Sudan Trip Report

Brooke and I spent a week exploring the wonders of Sudan in late April. Our trip was organized by the Italian Tourism Company Sudan, or ITC Sudan, which is the oldest tour company in the country. It started in 2000 and has done wonders for opening up tourism in Sudan while supporting the local communities (today they employ 55 Sudanese and 5 Italians). Elena Valdata, an Italian woman who is married to Maurizio Levi, the famed Saharan explorer from the 70s, started the company after visiting Sudan with Maurizio and falling in love with the place and the people. We instantly saw how easily that could happen!
 
Every person we met was genuine, hospitable and always broad smiled. An invitation to converse over coffee happened at every home and each market. The landscape is an expansive mix of stark deserts and bustling tar thoroughfares, ancient scattered ruins and modern high-rise towers, and it’s all dominated by a palm-lined Nile River cutting through from Uganda to Egypt.
 
The best time to travel in Sudan is November through March, with November through January the perfect time for photographers because there is less wind so less dust in the air. Our trip took place in April, during a full-moon week, when the seasons changed from “winter” to “summer”. Most days averaged an arid 100+F, with late evenings cooling off to around 90F, though both nights camping in the desert got cool enough that we reached for a blanket.

We hope you enjoy Brooke's in-depth trip report from our time there.

All the best and please feel free to let us know if you would like more information.

 

Johann & Brooke

KHARTOUM (Day 1)
After two days and four flights, our Egypt Air plane touches down in Khartoum at 3 a.m. Even with the paperwork for our Visa sorted ahead of time (a must) it still takes nearly an hour to get out of the airport; everything here is “shwaya, shwaya” or slowly, slowly. Hamid, a guide with ITC Sudan, picks us up with a driver, and as there is no traffic at this time, gets us to the Corinthia, our luxurious 5-star hotel located along the Blue Nile, within ten minutes. Hamid has been a guide with ITC Sudan for four years and speaks both English and Spanish. When we ask if he will be with us for the week, he tells us he is starting a course to master German and so no, not this time. But he does take a moment to teach me a few good phrases: “moon chensura” – can I take your photo, “tamam” – good, and my favorite, “miamia” or 100%. I use that one often, though not as much as “al salam Alikum” – hello, and “shukraan” – thank you.
 
Khartoum is made up of three main cities: Khartoum, Khartoum North (a more industrial area), and Omdurman, where there are markets, restaurants, Whirling Dervishes, Nubian Wresting and more. There are about six million people in these three cities, but that is a best-guess as there hasn’t been an official count since after South Sudan separated, and there has been a lot of movement of people into and out of the city because of geo-political reasons. Politics, religion, and history aside, Khartoum is truly a safe city, and Carla Piazza, our energetic tour leader who is based in Khartoum and has been working with and marketing ITC Sudan for the past 13 years, shares stories with us to highlight this.

After breakfast we board a basic boat for a Blue Nile cruise alongside the Magrum Peninsula to the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers (a bit underwhelming for us, but apparently a highlight for British travelers). Then we drive to the National Museum (aka, the Archeological Museum). Starting in 1969, UNESCO dismantled, moved and rebuilt two temples from the Lake Nasser area to protect them from flooding. When the museum opened in 1970, these temples and more were set up along a mini-Nile to show how they were once oriented. There are amazing artifacts and carefully preserved Coptic frescoes throughout the museum.
 
We learn about Kush, or “Land of the Black”, which referred to both Sudan and Ethiopia. There are so many historical connections linking Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, along with the other countries in the Horn of Africa. Spending one week in Northern Sudan and one week in Northern Ethiopia would make for an impressive historical journey: the history of the Nile, the Coptic influence, the spread of the Axumite Kingdom, how greed for gold brought people to Nubia where most of the major gold mines are.

Driving across one of the bridges that connects Khartoum with Omdurman, the old capital of Sudan, we set out for the Khalifa House, which is the oldest building in Omdurman. We hear the history of Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn al-Sayyid, known as Mahdi, as he studied Islam extensively and used that to unite many Sudanese tribes. He is strongly supported by the Sufi because of the work he did and our last night in the country will be spent with the mystical Sufi Dervishes. Across from the Khalifa House is the Khalifa Mosque with the tomb of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad. And just like clockwork, the Muezzin starts the day’s third call to prayer.

To escape the mid-day heat, we go to Al Housh restaurant on the Nile for a lunch of Sudanese salads, grilled meats, bread, and a tasting flight (we use our imagination as Sudan is a dry country) of sweet, local juices: tamarind, baobab fruit, and my favorite, karkaday – the national drink of Sudan. And then we have our first experience with Sudanese coffee, which is flavored with roasted ginger and absolutely delicious! We walk off the meal wandering the passageways of the largest souk in Sudan, looking at curiosities, but not taking photos (in Sudan, it is prohibited to take photos in {most} markets, of governmental buildings, bridges, anything dirty, and a few other things that Carla keeps us abreast of). I buy several West African stone beads that I’m told arrived here during the times when the trade routes across Africa brought wonders from abroad in exchange for goods and slaves. 
 
Later in the afternoon we move to Khartoum North for a traditional Nuba Wrestling match. Carla buys us “VIP” tickets, which means access to an area directly in front of the ring with rows of plastic chairs. She’s surprised that they are even available as the wrestling has already started and it would have been more common to be in the stands with the local Nubian men (I am pretty sure I’m the only woman watching the wrestling at this point). But ten minutes in, after experiencing the excitement of the wrestling paired with the taunts from each team’s supporters and victory laps when a match comes to an end, we understand why. Today we are in for a treat as some of the most influential and important people of the Nuba tribe are in attendance, and as their procession enters our VIP area we move back row by row until we’re standing at the back.

KHARTOUM to OLD DONGOLA (Day 2)
This morning we leave Khartoum for a night of desert camping. But before that, we have a long day’s drive and a lot to see. We stop at a small market on the outskirts of Khartoum to buy our picnic provisions: ice, tomatoes and cucumbers, falafel, “ful” (fava beans cooked and spiced in the local way) fresh “ash” (bread), tangy cow’s milk cheese, and more. Of course we sit to have some ginger-infused coffee. Before officially leaving Khartoum, about an hour into our drive, we stop at a check point to show our paperwork. Everyone needs a permit to leave Khartoum, and ITC Sudan organizes all of the permits needed for every check point and every entrance payment along the way. The road stretches out in front of us and as we drive away from the confluence of the Nile, the land on either side is becoming more and more desolate.
 
Sudan gets no more than 5,000 tourists a year. Most of them come on cruise ships to go scuba diving near Port Sudan, and the rest feel far and few between. The “busiest” time of year is New Year’s and Easter, and even then, there is never a queue, never a wait, and almost never other tourists around as ITC Sudan organizes their guests so that they are at different places at different times. But most surprisingly, there aren’t locals around asking the continuous questions of “would you like to buy …” and “do you need a guide”. It is highly refreshing, especially for anyone who has ever visited Aswan, Luxor, or the pyramids of Cairo.

After our first river crossing, we arrive at Old Dongola, which is located in the center of the Nubian region along the banks of the Nile. There is no one else here. We visit a burial ground with ancient tombs and more “modern” graves, a Coptic temple with marble columns, several other church ruins – one with the remains of a colorful fresco – and more. Our walk through Old Dongola surprises us as there are pieces of antique pottery everywhere; you almost can’t avoid walking on them.

While the tar road is in excellent condition (especially compared to what we experienced in Madagascar), we’re ready to start our desert adventure. We have three drivers for the week – Musadak, Mubarak (who also goes by “Shorba”, or soup, because well, he likes soup), and Murtada – and all are senior drivers with ITC Sudan who have the skills to lead desert expeditions into even further flung parts of the country. We veer off-road and as if on the set of “Mad Max”, we speed through the desert, past Acacia-nibbling camels, en route to our campsite, aka the Preset Camp.

We arrive just before sunset and our igloo-style tent is already set up at the bottom of a dune with another, much larger tent set up for dinner. Those steep, trackless dunes tease us and so we climb! The sand is sensuously warm and soft on our bare feet as we ascend to the most spectacular 360-degree sunset. After an aperitif of karkaday with a snack of peanuts and popcorn, we enjoy a delicious dinner. Many of the ITC Sudan employees have been with the company anywhere from five years to “forever.” Carla shares the story of how Bakier, the chef here at the Preset Camp, came to have “been with the company longer than the company existed.” Eventually, after a bit of star gazing, we fall asleep on foam mattress camp beds.

KERMA (The Dufuffa) and KARIMA (Day 3)

Waking up in the desert is delightful as it is the first cool minute of the trip. We load up into the Land Cruiser and “Mad Max” it again over the monotone dunes until we arrive at Umeugal, a Nubian village planted among the palms. Some homes are milk white while others are painted in pastels. We visit with a traditional Nubian family, and this time have cinnamon-spiced coffee. The moment I love most is when I realize that the younger sister started getting ready, one piece of brilliant cloth after another, as soon as we arrived, in order to bring coffee out to one of our drivers whom I think she is sweet on. Some things are truly universal.

We make a stop at the archeological sites of Tombos to learn more about ancient Nubian history and then drive to Kerma. Here we visit the majestic Defuffa, which is a massive man-made mud brick structure dating back to 1900 BC, located in the middle of what was once the largest settlement in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the museum here is home to seven granite statues of seven Napatan Kings dating back to between the 7th and 6th Century BC, or the 1st Kingdom of Kush in Sudan.

After another drive we arrive in Karima, a small town located on the right bank of the Nile, south of the 4th Cataract, and close to the famous World Heritage archaeological site at the foot of Jebel Barkal. It is here that ITC Sudan built the Nubian Rest House a few hundred feet from the base of Jabel Barkal Mountain. We arrive at dusk and the setting is spectacular!

Gianna, who is the Western Manager during the winter months, is currently on leave so we are welcomed by Abu Alas, the Sudanese Manager. Because most of the Sudanese guides prefer to eat their traditional food in the traditional way (with their hands and with other men), Gianna who speaks many different languages, will sit with guests at meals and act as story teller. I love learning about how Abu, who has been the Sudanese Manager of the Nubian Rest House for six years now, came to be in his current role: he started off with ITC Sudan as a driver and guests were commenting on his excellent English. They came to find out that he has a university degree in economy but started working in tourism in order to make enough money to send his two sisters to university as well. And with that conversation, he was asked to take over as manager.

 

There is a group of five British travelers here this night and we learn that the Nubian Rest House is their sole base during their five nights in the North. For people who don’t want to camp (Preset Camp) or stay at the Meroe Permanent Tented Camp, they can opt for longer days driving and possibly fewer sites and just stay in Karima. Plus, the Nubian Rest House has air conditioning, a welcome amenity in this hot April weather. This is also the first time since Khartoum that we have Internet access.

KARIMA (Jebel Barkal) and KURRU (Day 4)

After breakfast today (and I’m thrilled, as coconut-covered dates are starting to appear on the menu), we walk under the flowering pink bougainvillea, through the original Nubian gate doors and across the archeological site to Jebel Barkal. It is on this morning walk that we learn Carla could be known as “Guide of the Sacred Mountains in the Desert” as she also guided in Australia for six years. Very cool. But for now, we are here in Karima (also known as Napata).

 

The desert landscape provides the perfect blackboard for Carla as she drops to her knees, smooths a large area of sand, and commences to draw a map of the region. I call these daily teaching moments her “Sand Lectures”, and during this one, graceful Nubian vultures (aka Egyptian vultures) and kytes soar overhead. We walk though the three pilots - the Welcoming Pilot, Worshiping Pilot, and Crowning Pilot – and find ourselves at the base of Jebel Barkal. This is just another one of many impressive sites here in Sudan that most visitors can have all to themselves.

 

Jebel Barkal ("Jebel" means mountain in Arabic) was a holy mountain for the old Egyptian and Nubian Pharaohs (this is around the same time as when King Tut was all-powerful in Egypt). A temple dedicated to the Pharaohs’ patron, Amon, is located at the foot of this red sandstone mountain. We pass by several sculptured granite rams that were supposed to border a long avenue that probably led to the pier on the Nile. Further up we are able to enter the Mut Temple, an awe-inspiring underground temple with a wonderfully preserved, colored, hieroglyphic story of ancient times. 

After lunch at the Nubian Rest House we stop by a bustling market en route to Kurru. This is our first encounter with a camel market and we weave through the donkey carts, goats for sale, and people who have come to watch us. A group begins to follow us out of the animal market and through the vegetable vendors in front of the knife-pounding blacksmiths to the tea ladies where we seek shade. As we walk, one of the best moments of the trip takes place: a young boy driving a donkey cart turns the corner and as he’s trotting by us, he does a double-take and shouts out, “Oh my God, hi!” To me, his angelic sing-song voice and amazement at seeing a “kawaja” (white person) reminds me of just how blessed I am to be visiting this country now.

Sudan really is a country unknown, with so much yet to be discovered. Where you might say that Egypt has an embarrassment of riches, it feels as though Sudan would be the same way with more funding and attention. But luckily (“Insha'allah” - if God wills), there is some support. Archeologists from several universities around the world are actively digging in Sudan (U.S., Germany, Italy, Poland, and others, all with local Sudanese workers and mostly with funding from Qatar). For example, the University of Michigan is currently working to discover which king is buried under the tomb at Kurru, and their team is active from January through March.

Kurru is one of the three different locations where the ancient royal necropolis of Napata (the Nubian capital) constructed large numbers of pyramids (Jebel Barkal and Nuri are the other two). Kurru showcases the development of the Egyptian culture in Sudan, and through the study of these tombs, archeologists have identified how the Black Pharos Dynasty (25th Dynasty) came into power. The archeologists with the University of Michigan only started excavating two years ago (they have investigated one tomb of an unknown king that is still not open to the public, but there are high hopes for when it will be) and, they have yet to publish their findings to-date. When the archeologists are onsite working, starting in January, ITC Sudan will ask them to give short talks to guests. Of course one can never promise that something like that will happen, like getting into museums and tombs that are normally locked - but when something special is possible to make happen, they will, and they seem to be able to organize almost anything. This is another reason why traveling in high season, when the weather is nice and the archeological work is taking place, is the best time to travel.

After a quick stop to see a petrified forest we’re back at the foot of Jebel Barkal, but on the other side this time where the beginning of a steep path leads to the top. We climb up in order to get a 360-degree sunset view over Karima, to enjoy a birds-eye view of Merowee City on the east bank of the Nile, and (almost) most importantly, so that we can run down the steep sandy slope on the far side. But the most magical moment is meeting a few teens at the top who are as taken with us as we are of them, including a young woman in a burka who wants to take a photo with me and in turn allows Johann to take what seems to be the most enchanting photo of the trip.

NURI and MEROE (Day 5)

Just after sunrise we make our way to Nuri, which is one of those places where it really comes into focus that there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt. We’ve already seen so many pyramids, and here, in the necropolis of the Black Pharos Dynasty (25th Dynasty), there are 22 Kings buried and 59 Queens, all with a pyramid on their tomb. So there are 81 pyramids that we know of in Nuri alone, and 80 pyramids in all of Egypt! The largest of all the pyramids here, and in Sudan for that matter, is for King Tarhaka, and we stand at the base, tucked into the shade of the offertory chamber and study the building materials and methods – sandstone mixed with pebbles form the building blocks and the entire pyramid is filled in with stone, both of which techniques make them stronger and more well-preserved.

We leave Nuri behind and drive off-road along a the beautiful Wadi Abu Dom across the Bayuda Desert. Soft white sand, scattered Acacia trees, and a Nubian music soundtrack make for a magical morning. Somewhere along the way we stop to visit with a nomadic family from the Hassania Tribe. Two years ago one of the women gave birth to a baby girl and named her Carla, after our Carla, however our Carla hadn’t met her yet. Our Carla is so connected with the local communities here; it really is special to see how welcoming they are to her.

As we continue our desert drive we encounter an expansive mirage. Stretched out to the horizon I see a Great Lake lined with tall palms. But it isn’t so, and eventually we arrive at a true water source in the desert, an ancient 190-foot-deep well where nomads have congregated with their animals, their leather ropes, and their goat-skin satchels. The men are the only ones who can work the well; the boys drive the donkeys that the ropes are connected to, helping to hoist the water up via the pulley system. One goat-skin satchel at a time they fill drainage systems that lead to pools for the animals to drink out of, and others where women collect the water and fill up plastic jugs to carry back home.

Right around sunset again (days here are full and we generally leave between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. and arrive at our final site of the day for sunset) we approach the pyramids of Meroe. We only stop now for sunset photos and tomorrow we’ll explore them fully. So we drive on to the Meroe Permanent Tented Camp, which will soon need to be renamed as ITC Sudan has begun building permanent stone bungalows to replace the current tents. A new, expansive main building is also in progress. Both are expected to be ready for guests during the 2018 season.

 

The Royal Necropolis of Meroe is only two miles from the property and we have our karkaday sundowners on the upstairs terrace watching the remaining rays of the sun sink below the horizon. Dinner is also served on the terrace under the rising full moon.

MEROE (Day 6)

Meroe is home to another 40 pyramids and three different necropolises: Northern, Southern and Western. Here we see how the Sudanese completely detached themselves from Egyptian influence and created their own language and way of writing. This day is full of adventures! First, we ride a camel from the Northern to Southern Necropolis. And when we return later in the day, after avoiding a small sand storm, there is a gorgeous, hazy sunset over the pyramids and we take copycats of those iconic photos that were in National Geographic when Sudan was featured as among the “Top 50 Best Places to Travel in 2015.”

We visit another local village, and as today isn’t market day, we wander the streets meeting with the town tailor, coffee maker, blacksmith, and even town clown who giggles as he gives me rides around the town on his donkey cart. I felt like a “Kandaki”, a strong Sudanese queen.

 

Between UN sanctions and Sharia law, there is almost no Western influence in the country. People are still wearing traditional clothing (men in a “jellabiya”; women in a “tobe”), making almost everything by hand, and listening to Arabic music on the radio. So you can imagine our surprise when our driver turned up the volume on a Nubian remix of Beyoncé’s “Should have put a ring on it.” Johann’s quick wit referenced that made the moral cutoff because it supports the sanctity of marriage.

And after another splendid dinner of lentil soup, various tasty salads, and fish, we have a chill out in the wadi, with a roaring fire, mats and pillows to lounge on, tea and coffee to sip on, and that round, full moon rising over head. As the stars glitter above, I smile – I’m always happy when I can see both Orion and the Southern Cross in the same sky.

MUSSAWARAT, NAGA and KHARTOUM (Day 7)

Today is our last day, and I can’t believe how much we have seen and done in only one week. And there is still a lot to be packed into today during the long drive back to Khartoum where we’ll have dinner and only a few hours sleep; our flight out of Sudan is at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, and we’ll be picked up at 1:00 a.m., so we have a basic room reserved at the Grand Holiday Villa Hotel (it’s considered 4-star, and good for a day-room or smaller budget).

 

We arrive at Mussawarat, a 6th Century A.D. settlement that is one of the highlights for most people. For guests who want to be at Mussawarat for sunrise or sunset, the best thing is to do the “Wild Camp” which can be set up in the wadi just over the hill. Otherwise, because of drive time from Meroe to Khartoum, you will always see it with the sun overhead. In Mussawarat in the 110-degree heat of the day, we wander around the ruins of this once very important city. Here, there are statues and inscriptions of elephants everywhere, and sloping pathways built so that the majestic animals could make their way around the grounds easily.

The mid-day sun is incredibly intense so we take a lunch break under Acacia trees. We then venture back out to Naga, which, while being a Meroitic center, actually showcases a confluence of cultures with objects that have Egyptian, Roman, and Greek styles intertwined. A Kiosk with arches, columns, and Egyptian carvings sits in the middle of the Saharan landscape. The Lion Temple, which is the best preserved of all the temples from the trip dates back to the 1st Century A.D.

As Carla says often, “nothing is for tourists,” and the evening with the Sufi Dervishes is just another example of how one can experience authentic moments here. The Whirling Dervish Ceremony takes place only on Fridays, at sunset. We walk into the Ahmed al Nil Cemetery in Khartoum where the event takes place in front of the tomb of the cemetery’s namesake, the Sufi leader whom they are whirling to honor. The cemetery was established in 1980 and is the only place where the dervish dance, except during the month of prophet Mohammed’s birth and Ramadan.

 

We find a spot in the circle, just behind some of the men clapping and chanting, and take it all in. One man walks around wafting incense at people, perfuming the air and consecrating the event. We’re surrounded by men wearing white and cream with green accents, waiting to join the dance, and women in their colorful tops with detailed henna from foot to finger. Only men can form and dance in the circle and women stay outside, however that doesn’t stop them at all. I’m sandwiched next to a group of ladies who like my rhythm and encourage me to dance with them, moving to a feverish beat. And when I look toward the holy tomb, where many more women are gathered to watch, one woman stands out. She’s covered up entirely with a sheer scarf and dancing with wild abandon, like no one else is around.

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