Friendly Spirits Shine Through an Oppressive Government
Sudan is a country that makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. After being labeled a “state sponsor of terrorism,” regular citizens have suffered for years under heavy international sanctions. Virtually all countries have severe travel warnings against visiting Sudan, and it’s assumed to be very dangerous. But as I’ve seen repeatedly throughout Africa, the story is more complicated than it would first appear.
I’m told the deserts are simply stunning and wild camping is perfectly safe all over the country. In fact, multiple overlanders have told me the people in Sudan might be some of the friendliest in all of Africa; while I’m skeptical, I’m also excited to find out for myself.
Out of Ethiopia
While most people assume the trouble is in Sudan, that is not the case at all. The new president of Ethiopia has been trying to reclaim territory the old president gave away to violent tribes within Ethiopia, so the military has been actively fighting them near most of the borders. Getting into Sudan is no problem at all. It’s getting out of Ethiopia I’m concerned about. I’ve been keeping my ears to the ground for the last few weeks, trying to get all the information I can in an attempt to make the drive as safely as possible.
Arriving at the border itself I’m happy to see it looks relatively normal for an African border, and after shaking off all the men haggling to change money I manage to locate customs and immigration and complete all the required steps in the scorching heat.
On the Sudanese side, the paperwork begins. Friendly people pop up to help me with each step. I was issued a visa back in Addis Ababa, though Sudan also requires tourists to “register” in the country. Thankfully, I can do it all here at the border, so I don’t have to rush up to the capital city.
Driving into Sudan the differences to the previous countries are much more noticeable than in other regions of Africa, and I immediately feel extremely welcome and safe after the tense situation in Ethiopia. On my first day in the country, I wander through a small town buying bread and vegetables. I’m repeatedly waved in to share food with shopkeepers and their families. I’ve picked up only a few words of Arabic, but even with a language barrier, I can see right away Sudanese people are serious about welcoming strangers.
International sanctions mean that Sudan is cut off from the global financial markets. For me this means my bank cards don’t work at all, and for locals it means getting hard currency from the outside world is virtually impossible. This creates a black market on the Sudanese Pound, and I’m stopped repeatedly in the street by friendly people asking if I’d like to change money at a rate almost double the official one.
Even though Sudan produces a lot of oil, the country itself has enormous shortages of gas and diesel. Thousands of vehicles line up at stations, though everyone is patient, polite, and friendly. I never see a single person yell or get angry, and everyone waits their turn in the huge lines. This is simply how life is here, and the locals are used to it. When I try to join the back of the line multiple people insist I go to the front, and a policeman even comes over to escort me. I feel bad for cutting in front. Although everyone says it’s fine because I’m just a visitor and they know they would be treated the same if they were to visit my country.
Gas in Sudan is staggeringly cheap and with my black market rate I pay just 35 cents a gallon. The entire 22-gallon main Jeep tank is just $7.50. I’m staggered at the implications here, and it means Sudan will be by far the cheapest country I’ve ever driven through.
At night I simply find a quiet place to pull off the road to camp and attempt to escape the scorching heat. Mercifully the temperature does drop in the hours after dark, and usually I wake almost feeling a chill, which I thoroughly enjoy.
Tricky Times for Sudan
The people of Sudan are utterly fed up with President al-Bashir, who has ruled since 1989. They are staging protests in all the large cities throughout the country. I’ve been warned to keep clear, as the government response could be extremely severe. I heard of an overlander who accidentally drove into the wrong neighborhood and found himself in the middle of an enormous anti-government protest. As soon as locals realized he was a foreigner, the people stopped shouting and marching and made way for him to pass through before they resumed their show of force. Apparently even when the Sudanese are protesting they are kind.
In the capital of Khartoum, I’m pleasantly surprised. Even though the country is cut off from global trade and money markets, Sudan has many recognizable international brands. It is much more modern and developed than I had been expecting. Camping in Khartoum is at The Blue Nile Sailing Club directly on the river where I’m able to sit and chat with many locals who come and go throughout the day. The men selling fresh-squeezed juice are happy to change my U.S. dollars, and I can’t help noticing the rate is better than a few days ago. They explain the currency is crashing so quickly the rate falls from one day to the next.
At sunrise the following morning, the friendly men give me an enormous bag of freshly baked bread rolls. They absolutely will not take any money for it. This is the way to treat foreigners, they explain, and I have a hard time not tearing up. These people are struggling to survive under the harsh conditions of their oppressive government, their currency is crashing and even still they insist on giving a complete stranger food.
Into the Desert
As soon as the city fades in the mirror small sand dunes and a barren, rocky desert dominate the landscape. Near the mighty Nile River I see lush green fields under heavy irrigation. It’s obvious just how much the locals here depend on this ancient river to bring life. I stop and order lunch at a small truck stop using only hand signals and the spicy chunks of meat are delicious, as is the shade. Again, everyone continues to be extremely friendly and kind, even though I speak barely a word Arabic.
“As soon as the city fades in the mirror small sand dunes and a barren, rocky desert dominate the landscape.”
I find a wild camp only a few hundred yards behind the mighty Meroe Pyramids, probably Sudan’s most popular tourist attraction. This UNESCO site dates back to about 800 B.C., and is simply incredible. Continuing north through the endless desert I get a sense of just how enormous Sudan truly is. In fact it was the largest country on the continent before South Sudan split off in 2011, which is now the world’s youngest country. For hour after hour I move through the immense desert, which I find equal parts impressive and intimidating. There really is nothing for hundreds of miles, and the sun beats down relentlessly.
In the city of Atbara I ask about gas in multiple stations without luck before a local volunteers to jump in the passenger seat and take me to a station across town that likely has some. When we get close I know he is right. There are easily 500 vehicles waiting in a snaking line that parallels the paved road. Again everyone insists I go straight to the front of the line, where multiple people want to shake my hand and welcome me to Sudan. After waiting about an hour the gas starts to flow, and once again I feel good about the Jeep being full to the brim. When I drop the man back across town he asks for nothing. He simply shakes my hand and wishes me all the best for my time in Sudan.
“For the entire hour I wander the site, I don’t see a single person. There are no locals and certainly no tourists.”
I turn west from Atbara on a paved road that slices through a desert of enormous dunes. Soon an intense headwind springs up that is so strong I struggle to maintain 60. Outside the Jeep it whips sand into my face and soon time spent outside is extremely unpleasant. Even a three-minute leg stretch is trying, and by the end of the day I realize I’m a virtual prisoner inside the Jeep. It’s the only place I can escape the wind that torments me.
On the outskirts of town I stumble upon more impressive pyramids where I wander alone until I can no longer tolerate the howling wind that is now throwing sheets of sand into my face. Late in the afternoon I simply drive off the road and into the dunes, going in a few miles until I find a sheltered place in the lee of a monster dune.
The following day I move north on the western side of the river before finding the stunning Temple of Soleb. In West Africa I often felt like Indiana Jones exploring the thick jungles. I get the same feelings here wandering this massive temple of carvings and immense stone structures. For the entire hour I wander the site, I don’t see a single person. There are no locals and certainly no tourists.
An Unknown Future
Further north I pinch myself as I drive into the infamous town of Wadi Halfa, immediately before the border of Egypt. This has been the only crossing into Egypt for many decades, and the bureaucracy and time required to cross here has been the stuff of legend among overlanders since before I was born.
“Mercifully the temperature does drop in the hours after dark, and usually I wake almost feeling a chill, which I thoroughly enjoy.”
Town has a bustling market where I wander around and stock up on the usual supplies, waiving to happy kids and shaking hands with helpful locals who occasionally translate for me. When buying products I simply hold out my hand with money, and shopkeepers take the right amount, before giving change.
I’m invited to drink coffee by Asim, a local who spends six months a year in London. It’s clear the Sudanese know how to make a strong coffee, and soon I’m buzzing from the small espresso shot that has so much ginger it is actually spicy. While talking about life in Sudan, Asim mentions I’m lucky to be visiting in winter. In summer, this region is easily above 135 degrees F every single day. Even for him that is unbearable. I’m impressed Asim is happy to talk so openly about the ongoing protests, and how the Sudanese people deserve a better leader. “Although I’m very safe,” he explains,“it’s probably not a good idea to take photos of the market and people here. Everyone is a little tense and they might think I’m a government spy.”
Government travel warnings are a tricky thing. On one hand they seem like a really good idea and something I should watch closely. On the other, I have come to learn they tell us almost nothing about the people I will actually meet on the ground there. After all, Sudan has a red warning because the president and government are evil, not because regular people are. In my experience the people I’ve met in parts of the world suffering under an oppressive regime have been some of the friendliest and kindest people I have ever met. Governments can warn us that a foreign government is doing something they don’t like, or treating their own citizens badly, but unfortunately that tells us extremely little about those citizens, or how we will be treated if we visit.
Two months after my visit, the Sudanese armed forces staged a coup d’état and removed al-Bashir from power, placing him under house arrest. In late 2019, he was convicted of money laundering and corruption after $130 million was found in his home, and was sentenced to two years in prison. He will face multiple charges by the International Criminal Court in the coming years. Sudan is now transitioning to democracy, to be completed in October 2022.
For more tales of faraway travels, follow adventurer Dan Grec on his YouTube channel “The Road Chose Me.”
Capital City: Khartoum
Population: 41.5 million
Size: 728,000 square miles
(bigger than Alaska)
Languages Spoken: Arabic & English
Currency: Sudanese Pound
Independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule: 1956
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine.