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Sudan - Travel and visas
Sudan and red tape go together like mosquito bites and itching – take a deep breath and get used to it. From the moment you apply for your visa until you pass out through emigration to fly home, there will be interminable pieces of paperwork and stamps that appear to serve no genuine use and merely inconvenience everyone involved.
All visitors to Sudan require a visa. Nationals of most Arab countries can pick these up on arrival; all other nationalities need to apply in advance. Tourist visas are normally valid for a one-month stay, to be used within a month of issue. Sudanese bureaucracy is slow, so timing your visa application carefully is important. Visa fees can vary considerably – at the time of going to press the price of a one-month visa was £55 for a UK or EU passport holder and US$151 for a US passport holder.
Visa applications made outside of Africa require a letter of invitation from a company or individual in Sudan. This must be approved by the Ministry of Interior in Khartoum (though this is not necessary for some mainland European passport holders) and then sent with your forms to the embassy where you are applying for your visa. If you are travelling on an organised tour, your travel company will arrange this. A local Sudanese tour operator such as Lendi Travel can also arrange this invitation for a fee.
If you cannot get a letter of invitation you can still apply for a visa, but you are entering uncharted waters, as your application will be sent to Khartoum for approval. Embassy staff in London freely admit that applying this way can take up to 12 weeks, with no guarantee of acceptance! Persistence in this paper chase may help but is no guarantee of success, and given that visas are valid for a month from the date of issue, applying too early adds another element of risk to the process. If you apply this way, the embassy only asks for your passport and visa fee once Khartoum has approved your application.
The embassies in Cairo and Addis Ababa are particularly useful for travellers as they are allowed to issue visas without reference to Khartoum, speeding up the application process considerably. It is common to request a letter of introduction from your home embassy, which bumps up the price considerably for British passport holders. A visa in Cairo costs US$100 for 30 days, usually issued within 24 hours. Typical visa fees in Africa are around US$55.
If you are travelling as part of an organised tour or make a special request to Waleed at Lendi Travel, it is possible for you to collect your visa on arrival in Sudan. This is particularly common if you are visiting Sudan on a diving trip. You’ll need to provide a photocopy of your passport, after which they will send you a copy of your visa authorisation from the Ministry of Interior (which you will need to board the plane to Sudan). You pay a fee of around US$120 to the operator for the service, plus the visa fee at the counter before immigration. It is possible to arrange a visa on arrival in as little as three working days before you fly.
If your passport contains evidence that you’ve visited Israel – including entry or exit stamps from Egyptian or Jordanian border posts with Israel – your visa application will automatically be rejected. It is no longer possible to visit South Sudan on a Sudanese visa – since the secession of the South in 2011 you will require a visa for each country, and it is not yet possible to get a visa for South Sudan in Khartoum. Applications must instead be made in Addis Ababa, Kampala or Nairobi.
Sudan’s national carrier is Sudan Airways. They mainly operate inside Africa and between Africa and the Middle East, largely because their poor safety record does not permit them to fly within EU airspace. Potentially useful flights go to Addis Ababa (1hr 30mins), Cairo (2hrs 30mins), Dubai (4hrs) and Jeddah (1hr 30mins), from where it is possible to get onward connections anywhere in the world.
Travelling from Europe, Lufthansa and KLM offer direct flights to Khartoum, and BMI flies from London with a brief stop in Beirut to allow other passengers off the plane. Turkish Airlines offers a large number of flights from across Europe, with a plane change in Istanbul.
Sudan has excellent connections with the Middle East. The Gulf Arab airlines of Emirates, Etihad Airways, Fly Dubai, Gulf Air and Qatar Airways all have regular services with good onward connections. These options are particularly useful for travellers flying to or from the US and Australia. Royal Jordanian, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Syrian Air and Yemenia also run flights to their respective capitals.
Within Africa there are three major airlines serving Khartoum. Ethiopian Airlines has the best connections throughout the continent and the Addis Ababa–Khartoum service often continues on to Cairo. Egypt Air has flights to Cairo that connect with its European routes, and Kenya Airways has a direct flight to Nairobi (3hrs). There is no longer a separate departure tax payable when leaving Khartoum by air – this is now included in the price of your airline ticket.
A quick glance at the map suggests that Sudan, with its numerous neighbours, should present a wide choice of entry points for those arriving overland. A closer look cuts down the options. Only the borders with Ethiopia and Egypt can be said to offer truly reliable access – good news for those on the classic ‘Cairo to Cape Town’ overland route. Access across other borders either depends on the political climate, or has simply not been possible for years.
Entering Sudan from Ethiopia is a straightforward affair, with transport links much improved in recent years. It is cheap and easy to use public transport to make the crossing, and, providing your paperwork is in order, there should be no difficulty bringing your own vehicle. To the north, although the border with Eritrea is currently open, foreigners are advised against all travel within the border zone due to instability caused by extreme poverty and smuggling. The land border between Sudan and Egypt is closed due to a long-running dispute over ownership of the Haleib Triangle, but the ferry along Lake Nasser is a reliable transport alternative for both passengers and vehicles.
Approaching Sudan from the west, the most common entry point into Sudan is from Chad at El Geneina. Closed in 2003 due to the conflict in Darfur, the border opened again in April 2010 as the two countries attempted to normalise relations. Both Amnesty International and the UN have expressed concern about ongoing violence in the border region, however, and it is not generally considered safe for foreigners due to the threat of kidnap and shootings. The border with Libya has been closed since 2010 but may reopen at any time.
Although ten official border crossings were opened between Sudan and South Sudan following the latter’s secession in 2011, the resurgence of violence in 2012 has made it inadvisable for foreigners to travel within 65km of the border. The situation is changing constantly, and so visitors contemplating crossing to or from South Sudan are advised to check the latest advice from the FCO.
The weekly ferry along Lake Nasser (or the Nubian Lake as the Sudanese prefer to call it) is a leisurely way to enter Sudan from Egypt. The ferry usually tows a barge should you need to ship a vehicle. An alternative is to cross the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, which takes approximately 13 hours. Vehicle and passenger ferries run regularly between Jeddah and Suakin. The service occasionally continues up the Red Sea from Port Sudan to Port Suez, but this is too unreliable for advanced planning.
Sudan Airways has domestic flights covering the whole country. The timetable is moveable at best, and flights are liable to be changed or cancelled at short notice. Busy flights (such as Khartoum–Port Sudan) tend to run better than others, and the most common reason for cancellation is that not enough people have bought tickets. Reconfirming your ticket the day before the flight is highly recommended. Regular flights are available to El Fasher, El Obeid, Geneina, Kassala, Nyala and Port Sudan. The most useful of these is the daily flight to Port Sudan. It is also possible to charter a plane.
Sudan Airways leases its planes from foreign countries. An accident at Khartoum airport in 2008 resulted in all of the airline’s planes temporarily being grounded. The accident rate of Sudanese airlines in general is poor (21 major accidents between 2003 and 2008) and, consequently, all airlines registered in Sudan are banned from operating in the EU. Weigh up the pros and cons of flying, sit next to the emergency exit if you have the choice, and if you are walking across the runway to the plane, do not walk in front of the propellers. Even at a distance of 20m it is possible for things to get sucked into the blades.
Wherever you want to go in Sudan, getting there will be half the fun. Riding around on the roof of a truck is still a distinct possibility, but things are getting easier: the amount of sealed roads in Sudan has greatly increased, particularly in the north and it is now possible to travel almost the entire distance from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa on tarmac, as well as between Atbara and Port Sudan.
Sudan is a huge country, and you should allow plenty of time to get around. No-one is in a rush, so it’s best to adopt a Sudanese outlook on the trip (and indeed your whole stay in Sudan). Even luxury coaches can get flat tyres, and the best drivers can get stuck in sand. The journey may take a while but you will get there eventually, inshallah. Bad roads and cramped buses can be physically very wearing, so make sure you allow as much time as you can between long trips for recharging your batteries.
One thing to bear in mind when travelling by road is dust. Few roads are paved in Sudan, so dust is a perennial problem. Keep a scarf or bandana handy to protect your nose and mouth. Failure to do so will more often than not result in a nasty cough, and long hours travelling on dusty tracks are a major culprit.
Sudan has a large variety of transport options falling under the loose category of ‘bus’. At the top end of the scale, luxury coaches link Khartoum to Port Sudan, Kassala, Atbara, Dongola, Karima, El Obeid and Dilling. They are fast and comfortable, run to a set timetable, and you generally get plied with hot and cold drinks and snacks between meal breaks. This is the most expensive bus option, but the reclining seats are positively heavenly if you’ve been bumping around in a pick-up for much of your trip. Companies running these coaches include Jamel El Dien, MCV, Igbalco and Marshal.
Mid-range buses ply the same routes, but are much slower and have a more relaxed attitude to squeezing in passengers. You can certainly forget about having your own dedicated seat. These bus companies are usually only signed in Arabic and many appear to have a coach body attached to a truck chassis. In Sudan’s west and far north where tarmac is rarer, the Sudanese have truly made the bus their own. These vehicles really are just trucks masquerading as buses, with seats welded in the back, and open sides to let in the elements. Built to last, with little consideration for speed or comfort, they are the cheapest – and often the only – option available. Passengers and their worldly goods are crammed inside, while enough baggage is lashed on top to double the vehicle’s height.
Minibuses (hafla) link towns relatively close together and are fast and convenient. There’s no need to pre-book – just turn up at the bus station; the minibus departs when full. At the bus station you’ll find bus company offices where you can pre-book tickets. Long-distance transport usually departs early in the morning (typically around 06.00), so it’s wise to check departure times in advance. While you wait there are stands to get a bowl of ful or a kebab, and the ubiquitous tea ladies with their stalls.
The workhorse of rural Sudan is the pick-up truck, known locally as a boksi (plural bokasi). Almost always a Toyota Hilux, these are the most common form of transport where there is no sealed road, particularly in north Sudan. Quicker than a bus over the same ground, they are also slightly more expensive. Bokasi are a fast and furious way to travel. The cab has two seats next to the driver and the covered back of the pick-up has bench seating along each side, with five passengers crammed on each row. Any free floor space is taken up with baggage, with an unlimited number of children thrown in for good measure. Latecomers sit on the roof. The benches are hard and you can feel every bump. If you can, avoid the space over the tailgate – whenever the vehicle hits a pot-hole you’ll be liable to go flying. Short trips are fine, but a long journey can leave you cramped and bruised if the road is particularly bad.
Most boksi companies have offices where it’s possible to book a seat a day in advance – look for a painted picture of the vehicle, with the destinations listed in Arabic. Your name is written on a passenger manifest, with payment usually collected just before departure. The more comfortable seats next to the driver cost a quarter to a third more than those in the back and are always the first to be reserved.
For many years travellers have visited Sudan as part of a larger trip through Africa. In fact, on recent trips to Sudan I got the impression that independent travellers with vehicles actually outnumbered the backpackers. Having your own vehicle gives you the ultimate freedom to travel where you want, and camping under the stars can really let you enjoy Sudan at its most spectacular and wild.
There are several excellent resources out there to help you with your preparations for overlanding. Bradt’s Africa Overland by Siân Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons has comprehensive information on vehicle preparation, route planning and dealing with bureaucracy, and a handy gazetteer for the entire continent. Three other guides also stand out – the encyclopaedic Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide by Tom Sheppard, The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook by Chris Scott and the 2011 edition of the Overlanders Handbook, also by Chris Scott.
Four-wheel-drive is essential for overlanding in Sudan. In the west and far north you can frequently find yourself driving on sand and will need the extra power to keep yourself from getting stuck. The Land Rover is still the vehicle of choice for most overlanders, and there are enough in Sudan to make spares readily available. There are several Land Rover dealers in Khartoum who can source unusual spare parts; at the other end of the spectrum local mechanics are often geniuses of improvisation when it comes to repairs. Sudan’s most popular 4x4 is the Toyota Land Cruiser, a vehicle all garages will be familiar with. Spare parts can be hard to find for motorbikes.
Whatever your vehicle, there are several important points to consider. Fuel and water are top of the list. Carry as much fuel as you can to increase your range. Away from the large towns, fuel can sometimes be hard to come by, so always make sure your spare container is kept topped up. This is more problematic for motorcycles as sandy conditions reduce your range. Anything less than a 35l-capacity tank may result in problems in the northern deserts or the west. Petrol (benzene) in Sudan is sold by the gallon. Diesel is three-quarters of the price but harder to find in smaller places. Along with fuel, carry as much water as possible, both for yourself and to cool your engine in case of overheating.
Other essentials to carry are a comprehensive tool kit and manual for your vehicle, key spare parts and tyres, and a first-aid kit. If you plan on doing any driving in the desert, sand mats are strongly recommended. Many overlanders also use GPS units these days. Road surfaces vary greatly and local conditions can be unpredictable, with a gravel surface suddenly giving way to a kilometre of windblown sand before changing to deeply rutted tracks. Sand presents the greatest problems for driving, most notably if you choose to follow the railway tracks from Wadi Halfa to Berber. Never speed across open desert as the surface can suddenly give way to gullies or soft sand, bogging your vehicle down. If you need to, reduce the tyre pressure to increase the vehicle’s footprint (motorcycles may profit from using wider tyres in Sudan).
As always, other travellers are the best source of up-to-date information on road conditions – the Blue Nile Sailing Club in Khartoum has been the de facto meeting place for Sudanese overlanders for several years.
There are plenty of car-hire places in Khartoum, mostly with showrooms strung out along Africa Road near the airport. Car hire is expensive in Sudan, with prices typically quoted at around US$100 a day for a two-wheel-drive, and 50% more for 4x4. If you plan on driving off-road – quite likely given the nature of the country – the vehicle will be supplied with a driver, pushing costs up even more. If you do want to head out into the desert, it’s far better to organise things through a local tour company, who should also be able to provide you with maps and GPS navigation along with the driver.
At independence, Sudan had the most extensive and best-run railway in Africa. Years of under-investment and (often wilful) neglect mean that the Sudan Railways Corporation now runs a strictly limited service, with the only useful route being the weekly train between Khartoum and Atbara. The extension from Atbara to Wadi Halfa was suspended with the opening of the new road in 2010. There’s a service running west from Khartoum to Nyala every couple of weeks, but it is pretty much freight only.
Rail is a relaxing way to travel, but certainly not a fast one. Trains aren’t always maintained well, sandstorms can stop progress, and tracks often need clearing. Mysterious stops in the middle of nowhere for several hours do occur. As with so much in Sudan, the trick is not to be in a hurry and to enjoy the journey for what it is. The Sudanese seem to possess an almost saintly patience when faced with the limitations of the transport network, an approach worth emulating. Just remember, you will get there in the end!
Trains have three classes. First and second class have separate compartments off a corridor. There’s no difference in the quality of the seats, merely in the amount of room: first class takes six passengers per compartment; second class squeezes eight into the same space. Third class is open seating, with just a thin layer of foam providing any padding on the wooden benches. After a few hours this can be excruciating, so a sleeping bag or similar can come in handy for a little extra cushioning. All human life is here in third class, packed in like sardines with precious little room to manoeuvre.
On an overnight trip, space is at a real premium. Passengers seem to appear out of nowhere as everyone tries to bed down for some sleep. Not an inch of space is wasted. The corridors turn into dormitories, so navigating your way from one end of the carriage to the other becomes a real obstacle course as you try not to step on any slumbering figures.
You often see people riding on the roof of the carriages, claiming their ride for free. It’s a precarious position to take. You need some genuine acrobatic ability to get up on the roof, and even if the train is only trundling along at 40km/h that can seem plenty fast enough when you don’t have any hand holds. There’s also no protection from the elements – most likely a beating sun in the day and a desert chill at night.
The Nile has long been Sudan’s major transport artery, although travellers are unlikely to make great use of it. Compared with Egypt, the Nile in Sudan can often seem an empty river. The only long-distance passenger ferry in the north of the country is the weekly service across Lake Nasser between Wadi Halfa and Aswan. Until ten years ago there was a regular service between Dongola and Karima when the Nile waters were high enough. The remains of this fleet can be seen rotting on the riverbanks just outside Karima.
Anyone travelling in the north can make use of either the local ferries to cross the Nile, or the newly built Chinese bridges. These ferries range in size from large flat-bottomed barges capable of carrying a bus or two, down to small dinghies with outboards for foot passengers. Fares are typically around SDG1 for foot passengers and SDG7 if you have a vehicle, depending on the size. Some crossings have a ticket booth; otherwise you pay the fare when you get on. Ferry crossings are part of the fabric of the north and all human (and animal) life seems to congregate at them – boys driving goats, women carrying shopping, mules being shooed out of the way of a slowly reversing pick-up. The busiest landing stages have a cluster of tea houses and food joints, and are great places to spend a few hours people-watching.
South of Khartoum, the Nile is navigable as far as Juba in South Sudan. Barges and the occasional steamer depart from the White Nile port of Kosti, stopping at Malakal (also in South Sudan). It takes around ten days to sail upstream to Juba and around four days in the reverse direction. Slowly making your way through the swamps of the Sudd could be one of Africa’s great boat trips, but for the moment this trip is only for the hardiest of travellers. Boats are designed for cargo rather than passengers, and extreme delays – literally weeks of waiting for barges on the White Nile are not uncommon.