Experience a country that has more pyramids than Egypt, that has no McDonalds but does have tourist sites that would make most countries envious!
Once the biggest country in Africa until the South went rogue, Sudan is not your typical holiday destination, but with ever-increasing tourism arrivals, could that all be about to change?
When asked where you are going on holiday, it’s highly unlikely you’ll say Sudan. Most people couldn’t point it out on a map, let alone tell you why you should visit. The general consensus is that I’m nuts, mostly because the mainstream media depicts Sudan as a dangerous and unsafe destination to visit.
My Sudan Diaries
So what’s it like to visit? It’s certainly a culture shock at first, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it has definitely encouraged me to see more of Africa. Whilst I was travelling in Sudan I was sadly only there for six days but I sure packed a lot in. Here’s what I got up to…
Sunday 19th February
I absolutely love the feeling of landing somewhere new and exotic, not knowing what to expect or whether you’ll even be allowed into the country. After flying from Manchester and having a short stop in Istanbul, I arrived very early in the morning a bit bleary-eyed and attempting to stay awake.
Thankfully for me I was travelling in a group so I felt safe in the fact that if something went wrong there’d be someone there to help me out. Be sure to collect an arrival card before you proceed to passport control or you will be sent to the back of the queue. As it happens I was the first one through security so I had plenty of time to acclimatise and people-watch at the airport. Whatever you do, don’t take photos in/around the terminal!
You’ll certainly see some sites at the only International airport in the country; I saw people randomly walking in and out of the “secure” areas and even some falcons that a rich Emirati had brought with him.
Whilst preparing for Sudan I was advised not to bring sterling and instead only bring Euros and Dollars, thankfully I ignored this advice as I was able to exchange Great British Pounds at the airport. Using XE.com I was advised that the official bank rate was 8SDP to 1GBP, but for some reason I was offered more than double this and was given 19SDP! This helped make my trip to Sudan one of the cheapest I’ve ever experienced.
After a long journey some shut-eye was required; thankfully I awoke with a desire to go exploring. Khartoum is a strange mix of old vs new, some streets are clean, others are a rubbish dump. It’s quite difficult not to be affected by the dirt and sand in the air so make sure you take nasal spray.
One of the first places I came across was the Corinthia Hotel a.k.a Burj Libya. I’d heard many stories about this place, it’s the most luxurious hotel in the country and was built using Co. Gaddafi’s money. At the time I visited it costs $279 to stay for one night, far more than your average Sudanese can afford (or me for that matter). After ordering ice cream and waiting 45 minutes for it not to turn up I cancelled my order and opted to buy a 25p cone from a local seller outside instead.
Having previously visited Egypt and sailed down the Nile on a felucca it was only right that I do a boat trip again in Sudan. Head to the Corinthia Hotel and next to the river you’ll be asked if you’d like to take a boat ride, thankfully the Sudanese weren’t pushy but you will need to haggle as you’ll be offered different things so be sure you know what you’re getting into. There was four of us and we paid a total of 300SDP for one hour to see the confluence of the Nile and also Tuti Island. Amazingly we were even offered life jackets!
One thing you must obtain on the first day of travelling in Sudan is a photo permit. They are free and you can get one through a travel agent or hotel representative but without this you’ll be subject to scrutiny if stopped by police. Similar to other countries, many locals don’t want their photo taken but if you strike up a conversion you’ll be amazed at the friendliness of the Sudanese.
Was I in love with Khartoum? Sadly not, it didn’t leave me with the best impression but thankfully I needed plenty of beauty sleep before leaving the capital.
Monday 20th February
Catching up on my sleep makes me a happy traveller, as does having a shower to make me feel refreshed. Sadly for me the morning that I was travelling to the desert my hotel appeared to run out of water. Hurray for wet wipes!
I was thankful that I was finally able to escape the dirt of Khartoum, sadly for me it was only to discover that many parts of the countryside are also a plastic bag wasteland. There’s a huge business opportunity for anyone brave enough to educate people on the art of recycling.
I’ll admit that other than the famous Meroe pyramids I didn’t know anything else about any other tourist sites in Sudan. Thankfully for me this meant I was pleasantly surprised when I was travelling around. After veering off the main tarmacked road, it was incredibly bumpy and bone-shattering 45 minutes to reach the Naga (or Naqa in Arabic) archaeological site. I’d personally never heard about this place but it turns out it’s one of the largest ruined sites in the whole country, if this place was in neighbouring Egypt it would definitely be overrun by tourists!
After a really long day I was absolutely gutted to arrive too late to see the sunset over the Meroe pyramids, so my alarm was set for a very early morning to capture the beauty. Sadly for me the only other thing left to do was camp out in the desert, the tent wasn’t really suitable for two people so I ended up the back of a pickup truck in a sleeping bag. Thankfully, it turns out I probably got the most sleep out of everyone in my group as most of their tents collapsed during the night because of the wind.
For me though; camping out overnight sleeping underneath the stars – perfect.
Tuesday 21st February
I’m incredibly lucky to say I’ve seen some of the world’s most memorable tourist sites, however waking up to a sunrise over the Meroe pyramids has to be right up there with one of my favourite experiences. It gave me a feeling that I’d stepped back in time, although sadly the pyramids aren’t quite as abandoned as I initially imagined due to being located just off the main highway heading north.
The reason most tourists will visit Sudan is simply to experience the “less touristy” pyramids. Sudan has far more than Egypt, yet far less tourists. The Pyramids of Meroe are situated in a perfect spot for an ancient city, residing just east of the Nile River. Some of the restoration works left a lot to be desired, however I understand that with limited resources and money the Sudanese have been doing what they can with what they’ve got.
After leaving Meroe I ventured to yet more pyramids, this time discovering that the site of Nuri belonged to Nubian kings. I strongly suggest making a trip here, the pyramids have been far less damaged and the restoration is much more in keeping with what the original pyramids would have looked like – in my opinion.
Only 10km away is Jebel Barkal, a relatively small mountain – something I wasn’t expecting to find in Sudan as for some reason I thought it was completely flat! Once again, this UNESCO World Heritage site was a complete surprise for me, I was able to explore a recently discovered temple that was undergoing a live archeological excavation. This was an exciting opportunity and one I’m extremely grateful to the archeologists for allowing me to enter Mut Temple and step back in time.
After becoming a bit templed-out for the day I thankfully arrived in the early evening to my accommodation for the night at a typical Nubian homestay. It wasn’t quite as expected, but after sleeping in the desert the night before and not having a shower even just the thought of a cold shower was enticing. The reality – a shed in the garden along with a bunch of spiders, mosquitos and other lovely creatures as shower guests. It did however help me remove the sand from every orifice!
Wednesday 22nd February
Another day, another archeological site. This time it’s the vast El-Kurru complex, this place was used by the Nubian royal family and houses some of the most fascinating and intact paintings inside the burial tombs. Thankfully excavations are still taking place and no doubt in years to come there will be far more things for travellers to see and experience including the tomb of Tanwetamani and King Shebitku.
After leaving El-Kurru, the rest of the day didn’t involve a huge amount of exploring, but thankfully for me I’m one of those sad people who can’t sleep on long journeys so I simply peered out the window, staring at the endless emptiness of sand with only a few glimpses of life by nomadic people with their camels and donkeys. At a pitstop along the way we saw a local minibus picking up passengers, in the form of a goat that was tied to a roof! Only in Sudan.
The emptiness certainly didn’t last long when we arrived back in Khartoum. Big cities often endure crazy traffic and manic driving but this place was something else, I’m just glad it wasn’t me who had the responsibility of getting us through it all safely. Thankfully though there’s method in the madness and somehow it all seems to work but for this relatively poor country just surviving is all you can hope for.
Thursday 23rd February
The one good thing about being back in the capital is that Wifi is freely available and you can connect with the outside world again. I thought that with Sudan being a relatively closed country the internet would be far more restricted but to my amazement I was freely able to access my typical Social networking sites, but hilariously Sky News was blocked – in your face Rupert Murdoch!
Khartoum used to be a sleepy city with few things to do or explore, this is slowly starting to change but thankfully there’s still a few abandoned dark tourism sites to visit including the Mogan Family park. Oddly enough this site is still tended to but most of the amusement park is now derelict, however the guard will let you freely roam and explore where you like. Make sure you venture all the way to the end as you’ll come face to face with the mighty Nile River, directly at the confluence where the Blue and the White Nile meets.
A short walk away is The National Museum of Sudan; housing the largest and most important archeological sites in the country. Although it could do with some improvements they’ve definitely made an effort overall and I found it informative. I’d advise you to visit this place last on your trip because you can visit the actual sites around the country and then complete your tour here and hopefully everything will fit in to place and make sense.
I’m not sure if you are like me but postcards are still a must when I’m travelling; especially the more exotic locations. However in Sudan you’ll struggle to even find a post office, in fact there are no post boxes in the whole country so try to head to main depot in Khartoum. I was easily able to find postcards for China and Hawaii randomly but you’ll struggle to find any decent postcards of Sudan; a definite business opportunity for any locals reading this!
Friday 24th February
Sadly today is my last day, it has been a very short trip to such a large country but the lasting impression of waking up at the ancient Pyramids of Meroe will stay with me forever.
If you fly into Sudan it’s likely your flight will be an early morning one, mine was scheduled for 3am so it was an incredibly early start. My advice would be to make sure you leave at least 2 hours to get through the airport as it can be a rather beaurocratic process. There are currency exchange desks before you pass through security, make sure you change any additional currency as there isn’t any other opportunities afterwards. I ended up buying a coffee pot that I didn’t need simply to get rid of my last remaining 100SDP.
Any adventure traveller will tell you about the various times they’ve become ill whilst travelling, sadly for me once I returned to the UK I spent the following week in my sick bed getting over contracting an infectious disease called Chikungunya that I’d caught during my time travelling, what a way to end my trip.
The joys of adventure travel!
Inspired to visit? It’s surprisingly easy if you join an organised group tour as they’ll arrange a sponsor in the form of a local company; once this is received you can then apply for your visa. I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer tours to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea. As I no longer live in London the embassy thankfully accept applications by post making it easy to get a visa.
What do you need to include?
- One passport photo
- Original Passport
- Completed and signed application form
- Yellow fever certificate – not required but would be advantageous
- Postal Order for total of £55
- Return special delivery envelope (including postage)
For more information please visit the Embassy of Sudan in London.
Travelling to Sudan
Would I visit again? It’s unlikely, but not for any bad reason, mostly just because I don’t go to the same place twice. Khartoum isn’t somewhere that would feature on my list of beautiful cities and the Sudanese need a serious lesson in recycling and not filling their countryside with plastic bags and rubbish. However the archeological sites more than make up for these downfalls and I’d strongly recommend visiting soon before your typical tourists find out about this place.
What will you need to take? Here’s a brief list of suggestions for items to take with you;
- Toilet roll / wet wipes
- Anti-bacterial hand gel
- Nasal spray
- First Aid kit
- Long trousers (do not wear shorts due to strict Sharia Law)
- Mosquito spray/net
- Microfibre travel towel
LGBT Travel to Sudan
Let me point out the obvious; Sudan isn’t the first country you’d think of when you think of organising a holiday for an LGBT traveller but intrepid types are exploring, despite the risks. Let’s just say, don’t put it about! I didn’t receive any animosity, but then I would also say don’t make it hugely obvious either as this could land you in some hot water. If you’re an LGBT traveller and would like some advice or a chat about my trip here please contact me.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.
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