With 4x4 jeep across the burning deserts to the coast and coral reefs of the Sudan
> Journeying on the northern loop across The Sudan <
Our warm-hearted veneration for North Africa was kicked off by tours to Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco where we’d venture south across barren landscapes and exotic oasis villages on the fringes of the Sahara. Sitting back in Denmark during windy and rainy Autumn evenings and reflecting upon these early tours to North Africa, we came to conclude that we were drawn south to the Sahara by an almost magnetic force that seemed to deliver – time after time – experiences of extreme hospitality and surreal landscapes. Through experiencing how people live and survive here, obviously and inevitably, we would want to go further south into the Saharan countries such as Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and the Sudan.
Very few travelers make it to the Sudan. One of the explanations of the lack of travelers it that to the wider world the Sudan is often seen as a place of untold horror. A burning and featureless desert where war, genocide and misery are the norm. And although some aspects of this image are grounded in truth (at least historically), for the most part the popular impression couldn’t be more off the mark. Rather, the Sudan comes as a fantastic and positive surprise.
We spent several evenings studying the Sudan, different provinces and possible routes, and found out that although various ongoing conflicts mean that part of this vast nation remains off limits, there is several safe places. So, an itinerary was designed where we could do a loop of the northern parts from Khartoum via Shendi and Atbara to Suakin, Port Sudan and the Red Sea isles, onward across the desert to Karima and Dongala and further north along the Nile, and back to Khartoum. Along the way we also did several break-outs from the main loop to visit remote villages, temples and islands on the Nile.
The journey was mind-blowing! There's just no denying that among the Sudan's sweeping hills of sand, lie treasures the rest of the world are only just beginning to discover…. treasures such as golden pyramids of ancient Nubia, apricot-colored dunes pierced by the life-giving Nile, temple frescoes painted back in a time when this part of the Sahara was still green savanna, people that are some of the friendliest and most hospitable you can ever hope to meet, and gardens of coral where we would encounter a million blood-red fish swarm among a school of hammer-heads.
If you simply love the Sahara region check out our journeys to other parts of North Africa, which also offers exellent mountain climbing opportunities in the High Atlas. If you are keen on diving in the Read Ocean do see the Red Sea part of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt or the Djibouti part of the Africa Horn journey.
Sudan is such a vast country that in its entirety is off-the-beaten-track. Busses, 'hafla' minibusses and 'boksi' picup trucks infrequently travel the desert roads, but for this trip we decided to go with our own 4WD. At many times we found ourselves driving on sand and we needed the extra power to keep ourselves from getting stuck. Our itinerary was not at all aggressive - we had plenty of time to explore sites, take side-trips, enjoy the countryside. Time to breathe and relax along the way.
Khartoum is a melting pot of the many ethnic groups that make of the Sudan, and to stroll around the markets of Khartoum while watching the world pass by is fantastic. We spent a few days in Khartoum simply visiting markets from dawn till dusk.
...where the waters of the Blue Nile (enters Sudan from Ethiopia) and the White Nile (enters from Uganda) meet before continuing their slow progress to Egypt. What a fantastic scene! We spent half a day here, and the entire island is a snapshot of traditional village life in the heart of Khartoum. Escaping the press of people and sensing the wind which cooled us down was particularly nice. The two Niles meet at the island's northern beaches. On the small island are also farmhouse, farmers, etc.
We met these kids during our trip to Tuti Island. As all kids all over the world they were competing in front our our cameras to show us who's the most strong and brave swimmer. Only a few people in Sudan has a basic knowledge of English, and the working language is Arabic. Luckily, 'salam alaykum', 'shukraan', 'aiwa, 'la' and 'maa salama' would get us far.
...near Khartoum on the road to Shendi where we were heading to explore the desert, remote temples and sail on the River Nile.
...on the dirt road between Al Qoz and Abu Dulayq. Many roads in North Sudan consists of little more that a rough track in the countryside. Thomas and Troels was very quick to discover the problem and to fix it as well.
This is probably the best-known site in all of Sudan: the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe. It has more than 200 pyramids, of which many has been reclaimed by the desert. It is a fascinating place to explore with absolutely no other tourists - at least we didn't meet any during our half-day stay here. We slept in tents in the desert nearby.
Unlike the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the Meroe site is totally isolated and you can get that sense of exploration while scaling a few pyramids. The climb is extremely steep and we would actually have preferred to use ropes both during the ascent and descent.
In Um Ali village near Meroe were several local kids, hanging out with their fathers who are camel drivers. We spent several hours together with them drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and playing chess, while waiting to go back to Meroe for a second time to see the sunset.
Atbara is a dusty little town in the northern desert a few hours' drive north of Meroe. We ended up here to eat and sleep. The location of the town is very pretty as the Atbara River, flowing in from Ethiopia, joins the Nile. There is a small market and several stalls selling spices and the like. A few places sell fuul and grilled meat. The lady in the picture served tea after dinner. Most tea ladies are hard-working, friendly and welcoming.
...along the long and lonely 500 km stretch of asphalt between Atbara and Port Sudan. The road to the Red Sea is very long and lonesome as it crosses the vast Baiyua Desert, but we wanted to go up there to explore the coast and do some diving. Is was a great chance to meet up with other travelers (truck drivers, families, etc.) in the many coffee houses along the way.
We stopped every second hour or so to relax and have tea. Along the road are small hole-in-the-wall cafeterias every 50 km or so.
...in Tagulharai village. There can be few Sudanese experiences as memorable as sitting in a hole-in-the-wall café sipping shae (tea) or gahwa (coffee) and munching on zalabia (sugar-coated fried balls of dough). A particular drink that we feel in love with was Jabana: thick and strong coffee flavored with ginger!
A tea in Sudan costs 1 SDG and a coffee between 1.5 and 2 SDG. Ganazabeel (ginger tea) is also 2 SDG. Everything is served with large amounts of sugar.
These days, Port Sudan has a rather faded, has-been look, but the port and sea front is bursting with life in the late afternoon and evening. We went down to the docks every evening to drink jabana, play cards, smoke sheesha and play some pool. The charm and leisured pace of life got under our skin and we wanted to stay much longer than planned. In the picture, Troels, Thomas and Cristoffer are playing cards and smoking sheesha.
Some of the best diving in the world is to be found in the Sudan Red Sea. Yes, it was just off the coast that Jacques Cousteau did his Précontinent experiments (he thought man would live underwater post-nuclear-war). But Sudanese diving still is very unknown. Part of the reason for being unknown as a diving destination is the difficulty and cost of getting to the good diving sports. We did not organize a liveaboard (too expensive), but instead we arranged day-trips from the mainland.
The entire Red Sea has three distinct zones of depth: the shallow reef shelves of less than 50m, the deep shelves of between 50m and 1.000m and the central trench of 1.000m to 3.000m. The central part and thus the deepest part of the entire Red Sea (3.040m) is just off the coast of Port Sudan. What does this imply? Big pelagics! Lot's of turtles, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, etc. The Sanganeb also offers some of the richest coral displays in the Red Sea.
The British-built lighthouse is quite interesting to explore during surface-intervals. A guardian and his friend lives on the reef island and they love to share cigarettes and play backgammon. A few other tourists came into the reef island from a liveaboard and was amazed to discover that we were planning everything ourselves, and that we was on a much longer and quite intensive journey around the country. They, however, preferred the sea life and was afraid to go into the country.
The reef rises from 800m to the surface, and we did not have to dive too deep to appreciate big pelagics as well as the opulence of the corals. We explored all three main diving points off the reef: the south plateau (many soft and hard corals, jackfish, barracuda, tuna, snapper and white-tip sharks), the northern point (school of hammerheads) and the terrace (forest of black corals). Wow!
Danish dynamite team: Troels, Thomas, Anders and Cristoffer.
One afternoon and evening, we took the 4WD out to the Marsa Darur resort some 30 km north of Port Sudan to enjoy the perfect views over the Red Sea. In the distance, we could see the sun set over the Red Sea Hills of which Jebel Sabidana rises to 1.907m. We actually ended up crashing in a remote bungalow at the resort (for a small price) and enjoyed eggs for breakfast the next morning.
Sitting on the side of the street, sipping shae (tea) or gahwa (coffee), while listening to the hum of conversations all around us and sensing the scent in the air from nearby fruit and spice vendors. In any town or village, not matter what time of the day, we would find a tea lady.
Soug as-Samak is a fascinating place very mouth-watering fresh fish, octopus, morene eel, etc. are sold. Much of the catch is still squirming about in their baskets.
...in Port Sudan. Many hours are easily spent here watching the boats come in and out of the port, seeing how the fish is prepared, how people haggle, etc.
The purveyors at the fish marked did not mind that we took photos. Rather, they were excited.
There are a couple of fast-food places in the centre of town serving grilled chicken, meat and kebabs. We looked for the crowds to choose our joint. The style is mostly Turkish kebab.
Two girls in Sigala on the outskirts of Port Sudan. Both just got married. During the wedding ceremony, the hands and feet of the bride are decorated by henna by female family members. The groom also has his hands and feet decorated.