Taking On The Rapids In South Sudan

Monday, August 1, 2011

Most people don’t associate Sudan with tourism, or would ever consider going there for vacation. In fact, few people have heard little about the divided nation except stories of tribal violence and the ongoing crisis in Darfur. But since the recent referendum that voted overwhelmingly in favour of secession, the world’s newest country was created on July 9, 2011, and with it, a whole range of opportunities.

Travel writer and photojournalist Levison Wood explains his reasons for visiting the Republic of South Sudan prior to its independence and what it can offer the intrepid traveler.

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“We couldn’t even drink beer here until 2005,” says Charles, a beaming Dinka tribesman from Juba, the dusty capital of this former rebel stronghold. “Sharia law, imposed by Khartoum, meant that we had to live a very strict and repressed life even though we aren’t Muslims.” Charles belongs to the majority tribe in the region, renowned for their immense stature. He is short at a mere 6 feet in a country where the people regularly reach 6 feet 5 inches.

Charles is a game warden and supervises the team of porters to pack the inflatable rafts, imported from neighboring Uganda, where white-water rafting has been a hit with backpackers for almost 10 years.

“But when we see you coming, we know that peace has arrived.” He is talking about travelers. There aren’t any yet but he, along with all of the South Sudanese, hope there will be soon. So far the only foreigners in Juba and its surroundings are the 4,000 or so NGO and UN workers, here to rebuild one of Africa’s poorest regions after 30 years of civil war.

We are here to attempt to navigate the White Nile from Nimule, the frontier town on its southern border with Uganda to the capital Juba, some 170 kilometers distant, a feat that has only ever been done once before, and that by an international expedition of professional rafters. I, like most of this eight-man team, have never been on a raft before.

“Don’t worry, from what I remember, there are only four sets of rapids to get over. The rest is easy,” Pete Meredith reassures me. Pete, our South African guide and former soldier, has worked in Jinja, Uganda, since the mid-’90s and made the famous Source to Sea expedition in 2004, charting the entire course of the White Nile where he traversed war zones and battled Crocodiles on the three-month journey. At least I am in safe hands.

The civil war between the Islamic North Sudan, led by the dictator Omar Al-Bashir, and the predominantly Christian Southern rebel army meant that until very recently, the whole region was out of bounds. The peace agreement of 2005 and subsequent referendum means that peace has finally arrived, and expeditions of this kind are now possible.

Charles waves us off as we depart from the banks of the mighty river. “Good luck,” he shouts with a grin that belies his disbelief. We are straight into Grade 5 rapids, which to the uninitiated, means getting bashed around in a blow-up boat and holding on for dear life for what seems like an eternity.

But, fortunately, it doesn’t last forever and the river eventually flattens out into a more tolerable ride that gives us the chance to enjoy the scenery. The country begins quite hilly, and at first there are several villages consisting of traditional thatched huts dotted along the banks. The locals seem startled to see the rafts at first, but after their initial reservations they are soon running to the riverside waving and offering us freshly picked mangos.

Soon, though, as we carve our way deeper into the bush, the trees grow wilder and the jungle becomes dense. The only sign of life is the constant squawking of tropical birds and frogs; the unnerving squeals of wild baboons and the humming of grasshoppers. After five hours leisurely paddling we set up our first camp on an island in the middle of the river. Worryingly it seems to consist of one giant anthill.

This is the Africa of children’s storybooks and Victorian exploration. There are no lodges, proper game reserves or organized Safaris here. The fledgling government has barely even been able to organize a civil service or pave the roads yet, but they know full well what the benefits of a booming tourism industry can bring.

Andy Belcher, the expedition organizer and owner of one of the only hotels in Juba, is optimistic. “It won’t be long before the big companies move in and the country booms. When that happens tourism will flourish and the safari organizers in Kenya and Tanzania will head here. Let’s hope South Sudan learns from the mistakes of the more developed East African countries and doesn’t turn the place into a zoo.”

But there isn’t much chance of that at the moment. The civil war and severe poverty has resulted in much of Sudan’s big game wildlife being killed and eaten.

“There used to be a massive elephant population until the ’70s, but it has all but disappeared from view,” Keith, our tracker, explained. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. While on the river we saw at least 10 elephants near to the Ugandan border, plenty of birdlife and a few antelope darting off into the forest. We had a couple of close calls with Hippos and of course saw the obligatory Nile crocodile sunbathing on the rocky beaches. There is wildlife here, but it remains wisely hidden.

South Sudan is the size of Germany but has a population of only eight million. There is currently only 20 kilometers of paved road in the whole country. The rest is wild bush, jungle and swamp. “There must be game out there somewhere,” insists Keith, who has worked with wildlife in Kenya for several years.

In fact the Boma national park — actually, an unchecked wilderness the size of Rwanda — is host to the biggest migration of mammals on the planet. Over a million White-eared Kob, only found in Sudan, complete an annual migration rivaling that of the wildebeest in the Serengeti, but few have ever heard of these majestic animals. Then there are the spectacular Imatong Mountains in the south where the peak of Mount Kinyeti rises out of the mist like a vast emerald. Despite being Sudan’s highest mountain, it has only thought to have been climbed twice in the past 50 years. This is a land of mystery and intrigue.

After five days we finally float into the ramshackle outskirts of Juba to be greeted by hordes of waving children and an unbelieving national press. Even the minister of tourism — a post created only recently — comes to welcome us at the jetty.

“The president would like to thank you,” he says genuinely, “on behalf of the people of South Sudan, for showing people that we are open for business.”

When the camera stops rolling, he jokes, “and for not getting eaten by a crocodile.

By Levinson Wood


About the Author

Levison Wood is a former British Army Officer and has worked and travelled in Africa over the past ten years. He founded the pioneering expeditionary service Secret Compass and is leading two expeditions to South Sudan in 2011 and 2012. If you would like to find out more or to apply to join the expeditions see www.secretcompass.com

[Rafting by Katie Eiler/Flick; Life along the Nile by ngari.norway/Flickr]

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