In November 2016 we backpacked for 15 days through Northern Sudan. Entering from Egypt by public bus via the new road, we made our way to Khartoum visiting Wadi Halfa, Sai Island, Soleb/ Wawa, Dongola, Karima, Atbara and the pyramids of Bagrawwiya (Meroe) along the way. While transport, accommodation and food were very cheap, the entrance fees for the sites were outrageously high (read our blog post on the costs).
As so few people visit Sudan individually and reports about the experience are rare and quite diverse. So we were a bit nervous what to expect.
The people – indifferent and polite
Whereas in other African (including North African) countries we have experienced the majority of people to be rather pro-active if not outright aggressive in their wish to communicate with foreigners, Sudan was different. We had heard and read so much about the friendliness of the Sudanese people before we went that we probably had too high expectations. Many people were friendly in the sense that they shouted “Hello,” “Welcome,” and “你好” (Ni hao – there are a lot of Chinese working in the country) upon seeing foreigners. Occasionally, friendly people walked briefly with us to show us the way or enquired with others on our behalf. But on most parts the Sudanese behaved to us quite indifferently – which was amazing, given the few Western foreigners in the country, and also an extremely pleasant surprise.
On the other hand we had some encounters with stone-throwing children in a neighbourhood in Karima, which actually happened twice in the same area. As for people in the tourism business (whom we had to deal with a lot), they very often took advantage of us by demanding outrageous prices for transport and such – sometimes ten times the normal – and the constant haggling was a bit tiresome. Some people who were indeed helpful, for instance called a friend with a tuktuk – that turned out to be more expensive than otherwise, and their helpfulness thus was a service not so much to us but rather to that friend with the boat, or tuktuk, or minibus.
Travelling as two women in Sudan
Sudan is a country were female genital mutilation is wide-spread, and apart from the morning, when they go to the market, women are generally not much seen in public spaces. Muslim Sudanese women cover their hair, but we have very rarely seen fully-veiled women in Niqab. Briefly we thought about wearing a scarf in Sudan, but decided against it, mainly for the same reasons as in Egypt: there are Christian women who go without a scarf and we would like to support them. We did wear long sleeves and loosely fitting shirts that went well below the hips, though.
Travelling as two (foreign-looking) women in Sudan was almost completely hassle-free – it was even possible to have a coffee or tea in the evening on the main square as the only women (except for the tea ladies working there) between hundreds of men. On the other hand we sometimes noticed that many people took us (with short hair and longish loose-fitting shirts over trousers) for beardless, small-framed Asian boys – Japanese, Koreans or Chinese. And we also had some unpleasant encounters with men fondling their dicks next to us (in public!).
Travelling as Germans in Sudan
Being white in an African country automatically means sticking out. During the two weeks, apart from two tour groups, we met about 8 other Western foreigners (all of them men, by the way).
The other light-skinned people we saw were Syrian refugees – who often came up to us to chat in English. They were delighted when we told them that we had visited Syria before the war and even spent some time in Damascus learning Arabic. When they learned that we are from Germany they usually thanked us for the hospitality Germany had shown to the Syrian refugees. A gratitude that we felt we hadn’t earned – especially as we travel a lot and are not involved in any work with the refugees. In any case, some of the best and most honest conversations we had in Sudan were with Syrian refugees.
An unexpected highlight – Atbara
On the way from Karima to the Pyramids of Meroe we spent two nights in the small town of Atbara and enjoyed it tremendously. While Atbara lacks big sightseeing spots, it has a vibrant market and some of the best food we have eaten in Sudan (a fantastic foul and falafel place and an Ethiopian restaurant).
During the British colonization, Atbara housed the railway headquarters and we spent some hours strolling through the old railway quarter and watching the steam trains from a bridge. Today Atbara still has a big freight terminal. As we were in town on a Friday, life was slow. When we went to the river Nile in search for a coffee shop, we ended up in the local zoo – quite a depressing experience animal-wise, but as many local families went there it was an interesting insight into the normal life of Sudanese.
Would we visit Sudan again?
Our main reason for the visit were the Nubian archaeological sites in Northern Sudan. Travelling independently through the country was easy and safe. On the other hand accommodation was quite basic, transport inconvenient and slow, and overall the discomfort does nothing to lure us back. We could imagine visiting the Red Sea coast or the south of the country in combination with another country in the area, though.
Have you thought about travelling in Sudan? On your own or in a group? Or have you already been there? We are curious about your experiences!