Country number: 167
Territory number: 207
When? February 2019 First leg of journey, going on to Djibouti
How? Car, local plane
‘South Sudan is one of the most hard-put places in the world.’
The first thing I have to do is get the visa. This involves presenting myself, in person, at the tiny consulate, just off Great Portland Street. Once I’ve got myself up to London it‘s all fairly painless, I don’t have to wait long, and they post my passport back to me a week later, exactly as promised.
The next thing I have to do is panic, as I’ve only just read the FCO advice alongside a map of South Sudan; dangerous areas are highlighted in red. The whole country is scarlet. ‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to South Sudan. If you’re in South Sudan, you should leave if it’s safe to do so.’ Ongoing civil war and violent crime are cited.
‘I’ve never been in a country which was totally FCO red before’, I tell Jim, my travel agent. ‘I’ll have to find you some more,’ he replies. Jim has sent me a copy of the Bradt guide. It’s the most up to date travel book about the area available, as unsurprisingly, there are very few tourists. There’s a section on what to do if there’s an aerial bomb attack.
I’m stocking up on Rescue Remedy again.
The terminals at Juba airport used to be huge tents – they’re still there. But now there are also modern concrete blocks with domed roofs. It doesn’t stop them being chaotic. You could easily just walk through immigration and no-one would notice. I know this because I did it, as I went back to find the toilet. It would also be easy to avoid the man with the chalk who is supposed to search all the bags and mark them with a dollar sign. There’s an X ray machine, but they’re not using it. I don’t think it works.
Juba, the capital, has red dust roads, the verges knee deep in litter, mostly plastic bags and bottles. It’s a smaller version of Kinshasa, with similar statues on the roundabouts and a river location. This time it’s the White Nile. My guide book suggests that the river is the only interesting sight in the city. I’m keeping my camera well out of sight. I’ve been told that the townspeople are very suspicious of cameras and don’t understand why anyone would want to take pictures, unless they are a journalist, which is equivalent to being a spy. There is also a list of places/items one may not photograph. I’m not risking a repeat of my Congolese encounter. My hotel is nicer than any of the DRC offerings, however, and is a pleasant, comfortable, surprise.
Guide Duncan, from Uganda (no trained local guides), takes me to the most up market restaurant in town, Da Vinci’s, for dinner. There are guards at the entrance wielding AK47s, a band playing Congolese music so loudly we can’t talk and a view across the river, to islands packed with roosting egrets, where Ugandan rebels used to hang out. My marinated pork chops have been cremated, but they are at least, accompanied by gin and Schweppes. And now, it seems, I’ve seen everything that Juba has to offer.
The map showing malarial risk in South Sudan is virtually identical to the one showing areas where it is dangerous to travel. So, I’m popping my malarone tonight.
Wake up early to ready myself for my trip to the Mundari cattle camp. Go in shower. Phoned at 7 by Duncan to tell me to order a packed lunch from the kitchen. Go back in shower. Phoned by Duncan to say he is in the kitchen. What would I like for lunch? Try to order without being able to read what is on offer. Fried chicken and chips are suggested. I’m not sure how cold chips will taste. Go back in shower.
The road is deceptively bumpy. It’s unmade, but looks fairly even. It isn’t. Two hours of jolting past fields, corrugated roofed huts and two security road blocks takes us to a side road into the bush. I say side road. It isn’t a road, or even a track. We’ve picked up Mundari guide, Martin, who directs us for ten minutes over the rough ground , swerving to avoid the undergrowth (not always successfully), to a boggy rivulet. The itinerary didn’t say anything about having to wade through squishy mud up to my knees. Aside from worrying about falling in and getting wet, I’m not sure what else is lurking beneath my feet.
Another ten-minutes, walking. Martin bounds ahead, even though he’s been shot in the leg in the conflicts and uses a stick. Now we’re at the Nile proper and Martin ferries us across in a leaky wooden canoe. I’m allocated an upturned tin bowl to sit on. Duncan crouches, in a vain attempt to keep his Lee jeans dry.
Now we’re on an island in the middle of the river and it’s a total contrast to the city. We are greeted warmly, extended palms waving, and everyone demands photographs. I tour the little rush huts, taken over by tiny bleating kids during the day, and view porridge eating and clothes washing, accompanied throughout by a series of increasingly frenetic tableau. Adults and children dispose themselves in assorted postures grabbing drums, musical instruments, then dogs, goats and even calves as props. As a final coup de grace the warriors fetch out their rifles and flourish them above their heads.
The people are tall, elegant and slim. Most of the boys are entirely naked, except for a rope lanyard, or string of beads round the hips. The girls and young women wear short skirts, the latter often with cloaks, revealing one breast. Some of the faces bear the patterns of ritual scarification, although the government is trying to halt this practice. Nearly everyone’s skin is covered with mud and ash to protect from the sun and insects; some of the smearing is done in intricate ceremonial patterns. At least my feet are now the same as everyone else’s. After each set of pictures is taken, I have to replay them for my audience, on the camera, which is now covered in muddy fingerprints.
Following my Pied Piper cavalcade round the camp it’s siesta time. In theory. My followers have set up position at the bottom of my sleeping mat, which is picturesquely sited on the banks of the Nile, a welcome breeze wafting. The children alternately sing, whistle, play drums or climb the tree sheltering us to rain down mangoes and secure some more attention. The mangoes are a little under-ripe but good and more tempting than my cold chicken, which defies all attempts to bite into it.
When I do manage a snooze in the sweltering heat one of Duncan’s phones rings. He is conducting business on two of them at once. As I give up on sleeping and turn to writing, an audience forms again. The young boys are fascinated by the phone and the group swells as they insist on viewing a slideshow of all my pictures. The next doze is almost underway when one of the beautiful long-horned cows charges past bellowing.
Most of the cattle are taken further away to pasture during the day and they are driven back at the end of the afternoon, thousands and thousands of them streaming into the stockade, evening fires billowing smoke. It’s impossibly atmospheric.
Martin ferries us back across the Nile, simultaneously making an impassioned speech explaining that the villagers are praying that Duncan will pay for an operation to fix his leg. Then he abandons us on the edge of the scrub. I’m filthy, absolutely covered in dust and mud, and I’ve taken 500 photographs today.
The sides of the Juba Airport runways are lined with NGO cargo planes (United Nations, World Food Programme and MSF amongst others) and small passenger craft. There’s hardly any infrastructure and nearly all long-distance travel has to be done by air. The charter planes are mainly Russian, declared unfit to fly in Europe and are operated here by Russian pilots who drink vodka all evening – so I’m told.
And the bad news on this front is that Thursday’s flight back has been cancelled, due to lack of take up, so I have to return tomorrow. Two more days in Juba, where I’ve already seen everything. Duncan is on the case, but you can’t travel anywhere without a permit and we don’t have one for anywhere else.
I’ve arrived safely in Kapoeta, east of Juba, despite all the bureaucracy involved (we had to visit one tin hut and two concrete blocks, so my permits could be verified) and the decrepit 12-seater Cessna plane. Duncan says it’s the oldest plane he’s been on. Hardly anyone bothers with the seatbelts. Children crawl around, peering over the backs of their chairs and Duncan can’t even find the latch for his. The pilot’s door flies open as we land. He has to wrestle it closed before it is damaged.
I’m staying in Mango Camp, the best accommodation to be had. I’m housed in a very basic rondavel, known here as a tukul. It has a huge concrete shower and its own separate toilet, which is just as well, as I’ve already picked up a stomach bug. Sheep and glossy starlings patrol the grounds, so I’m keeping the gate to my little area bolted. Most of the guests here are involved in projects – drilling bore holes, for example. One Danish guy runs an aeroplane company and tries to persuade me to alter my routing onwards and go via Nairobi, so I can carry out my original plans. Then we remember that my big bag is still in Juba.
We were going to set off early for visits to the Toposi villages, trying to cram two days into one, but my passport needs to checked locally before we’re allowed to venture out. It’s gone a couple of hours. Despite this we manage to fit a lot in. The landscape is reminiscent of e-Swatini – wide sandy swathes of river beds, thorn bushes and flat-topped acacias. It seems very odd not to glimpse rhino and giraffe, but there is plenty of birdlife. We see two villages, one twice, as the women want to show off their ceremonial dancing and need to change. The locals are very friendly, though naturally, our visits are sweetened by sacks of food and other goods. Agriculture is difficult – the area suffers intermittent drought and flooding.
Both villages are neat and well managed, intricate tiered huts (those for storing food are elevated on stilts), the compounds surrounded by very effective thorn bush fencing. Long drop toilets in tin huts have been installed, but the villagers don’t use them. The women are decked out in costumes with vivid patterns, bright bead collars and gilt bracelets. Several are smoking ornate pipes. The elders sit serenely posing for photographs and the children leap around trying to sneak into all the pictures. There are two dance performances. The dances look very much the same to me, involving pogo jumping and whistles, but the second time the women have put on traditional costume, animal skins, beaded dyed skirts and headbands; long leathery breasts flying. Everyone has a good time.
Back to Juba over misty arid land and a small mountain range. My hotel room seems very comfortable now. Though it takes a while to get there as we’re stopped by the police three times on the ten minute journey from the airport. The third time they get bored with trying to find something wrong with the brake, the fire extinguisher, the warning triangle and the driver’s paperwork, so they just hold the car. We call for another one. It’s not far to walk, but I have luggage to drag through the dust and it’s forty degrees outside.
I tried breakfast in the hotel today. It looks like a reheated assortment from yesterday’s buffet dinner. There’s toast, if you don’t mind the really disgusting margarine placed alongside it. This is a good place to go on a diet.
Flying in the face of nothing to see I’m having a tour of Juba today. It’s like being back in the days of the wild west frontier towns. We visit a women’s collective, where representatives from 21 different tribes gather peaceably, to create colourful beadwork, and I buy some earrings, then drive alongside the university and an enormous rambling corrugated roof market. Over a metal bridge (even more definitely no photos here) on the only tarmac road in the country. It leads south to Uganda and is deemed, by the FCO to be particularly dangerous to drive on, with a high risk of attack. But we’re only dipping over to the other side for ten minutes. There’s also a wholesale market: sacks of onions, avocados and tomatoes piled high, past domestic compounds where oblong tin roofs and circular brush huts are crammed in side by side.
No pictures allowed anywhere else, of course, especially not outside the many ministerial buildings. Most of these date from 2012, when Juba became the capital of the new country. They are concrete walled and guarded by epauletted soldiers, as is the grand edifice that is the president’s palace. Duncan says that during the last civil war, in 2016, two battalions of the army were stationed facing each other here. One solder accidentally set off his rifle resulting in a lot of ‘friendly fire’. Indeed, the whole war of 2016 seems to have been ignited by another misunderstanding. The opposition leader had been appointed Vice President Number Five and was installed in the government building. However, a rumour circulated that he was in danger and some of his followers set out to rescue him. This fracas duly escalated. Duncan also reports a much more recent skirmish yesterday, between two villages, 50 kilometres from where we were staying at Kapoeta. As Duncan keeps telling me, ‘DIS.’ (Dis is Africa)
I’ve been up most of the night with my poorly stomach and now I’m leaving for Djibouti. I’m not entirely sorry to go. This is a very, very developing country. Onwards to Djibouti.
South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It was created by splitting the country of Sudan, which was the largest country in Africa into two, after a referendum in 2011
It offers practically zero tourist infrastructure; no paved roads and the communications infrastructure is almost non-existent.
South Sudan was largely neglected by the former Sudan regime due to racial considerations as Southerners are predominantly black Africans, while the Northerners (occupying the current Sudan) are predominantly of Arab origin. Oil was found in south-western Sudan, helping to fuel the bitter war between South Sudan and North Sudan (the current Sudan).
South Sudan has many different ethnic groups, most of which are Nilotic (people of the Nile). The Dinka form the largest ethnic group followed by the Nuer. Other dominant tribes are the Silluk, Loluhu and Acholi. Unfortunately, this rich diversity hasn’t been the source of peace but rather a source of war with supremacy battles between the Dinka (roots of the current president, Kiir) and the Nuer (roots of the founder of the nation Dr. Garang, and Kiir’s rival – Marchar).
Many traditions, rituals and ceremonies relating to rites of passage (birth, child naming, circumcision, courtship, marriage, divorce, death, etc.) that have fizzled out in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, due to the intrusion of modernity, are still practised in South Sudan.
To see more of my photos of South Sudan, visit this page.