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in security in South Sudan since these pages were compiled, and some of the practical information here will now be out of date.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.
The phrase ‘the lost heart of Africa’ could well have been coined for South Sudan and the country has all of the characteristics and features, both good and bad, that we stereotypically associate with the continent, but it is also a place too often forgotten.
South Sudan is like the dark side of the moon: we can hypothesise what it’ll be like in comparison to places close by, and even make some quite educated assumptions from a distance, but there are remarkably few people who have put both feet on the surface, walked around and seen the place first-hand. It is a privilege to be counted among them.
It is for so many people an unknown quantity, and this is a large part of South Sudan’s appeal: cut off almost completely from the outside world, first by its impenetrable physical geography and then, just as man was making inroads into the grasslands, wetlands and hills, by decades of devastating civil war. The phrase ‘the lost heart of Africa’ could well have been coined for South Sudan and the country has all of the characteristics and features, both good and bad, that we stereotypically associate with the continent, but it is also a place too often overlooked, forgotten about as we turn our attentions (and tourist dollars) to its better developed and more familiar neighbours.
Boys celebrating independence © Levison Wood
As long as we do this, it is we who are missing out. South Sudan is an incredible, beautiful and beguiling place. Taking the country’s national parks as a single example, Boma is one of the largest reserves in Africa. The scale of the seasonal wildlife migrations rivals even those of the Serengeti and more than 1,000 species of bird are native to South Sudan. The rare northern white rhino, of which just four breeding adults are left worldwide, but which has been declared extinct in the wild, may yet be found in the unsurveyed wilds of Southern National Park.
South Sudan’s human inhabitants are certainly no less diverse or resilient. The local population is divided into nearly 80 ethnic groups and speaks more than 60 indigenous languages. While some of these communities have urbanised, exchanging their cattle for cars and round grass huts for modern apartments, they are by no means the majority and hundreds of thousands still drive their herds to seasonal pastures, hunt game with handmade spears, and catch their fish from flat-bottomed canoes on the White Nile, its tributaries and floodplains.
South Sudan is changing, and fast. In the two years since independence, foreign direct investment has started to flow, Juba has expanded to become one of the most expensive (but also most international) cities on earth, and road building crews are for the very first time pushing out away from the capital and into the rural hinterland. Nomadic cattle herders are buying mobile phones and have (at least in places) the network coverage and electricity to use them. Fishermen can cast their nets and contemplate for themselves or their children alternative employment as bodaboda motorcycle taxi drivers, park rangers, primary school teachers or small business owners. Travelling in South Sudan now may be a physically and financially draining experience, but you stand the chance of seeing the country and its people before globalisation, modernisation, urbanisation – in fact all kinds of -isations – take hold. For better or worse (and, if we’re honest, it’ll probably be a bit of both), in five years’ time South Sudan will be scarcely recognisable from its pre-independence self. Now is the time to go.
Guidebooks bring business. We’re all quite familiar with this concept, and in most parts of the world hoteliers will scramble over their own grandmothers if there is the faintest chance of a favourable review. South Sudan is the exception that proves the rule. We walked into a hotel, which in the interests of fairness shall remain nameless because in any case it was by no means the only off ender, and politely presented ourselves at reception explaining that we were researching the Bradt travel guide to South Sudan and would it be possible to give us some information about the hotel that we could put in the book. ‘Why?’ We were somewhat taken aback. Wondering if there was a language issue, we pulled out Sudan with a flourish and explained that we had published a guide for the north, and were now researching one for the south. Tourists, NGO workers and businessmen would buy the book. ‘But you have a book already.’ ‘Yes,’ we said, gritting our teeth and trying to keep smiling, ‘but this is to the north. We are making a book for the south.’ ‘Why?’ We took a deep breath. ‘If you give us a little information about your hotel then we can write about it in the book. People will buy the book, hear about your hotel and then come and stay here. Can you start by telling us the address?’ ‘Address? We don’t have an address.’ ‘OK, so how much does it cost for a room?’ ‘A million dollars. And don’t hang around in the lobby. Do you want tea?’ And so it goes on. South Sudan is insane. Paranoia and defensiveness at first pose a barrier, but once they are broken down, the people are warm, if a little confused about why on earth you’d want to visit their country, and they’ll try to compensate for everything you’ve heard with exceptional hospitality and acts of kindness. Make the effort to get to know South Sudan and its people, and they will reward you.