Our Brief Stay in Sudan

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Africa » Sudan
March 27th 2009
Published: March 27th 2009
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Of all the countries that our route would potentially take in, none raised as many quizzical eyebrows as Sudan. Although we always dreamed of being able to complete our journey to Hong Kong without flying, Sudan was always the country most likely to put pay to our quest. In fact, when we describing our route, we often caveated it with, “…..but we’ll probably have to fly over Sudan.”

Not surprisingly, despite being the largest country in Africa, Sudan is one of the least visited. Many years of well publicised, bloody civil war mean that it’s not exactly up there with the likes of Kenya and Egypt when it comes to obvious African tourist destinations. However, despite this, we craved the solitude of getting off the beaten track and seeing pharaonic ruins without the crowds of Egypt, so we decided not to dismiss Sudan out of hand.

When researching the viability of visiting Sudan, we discovered that it is effectively two countries (hence the civil war). Southern Sudan contains no-go areas, such as Darfur, whereas the North is allegedly one of the safest destinations in Africa. Our planned route from Ethiopia to Egypt was to take us through the trouble-free North East of the country, therefore we opted to keep our overland dream alive.

As we soon learnt, another deterrent for the potential visitor to Sudan, is the many bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through. When we came to apply for our visas in Addis Ababa, rumours were abound of applications taking months and still coming back rejected. Although far from straightforward, after four visits to the Sudanese embassy and paying the handsome fee of US$100 each, we were deemed worthy of two week transit visas.

Our journey from Ethiopia took us first on a bus from Gonder to the border town of Metema, leaving at the customary 6am. Formalities were straightforward on the Ethiopian side of the border and less so on the Sudanese. Several passport photos and fingerprints later, we were free to enter the country, but were informed that within three days we were required to register our arrival at the Aliens Office in Khartoum, for a further fee. Clearing customs wasn’t a problem, once we had confirmed that we weren’t contravening Sharia Law by bringing alcohol into the country. We were delighted to find that we were once again in a country where the buses are permitted to drive after dark and we could therefore get a bus that would take us straight through to Khartoum. We were even more delighted to be on a fast comfortable bus and paved roads, but unfortunately our progress was hindered by having to stop seven times for our passports to be checked and we didn’t arrive in Khratoum until 2am.

Whilst idly browsing the TV channels in our hotel, we came across a news story that caught our attention. The International Criminal Court was that day due to announce whether an arrest warrant was to be issued for the Sudanese President, Omar Al-Bashir, relating to alleged war crimes in Darfur. Khartoum was reported to be tense in advance of the announcement and there were fears of reprisals against Western interests in the country. The story was accompanied by pictures of a rally the previous day, at which Al-Bashir had defiantly condemned the interference of the West and British and American flags had been burnt by the angry crowd. Although we had seen nothing of this tension, hearing this report certainly served to make us tense.

Between BBC News, CNN and the internet, we followed intently as the story unfolded and as history will now record, somewhat predictably, charges were brought against Al-Bashir. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this ruling, from our point of view the timing couldn’t have been any worse. Suddenly, walking the streets didn’t feel so comfortable. What had previously been the curious stares of people unaccustomed to seeing foreigners, in our minds became the accusational glares of extremists intent on revenge on the West.

Reports then started to come through of large demonstrations being held in Khartoum, which were confirmed by the sounds coming through our hotel window. We felt unsure what to do, was it safe or wise to stay in Sudan? The advice from the Foreign Office was for those already in Khartoum to monitor the situation, keep a low profile, avoid crowds and keep several days’ stockpile of food and water in case further demonstrations prevented movement.

We deliberated long and hard, we didn’t want to end our dream of completing our journey to Hong Kong without flying and above all we wanted to see some of the country we had expended so much time, effort and money getting into. Then on the other hand we didn’t want to put ourselves at unnecessary risk for the sake of a few days in Sudan. Eventually we decided to play our Get out of Jail Free Card and went to an internet café to book ourselves onto the next available flight to Cairo, which was left the next evening. In all probability we would have been perfectly safe, but it would have been hard to relax and if that day was anything to go by it, staying wouldn’t have been a particularly pleasant experience.

The next morning we woke to news that Western aid agencies were being expelled from the country. This combined with a large security presence on the streets and in the sky above Khartoum and bus loads of irate protestors waving flags and sticks lead us to believe that we had made the right decision. So with our overland dream in tatters, after only three nights in Sudan and not so much as a single photograph taken (due to not having time to get the necessary permit to take photographs in the country!) we left. Two and a half hours later, we were in the relative sanctuary of Cairo.


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