SUDAN, THE COUNTRY OF HOSPITALITY
“Sadiqa, sadiqa, tamam???” (“my friend, my friend, how are you?”)
Sudan is a country that will be in my heart forever.
It’s wrongly believed in Europe that Sudan is dangerous: country at war, country of terrorists, ”you will be kidnapped”… Please inform yourself before talking about a country you don’t even know! The medias do a lot of bad publicity and only talk about atrocities so we think Sudan is only the Darfur crisis, the civil war, the war in South Sudan…
Since 2011, Sudan split in two, leaving South Sudan alone, where conflicts persist. The areas of Darfur and Kordofan (borders with Chad and South Sudan, West and Southwest) are still sensitive, but Sudan is very big! So don’t mix everything, the vast majority of the country is safe!
Travelers and especially cyclists who traveled to Sudan will agree with me: the best of Sudan is its people! You’ll often hear “sadiq, tamam?” (”Are you ok my friend?”) with a smile and a big hand wave! The Sudanese have their hearts in their hands and make hospitality a priority. Poor or rich, in the city or in the desert, you will always find someone to open the doors of his house. It’s incredible!!!
In public places, they easily start the conversation with kindness and curiosity and to make you feel comfortable. If someone speaks good English, he will even translate for the others!
Despite the heat, the bites of mosquitoes and other insects and the lack of water, my cycling experience in Sudan will be unforgettable.
Population: 36 million inhabitants
Area: 1,886,068 km2, the third largest country in Africa (after Algeria and Congo DRC), it was the largest country of Africa before the independence of South Sudan in 2011.
Currency: the Sudanese pound
PYRAMIDS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT
The most famous are the pyramids of Meroe, and they receive barely a few tourists a day. The locals are not so interested either. Too bad, because they are beautiful and impressive. It’s also the largest concentration of pyramids in the world! They are not as high as those of Giza in Egypt, but having the site for yourself without the crowds of tourists and without the tourist coaches is a great advantage! You have the feeling of being an explorer who discovers for the first time the place!!!
More pictures in the article of my itinerary.
In Sudan, there are more pyramids than in any other country: close to 250!!! One can easily visit those of Jebel Barkal and Nuri, near Karima. I even went there by bike! For those interested in history and archeology, don’t miss the temples of Soleb, Sesi, Sedinga, and the impressive ruins of Old Dongola (North of Sudan), even if they are quite in bad shapes, due to the lack of funds allocated to renovation and tourism, it’s worth a visit!
WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT?
In Sudan the national dish is “ful”, baked beans served with flat and round bread. I eat it all the time and find it everywhere! Grilled meat is also common, but more expensive: sheep, cow and especially dromedary! The Sudanese love it! In families, it’s usual to eat in the same plate, always with your right hand, women separated from men.
It’s very easy to find local restaurants, often simple huts or stands located on the side of the road with tables outside at night. You easily find them every 30 to 40 km except on the desert roads (from Wadi Halfa to Akasha and Karima to Atbara). In the cities, restaurants are usually open air at night, where the tables are set on squares or sidewalks.
Tea is a tradition in Sudan and it’s absolutely everywhere! On the side of the road, on the sidewalks in town, in all villages… served by women. Always. They are often single women, widows or whose husband does not work.
It’s very easy in Sudan to be invited to stay overnight by local people. Sudanese are very welcoming and as soon as you arrive in a village, a family will be responsible of you! I don’t even have to pitch the tent because they always manage to give me a bed. The houses in Sudan are usually big, and consist of several small buildings with walls made of mud, where the kitchen and the bedrooms are separated from the rest, and distributed around one or more courtyards where it’s possible and even nice to install your bed at night to sleep cool. The hammam (bathroom) is often at the end of the courtyard with buckets of water for showering. The toilet, next to the bathroom, is a simple hole in the ground.
Camping in the desert is safe even at the sight of cars because sometimes it’s not possible to push the heavy bike too far from the road because of the sand.
In all medium-sized cities, you can stay in “lokhandas”, hotels where the rooms are shared with several travelers, with individual beds. As I’m a woman, it’s sometimes a problem because generally only men travel, and in Sudan, men and women cannot sleep together in the same space…
Often the beds end up outside, in the courtyard, to sleep cooler! These hotels are very economical, barely 2 euros. Hotels with single rooms are a bit more expensive but still reasonable.
MONEY EXCHANGE AND BLACK MARKET
Always change money on the black market, the rate is much more interesting. It’s easy to change dollars, euros a lot less. In Wadi Halfa, money changers wait at the exit of the port at the arrival of the boat. In Khartoum, ask for arrivals at the airport, or near the mosque in the city center. In general, it is easy to change in hotels, or in the markets at jewelry or gold sellers.
April 2017 1 USD = 18 SDP on the black market, but it’s changing constantly, get information from several people before crossing the border.
VISA AND REGISTRATION
To enter Sudan, you must have a visa. No visas are issued at the land borders or at the airport! It must be inquired in a Sudanese embassy. The easiest way is to ask for it in Aswan in Egypt.
If you have evidence of travels in Israel in your passport, your visa to Sudan can be denied!
The “registration” is mandatory upon arrival in the territory. I only do it in Khartoum after spending more than a month in the country. After paying about 30 euros, another sticker is put on your passport for verification at the border. I register at the immigration offices in Khartoum at the airport because I find it easier to do it there and the people at the airport speak English. But it’s also possible to do it in Dongola or Karima.
Hotels and lokhandas will ask you to register locally too sometimes (Karima, Shendi). It’s a bit confusing, but you have to go to a local police office which is usually hard to find (no signs in English) and register with them. This is free of charge. They will give you a document and you will be able to go back to the hotel to spend the night. They just want to have a control of the foreigners that are transiting through the cities.
Also, in some police check points I have been asked for a “photo permit” to be able to take pictures in some areas and touristic places. This permit is issued at the Ministry of Tourism in Khartum. Since I entered cycling from Wadi Halfa, I was not able to do it while travelling in the north. You need to be patient with the policemen and explain them that you haven’t been in Khartum yet until they finally let you go. It’s a good idea to take a few copies of your passport with you as they may keep it in some police controls.
I decided to follow the Nile from Wadi Halfa to Karima through the ruins of Old Dongola and the beautiful road via El Kurro. From Karima, the road along the Nile is no longer in shape so I cut by the road in the desert to Atbara.
If you are not in a hurry, I advise you to go to Karima and Atbara before cycling south to Khartum. I really enjoyed visiting Karima, Jebel Barkal and the pyramids around the city. The road from Karima to Atbara in the middle of the desert is beautiful, and, coming down from Atbara, you can visit the pyramids of Meroe! From Khartum, I take the road to Wad Madani and Qallabat, at the border with Ethiopia.
You can have a look to my map at the begining of this post.
WOMAN CYCLING ALONE
As a woman alone, I sometimes had trouble finding accommodation. Local hotels, called “lokanda” are actually large dormitories where people share a room on single beds. This is a problem for me quite often because travelers are only men. By insisting, I manage to find a bed somewhere, but I also sometimes have to pay a little more for a single room. In some places, there is a separate dorm for women and for men, as in Wadi Halfa for example.
Women are not allowed to camp in Sudan. I was about to pitch my tent in the desert in a quiet place, when a police car who was following me, stopped and wanted to take me. I understood that I was not allowed camp, so I went on further and I slept in a village that night.
Otherwise, I do not have any particular problem to be a solo woman on a bike and I feel totally safe! I can even leave my bike and I know nobody will touch it! The people are very friendly, and the men respectful. It’s easy to talk with them. Some are even admiring and very surprised. In the desert, a car stopped in front of me and two men began to take pictures of me, as I passed they shouted “oh!!! and you are a woman!!!”, surprised to see a woman on a bike in the middle of nowhere!
The question “where is your husband?” comes everywhere I stop: in every village, every family, it’s always the first question that people ask me. Sudanese don’t understand why you don’t have a husband. (or why you don’t want one!) I sometimes don’t want to give explanations and I just say: “he works, he is in Khartoum”, then people seem satisfied by the answer!
The veil is not obligatory for non-muslims women. I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt and trousers. A long skirt or dress instead would have been more appropriate but by bike it’s not possible! I have no problem and I feel comfortable even in remote villages.
Water is available in all villages and on the side of the roads, left in large jars cautiously in the shade of small shelters. But water is often pumped directly from the Nile, so it’s brown and not drinkable… It has to be filtered and purified before drinking.
Be careful, pills like “micropur” are not enough especially against parasites!
For the roads in the desert: from Al Dabbah to Khartoum or from Karima to Atbara, it’s necessary to carry enough water for the whole trip!
STATES OF THE ROADS AND DANGERS
The main roads in Sudan are paved, and it’s possible to cross the whole country only on tar! They are often very straight and long, sometimes boring… A surprising thing and not very pleasant especially by bike is the amount of dead animals left on the roadside, probably abandoned by cattle trucks.
I decide to take some secondary roads in bad shape to visit some sites, and I sometimes have to push in the sand. I have to turn back once on the road that leads to the Naqa temple, because the way is too long in deep sand.
Most roads are quiet and little transited, except between several major cities: Atbara-Khartoum-Wad Madani would be the most dangerous axis. Many trucks come from Port Sudan on the Red Sea and supply the big cities. The road is narrow and there’s no side where you can cycle to avoid overtaking trucks. Cyclists do not exist for them and they can smash us like flies. Sometimes you have to stop to let them pass. Some honk but not all of them. I almost died several times on the road from Khartoum to Wad Madani! 🙁
Winter, from November to March, is the best time to cycle in Sudan, with pleasant temperatures, 25 to 30 degrees during the day, 20-25 degrees at night.
From April, the temperatures rise and can reach 50 degrees during the day and it’s hot even at night, between 35 and 40 degrees!
I pedal the last weeks in Sudan early April, in a suffocating heat, I feel like being in a hoven. I stop long hours in the little restaurant that are usually equipped with beds to lie down and rest. I leave around 17h to pedal a few hours until sunset, even if it is still very hot!
Whether in local hotels or in people’s house, hygiene conditions are often poor. Especially when traveling on a small budget. Be careful and always avoid contact with dirty or doubtful sheets and mattresses that could house fleas and bed bugs. Use your mattress ON the bed for example to avoid being stung. Regularly wash your sleeping bag and disinfect your inflatable mattress. Also avoid contact with animals that often roam around houses and huts. They may have fleas or other insects, and their faeces may be vectors of disease.
The toilets are often just holes in the ground with strong smells.
SUDAN BY BIKE: TIPS!
– Strong wind direction North South, better then to go in the same direction!
– Avoid the season of the heat: from the beginning of April until the end of October
– Avoid the time of midges: February / March from Abri to Dongola! Otherwise, buy a good face mosquito net
– Always fill up your bottles of water as soon as possible and filter it!!!
– Always carry food with you, even if you cross an area with villages, some shops are not very well stocked
– Do not loose attention on roads between the main cities where trucks pass without paying attention to cyclists
– Tent is essential, even you’ll be often invited to sleep to people’s house, a tent gives you more flexibility
– Watch out for snakes and scorpions especially in the sand
– Get a sim card with internet if you want to be in touch with your relatives, because wifi is not commom. Very bad network in the north of the country (2G) to Dongola. Pretty good then.
– Spend time in villages and let you invit by local people, it’s also like that you’ll know better the country!
– Learn a few words of Arabic, it’s always more interesting!
Hi Salam alekum
Hi (answer) Alekum salam
How are you? Tamam?
Thank you Shukran
Sukhari sugar (w/o sugar bila sukhari)
A little shuaya
Friend (male/female) sadiq / sadiqa