Please note There has been a serious deterioration in security in South Sudan since these pages were compiled, and some of the practical information here will now be out of date. In particular, many areas are currently not safe to travel. You are advised to contact your embassy and local agents prior to travelling.
You won’t go hungry in South Sudan. Numerous cuisines are available and the ubiquitous Ethiopian dishes are particularly tasty. The standard of hygiene during food preparation seems to be high, both in restaurants and in people’s homes, so we were happy and healthy eating everything from hotel buffets to deep-fried streetside snacks. South Sudan cuisine is unsophisticated; the staples are bread, pancakes and porridge made from corn, sorghum, maize and other grains. Look out in particular for kisra, a wide, flat bread made from fermented sorghum flour; gurassa, a thick corn bread; and brown wheat poshto.
(Photo: Dried fish in the market © Jane Waite)
A wide range of vegetables and pulses are available in the marketplace, many of them grown locally. In addition to potatoes, sweet potatoes, daal (lentils) and peas, you’ll find bamia (okra or ‘ladies fingers’), ful (mashed fava beans) and local specialities such as kudra (a leafy green vegetable rich in vitamins A and C), dodo (amaranth leaves), and pea leaves. Onions, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, plantain bananas, cassava and carrots are imported from Uganda and Kenya.
During mango season (March), you won’t be able to move for sweet, ripe mangoes and will happily be able to gorge yourself on them at rock-bottom prices. Each green mango hangs pendulously from the tree like a giant, round Christmas tree decoration, and when the fruits ripen, fall and bounce across the tin roofs, it can sound as if the sky is falling in. The markets also sell juicy pineapples, papayas (pawpaw) and oranges, apples, guava and avocados, although many of these are imported from neighbouring countries. Don’t miss sugarcane and sorghum stems: their juice is immensely sticky and sweet and chewing on them is a popular snack. Many types of foods are fried in cow brain rather than cooking fat as it gives a distinctive flavour and vegetarians should be aware that this applies as much to vegetables and pulses as to fish and meat. Meat (usually mutton or goat) is typically boiled or stewed, which helps to make it less tough, and it can be served with spices and peanut or simsim (sesame) sauce to add flavour. Dried or smoked beef is often eaten with peanut or groundnut sauce and may be made into a stew with bamia. A small amount of chicken is included in the diet, whilst pork is rarer as it has to be imported. Some communities eat fish from the rivers and swamps, and dried fish is oft en added to kajaik (a popular type of stew) or to aseeda (sorghum porridge) to give added flavour. A popular roadside snack is rolled eggs. There are relatively few desserts and sweets in South Sudan, although if you find them it is definitely worth trying the delicious, chewy macaroons made from peanuts, known locally as ful Sudani.
South Sudan’s cities are full of small, cheap canteens selling local food as well as Eritrean, Ugandan and, occasionally, Kenyan cuisine. One set of dishes is prepared at a time, so you’re unlikely to be given a choice about what to eat. Food is served on large, metal trays: both the bread and the different meats, vegetables and pulses are dished up side by side, much like an Indian thali, and as many as six people will eat from a single tray. Dishes are typically meat-based or cooked with meat products, so vegetarians will have to keep their wits about them, particularly in smaller establishments.
You will find a wider range of food only in Juba, where prices are also significantly higher. The hotel restaurants cater primarily to expats and will readily cook up a hamburger, spaghetti bolognese or similar but it won’t be cordon bleu and you will certainly pay for the privilege. Anything that includes imported ingredients (so in reality most things you would want to eat) will be expensive.
Beer is sold in bars and shops across South Sudan. Southern Sudan Breweries Ltd produces three beers – White Bull, Club Pilsener and Nile Special – under licence at their brewery in Juba, and other East African beers, such as Tusker Lager, are also popular. Heineken, Carlsberg and Skol are all imported, with inevitably inflated price tags, but tend to only be available in Juba. If you value your eyesight, try to avoid the appropriately named Siko, which is a locally made gin that tastes something akin to white spirit. Although numerous slum dwellers swear by it, there’s no guarantee it won’t make you go blind or worse.
Bottled soft drinks are widely available. The biggest-selling products are the locally manufactured Club Minerals sodas, though Coca-Cola, Pepsi and even Red Bull are also popular among those who can afford to buy them. There are two local brands of bottled water, Aqua’na and Jit, as well as imported alternatives. All the bottled water brands should be safe to drink, but it’s always worth checking the cap to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with to disguise a refill from the tap. Sudanese coffee is served from a jebena, a tin jug with a long spout that slightly resembles a watering can, albeit in miniature. The coffee is served sweet, often spiced with ginger or cinnamon, and comes in tiny cups or glasses. Black, fruit and herbal teas, in particular kakaday (hibiscus tea) are also popular and, as the water has been boiled, usually considered safe to drink. You’ll see numerous old men whiling away the hours, tea cup in hand, sitting on street corners, at bus stops and in parks
Finding affordable accommodation on your trip will be one of the greatest challenges you face in South Sudan. Hotel accommodation, be it in actual rooms with solid walls or in tented camps, is invariably expensive and the better (and more affordable) options get booked up quickly. Properties classed as ‘luxury’ and ‘upmarket’ in South Sudan would rarely be categorised as such elsewhere in the world: running water and electricity can be scarce, even at the expensive end of the market, and high concrete walls, bulletproof glass and armed guards often take precedence over aesthetics. Lower down the price rungs, clean bedding can be a rarity in South Sudan at budget and many mid-range hotels, so bringing your own sleeping sheet is highly recommended. Rooms may be solid-walled constructions, prefab buildings or tents.
Upmarket and luxury
The upper end of South Sudan’s accommodation options includes everything from upmarket safari-style tent camps on the banks of the White Nile to high-security compounds with guards who look like Rambo. You will pay a minimum of US$100 a night (significantly more in Juba) and can expect to have water from a well or borehole; electricity most of the time, usually provided by a generator; a clean room and bedding; and English-speaking staff, some of whom are South Sudanese but most of whom seem to come from Uganda and Kenya where there are more developed hospitality industries. There will frequently be Wi-Fi provided (albeit slow), a reasonable in-house restaurant and a well-stocked bar where the expats congregate to drink and chat at the weekends.
The mid-range bracket includes smaller hotels and some slightly scruffier (though by no means unpleasant) tented camps. These tend to be owned and run by locals, have a reasonable level of security, and serve both the wealthier South Sudanese and the expats. Electricity in these properties tends to be less consistent and is oft en available only for a few hours after dark. You may also not be the first person to have slept in the sheets. In-house restaurants and bars are still commonplace, and may serve you a good Ethiopian or Sudanese meal in contrast to the somewhat bland imitations of continental cuisine prepared elsewhere.
Shoestring and budget
South Sudan’s shoestring and budget options are rather more limited than we would like. It is exceptionally difficult to find a room for less than US$50 in Juba, and even outside the capital your choice will be limited. Those properties that do fall into this bracket tend to be targeted at missionaries and local NGO staff; toilets and showers are usually shared between several rooms and you may not have electricity or water at all. Those properties linked to churches may require two guests to be married (or, at a minimum, be of opposite sexes) before agreeing to give you a double room.
Sleeping under canvas is most likely to suit those travelling with their own vehicle or those on a tight budget. The ability to strike off and make camp on your own is a great attraction in areas that you are confident are mine-free, but so is the fact that putting up your own tent, even in the grounds of a hotel or camp, is a fraction of the cost of a hotel room or tent camp with all mod cons. The more adventurous traveller may find it interesting to camp alongside locals in villages or even major towns. If the appropriate request is made to the family who occupy the land (and possibly also the local chief) they are likely to allow you to pitch your tent near their tukul (kitchen). Payment should be offered, and if refused some other form of compensation is expected even though it may not be vocalised.
In fact, it is best simply to give gifts rather than to ask. Ideally, find a group of tukuls that are fenced off and have a nearby source of water and a pit latrine. Try and avoid camping in or near dry riverbeds, as flash floods can and do occur with approaching rains. Unless you are travelling on an all-inclusive safari package that includes nights under canvas, you will need to bring all camping equipment with you as it is not generally available to hire. Make sure your kit includes a mosquito net, wear long-sleeved shirts, full-length trousers and socks after dusk, and apply DEET-based insect repellent liberally to avoid becoming a swarm of insects’ feast.