from the town of Karima, on the banks of the Nile. This is Nubia land, and the Jebel (âhillâ in Arabic) is 100m high, but easily climbable for amazing views over the Nile and the pyramids beyond. Also UNESCO-listed due to the ancient city of Napata at the base, itâs been keeping archaeologists busy for decades as they uncover more of Sudanâs fascinating history. Once youâre templed out, the best way to relax is with a boat trip along the famous Nile, where the pace of life is much more in tune with rural Africa. Youâll also spot camels by the shore although they seem to ignore passers-by. Given the role that the big river plays in peopleâs lives, it wonât come as a shock to hear that fish is a popular dish, generally served with freshly baked bread with crushed chillies & squeezed limes as an accompaniment.
The standard question I was asked upon returning was âis it safe there?â The simple answer is âyes,â and friendly too. Youâll see very few other tourists on your travels yet those who do make the effort will find that you have the place to yourself, and at no time did we ever feel anything more than welcome. Sudan is most certainly an off-the-beaten-track destination and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future â the country will probably never turn into a birds, beaches & booze destination (although the scuba-diving off the Red Sea is supposed to be top notch). Yet you will have the kudos of having been somewhere where most havenât â apart from 40 Million Sudanese, that is!
There are no direct flights between Moscow & Khartoum but the journey can be easily done on either Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways or Eithad via their respective hubs in Dubai, Istanbul, Doha & Abu Dhabi.
Getting in: everybody requires a visa to enter Sudan, and normally these need to be obtained in advance, which outside of Africa are tricky to obtain. However, Waleed Arafat who runs Lendi Travel can obtain these upon arrival with a minimum of fuss upon arrival; he will meet you off the plane and sort everything out (e-mail Waleed at: [email protected]). In fact Waleed is widely regarded as THE person when it comes to tourism & will put together a tailor-made trip for you. He also speaks excellent English.
Staying there: Khartoum has top-end hotels although these cater mainly to visiting businesspeople. Tourists are often housed in the centrally-located Acropole, which is run by two Greek gentlemen (who were born in Sudan), which can hardly be classed as hardly luxurious but very friendly & offers a more than reasonable breakfast, as well as advice on what to see & do in the country. Expect to sleep in a tent by the Pyramids of Moroe, but in Karima we were pleasantly surprised by our lodgings.
Spending there: The official currency is the Sudanese Pound. Bring cash with you, preferably US Dollars as credit cards are useless in Sudan due to the international economic embargo placed on the country. Ignore the bureau de change booths at the airport; Your driver/guide will get you a much better rate on the black market.
Speaking there: Over 100 languages are spoken in Sudan, but only two are official; Arabic & English. In Khartoum most street signs are in both although these thin out once you leave the capital. English is not widely spoken outside of touristy areas although since Sudan is not really geared up to individual tourism, youâll be given an English-speaking driver and/or guide.