Here comes the Sudan

Crossing through the Sudan is a leg of our journey that we have anxiously and apprehensively anticipated since booking our African overland trip; our path was to take us through the north-east corner of the country, and it is a stretch that has ever been on our minds. Anyone that has ever watched international news or read anything about the Sudan’s recent history will know that “the Sudan” and “danger” are nearly synonymous terms in many parts of the world. The Canadian Travel Advisory webpage says “Avoid all travel” to the Sudan, and advice from friends and parents is the same. Nevertheless, our truck was bound north through Khartoum and into Nubian Desert on our way to Egypt, a route which is happily distant from the much more volatile and dangerous regions of Darfur and the south. We were headed into the Sudan, and we where about to learn a few things about a country we seemingly weren’t supposed to visit.

The first thing we learned is that the country is most often referred to as “the Sudan”, and not “Sudan” as we had previously thought. I read that “Sudan” refers to the country, and “the Sudan” refers to the region, but I’m not entirely clear on the difference. The Lonely Planet guide we consulted actually uses “Sudan” as well, but everything that we saw while in the country seemed to suggest that the other was more prevalent in the country itself. It was unexpected, since I’ve always called it “Sudan” before.

The second thing that we learned about the Sudan is that it’s not an easy country to get in to. This is not entirely because of the Sudan alone; in fact, it’s largely Egypt’s fault. To explain: we were all applying for transit visas through the Sudan while we were in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, but in order to get a transit visa you must be able to show a visa for the country that you are transiting into. Since there was also an Egyptian consulate in Addis Ababa, everyone’s passports went there first, and Egyptian visas were obtained for all. Almost. For some unknown and apparently recent reason, Canadian and American applications for Egyptian visas were taking 3-4 weeks to process, while everyone else’s visas were issued in less than 24 hours. Since we didn’t have 3-4 weeks to spare, we had to enlist an agent in Khartoum to arrange official letters of invitation into the Sudan, and all 5 North Americans on our truck would have to pay for the more expensive Sudanese tourist visa. Luckily for us, Meghan is traveling on her UK passport, so we incurred less damage than we would have otherwise. Still, the Sudan ended up being the most expensive visas that we’ve had to obtain, by a wide margin. Meg’s transit visa cost $100 USD, and my tourist visa cost $160 USD, but the letter of invitation cost an additional $110 USD. Add to this an alien registration fee and exit tax of $70 USD each, and suddenly you start to wonder why you ever wanted to visit this dangerous “avoid all travel” country anyways.

To make things even more interesting, our letters of invitation were to meet us at the border, meaning we had no confirmation that we’d actually be allowed in until we were already there. Two nights before we were set to cross into the Sudan, we got a call from our Sudanese agent saying that Stephanie’s (a fellow Canadian) letter had been sent to Addis Ababa by accident, and was now lost. How this happened only to her letter and not to the rest remains a mystery, but I guess it’s just the sort of thing that happens in Africa. It was bad news for Steph: it looked like her only option now would be to travel back to Addis Ababa by bus, and then catch a flight into Egypt and meet up with us on the other side. But our agent (Midhat was his name — check out his website here) wasn’t giving up that easily: he pressed the appropriate sources to expedite the processing of a second letter, which he brought personally from Khartoum to the border to meet us. We ended up waiting for two days and two nights at the border while the visas were processed, but in the end there was success for all, and we were in!

The third thing we learned is that the Sudanese Government does not want you to take pictures of their country. We had to apply for photography permits, which we couldn’t obtain until Khartoum, hence the absence of pictures in this post. Once we got the permits, they indicated that we were not to take pictures of bridges, electrical or other infrastructure, Government buildings or employees, anything military, no slums or peasants or beggars, or anything else that would show the Sudan in a negative light. So our camera stayed in our bag a lot — but don’t worry, we got some of the desert later on.

While waiting at the border, we learned something else new about the Sudan: the people are really, really nice. We wandered around the small settlement of shops and food stalls at the border, and rather than being harassed to give money or buy things, people simply said “hello” or offered a genuine “welcome” instead. We even had friendly conversations with locals that didn’t end in sales pitches or begging. It was a pleasant change from so many of the places we’ve been, and it wasn’t unique to this little border town: we found the people of the Sudan to be wonderful throughout the country as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself!


    I worked with a junior designer from Sudan. He was one of the most friendly people I ever worked with. In face I chat with him through MSN not the long ago and told him about your upcoming adventures. he invited you to come visit him at his parents house :-)

    Darn, a little too late. Where about is your friend from Jessie?

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