Until the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan was the largest country in Africa, covering 8% of the continent’s surface. Even now, if you have the opportunity to travel across the country, you should do so: the scale and diversity of the land is striking. The Sudanese often describe their country as the whole of Africa in one country. It’s easy to understand why: Sudan ranges from desert in the north to mountains in the south, the whole bisected by one of the greatest rivers in the world. Straddling the fault-line between the Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa – the Arabs call the country bilad as-sudan, or ‘land of the blacks’ – it is superlative in every sense.
Sudan is divided into four main geographical regions, roughly corresponding to the cardinal points. The country is tropical with both a rainy and a dry season, although the temperature and amount of rainfall depend greatly on location. North Sudan is desert and receives little or no rainfall. To the west is the Libyan Desert, part of the Sahara proper, and to the east is the barren Nubian Desert. It is whipped by dry northeasterly winds from the Arabian Peninsula and habob, summer afternoon dust storms that cut visibility to zero. It wasn’t always like this, however. Access to water was key to the rise of the Nubian kingdoms. Nile tributaries running through this region made the land lush, enabling them to raise cattle and accrue immense wealth – so much so, in fact, that they became an attractive target for Egyptian invaders from the north. Their civilisation fell victim to climate change around 300BC when arable land ceased to be viable. The desert has encroached ever since.
West Sudan is semi-desert, with rolling sand dunes and light grasslands that rise to the highlands of Darfur. There are no permanent rivers, only wadis (seasonal watercourses) that spring into life with the summer rains and leave rich alluvial soils behind. The Marrah Mountains in central Darfur are a range of volcanic peaks last active some 4,000 years ago. Their high-point, the Deriba Caldera, rises 3,042m above sea level, and the area enjoys a temperate climate with high rainfall and numerous springs. US geologists at the Center for Remote Sensing in Boston have identified an underwater lake three times the size of Lebanon that may in the future provide water to sufficiently irrigate the land and, as a result, resolve many of the conflicts linked to competition for resources.
East Sudan is dry grassland: the Gash Delta near Kassala acts as a seasonal drain for the region and produces rich grazing for the livestock of pastoral nomads. The barren spine of the Red Sea Hills separates the coastal plain from the rest of Sudan; the rising Ethiopian Plateau naturally demarcates the eastern border. Though all of Sudan becomes hot in the summer months, temperatures in Port Sudan climb higher still: summer highs of more than 50°C are not uncommon.
In the south are the Nuba Mountains, a remote region of South Kordofan that straddles the contested border between Sudan and South Sudan. The climate is semi-arid with a rainy season stretching from May to October. Rainfall is heaviest between June and September (as much as 15cm per month) and average temperatures, though slightly higher in the months before the rain, tend to vary very little.
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Sudan’s dominant geographical feature is the Nile. The Nile in Sudan is actually two rivers: the White and the Blue Niles, which converge in Khartoum before making slow progress north through Egypt and thence to the sea. Travelling within the country you inevitably spend much of your time following the river and the narrow strip of fertile land either side that holds back the desert.
Over 80% of the Nile’s water is provided by the Blue Nile, which rises near Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands. The level of the river fluctuates with the seasons, reaching its height in July and August. The Blue Nile appears dark with rich alluvial silt (hence the name) – the fertile soil that allowed ancient Egypt to grow and prosper.
During the winter, the Blue Nile’s volume decreases considerably and the flow of the river is maintained by the slower waters of the White Nile. The ultimate source of the White Nile was a mystery for centuries and wasn’t settled until the 1860s when a series of expeditions by John Hanning Speke, James Grant and Henry Morton Stanley fully explored Africa’s Great Lakes region. The rains that fall on the Mountains of the Moon and drain from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi into Lake Victoria provide the waters of the White Nile. The river traverses Uganda and South Sudan, where it is known as Bahr al Jabal, before finally entering Sudan south of Rabak.
The reason for the problem in tracing the source of the Nile is that it enters the Sudd, a labyrinth of waterways and papyrus that makes up a swamp the size of Belgium. The name ‘Sudd’ means ‘barrier’ in Arabic and it proved so formidable that explorers searching for the source chose to start their journeys in Zanzibar and cross east Africa rather than tackle the swamp.
The White Nile loses more than half of its waters to evaporation in the Sudd, but it is replenished by the Sobat River from western Ethiopia as it nears Malakal, just to the south of the Sudanese border. After this, the Nile only receives one more tributary, the seasonal Atbara River to the north of Khartoum, before turning south in a great loop and finally flowing north to Egypt.
The Nile has been dammed in several places. Egypt’s Aswan High Dam is the most famous, and ultimately flooded large parts of Nubia, but Sudan has also built several dams. The Roseires Dam at Ad Damazin on the Blue Nile provides most of the country’s electricity, supplemented by a dam at Jebel Aulia on the White Nile just south of Khartoum. A huge new dam was inaugurated at Meroë near the Fourth Cataract in 2009, displacing more than 60,000 people.
Sudan’s tourist season runs from November until March, and though we have previously braved the heat in the month or so either side, it’s not the most pleasurable thing to do. The north is hot and dry throughout the year, but between April and October temperatures soar ferociously high, reaching well over 40°C even on the coast. Sandstorms are also common at this time and being caught up in one can be a terrifying experience. Khartoum is a little cooler but more humid, receiving rain in July and August. Winter nights can be cold in the desert, so bear this in mind when planning and packing.
If you are interested in scuba diving, the conditions in the Red Sea are ideal for diving all year round, but operators tend to close for the months of July and August when the heat in Port Sudan is unbearable – temperatures pushing 50°C are not unknown. Visitors travelling during Ramadan should be aware that museums and sites of interest may well be shut throughout the month, and those that are open will have restricted opening hours. The same applies for shops. Restaurants are open only after iftar (sunset) and it is almost impossible to get a taxi at this time as all Muslims will be breaking their fast. Most expats take their annual holiday to coincide with Ramadan, as do many tour operators.
Sudan is a vast country. While there are fascinating things to be found in all corners, security considerations and the availability of time will likely dictate your itinerary. The following are some of the highlights around which, depending on your interests, you may wish to build your trip.
Pyramids of Meroë
The construction of royal tombs at Meroë began in 270BC and the remains of more than 100 pyramids are clearly visible, some of which date back as far as the 8th century BC. Unlike burial sites in Egypt, at Meroë you may well have an entire cemetery to yourself to explore: the northern cemetery is the best preserved, though a number of the pyramids were decapitated by an Italian treasure hunter in 1834.
This vast, mud-brick structure in Kerma is 3,500 years old, 50m long and still rises 18m above the surrounding land. It is possibly the oldest manmade structure in sub-Saharan Africa and, although its exact purpose is unknown, it is likely it held some ceremonial importance at the centre of an ancient city.
Rescued from the rising waters of Lake Aswan and now protected inside the National Museum in Khartoum, these paintings are the finest artistic output of Christian Nubia. Burial in the sand protected the paintings and the cathedral in which they were located, so that when they were excavated in the 1960s the colours were still incredibly vivid.
Scuba diving at Conshelf II
© Angelo Glampiccolo, Shutterstock
The pioneer of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau undertook his famous underwater living experiment (featured in his film World Without Sun) on this Red Sea reef just off the Sudanese coast. Though Cousteau’s living quarters were removed once the experiment was over, the airtight dome of the submarine garage remains and is a place of pilgrimage for serious divers.
Sudan’s largest market is the beating heart of Omdurman; the labyrinth of streets is packed with sights and smells and even if you are not shopping, it offers the best people watching in Sudan.
Rising majestically over Kassala, these granite peaks are the perfect vantage point to watch the sun set across the Sudanese plains. Popular with honeymooners, there are also a number of pleasant short treks and scrambles, and the chance to get up close and personal with the local baboons.
On Friday afternoons, adherents of the Sufi Qadiriyah order gather at the Hamed al-Nil Tomb in Omdurman to dance and pray. Their long robes are a riot of red and green, and with the help of cymbals and drums they build themselves up into a spiritual ecstasy, chanting and spinning as they commune with God. Visitors are welcome to watch.
The Lion Temple at Naqa
Possibly the finest example of Kushite architecture, this glorious temple is dedicated to the lion-headed god Apedemak. Relief carvings of King Natakamani and his queen sit triumphantly either side of the gateway, whilst the lions at their feet devour those they have conquered.
Sailing on the Nile
Without the world’s longest river there would be no life in Sudan: even today it nourishes life and the majority of conurbations past and present are along its banks. The best way to appreciate the water is on its surface, setting out for a felucca cruise or a short ferry crossing.
Many visitors in Sudan have just a few days to spare but, thanks to the concentration of sites in Khartoum, Omdurman and the area to the north, this shouldn’t prevent you seeing something of the country. Starting in Khartoum and Omdurman, two days is ample time to see the National Museum with its microcosm of Sudanese history and to stand at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, perhaps even taking a boat ride across to Tuti Island if the mood takes you. Watch the sunset from the Ferris wheel in the Mogran Family Park and then take dinner on the terrace at the Corinthia Hotel. Rise early in the morning and head over to Omdurman, starting your tour with the Khalifa’s House and the Mahdi’s Tomb. Take lunch in Omdurman Souk and, if you’re in the mood to haggle, get stuck in with some souvenir shopping. If it’s a Friday, finish up with the intriguing whirling dervishes at the Hamed al-Nil Tomb, otherwise tuck into ostrich or gazelle and have a meal to remember at Carnivore.
If you are in Sudan for a week, start with a few days in Khartoum before heading north to Meroë and the pyramids, staying a night or two at the Meroë Tented Camp. Close by and definitely worth the visit are the Meroitic temples of Naqa (including the Lion Temple) and Musawwarat es Sufra, where more than 55,000m2 of ruins have already been uncovered. Each of these sites deserve at least a day if you are going to explore them properly.
For those with two or three weeks available, continue north to Jebel Barkal and, in particular, its Temple of Amun and Temple of Mut. The view from the top of the mountain is well worth the scramble. Make sure you visit Nuri, a few kilometres away, to see some of Sudan’s oldest pyramids, including that of the Napatan king Taharqa. There are also excellent archaeological remains at El Kurru and Old Dongola, and those with an interest in early history should also visit Kerma to see the Western Deffufa. Heading east to Red Sea State, either book onto a live-aboard and spend some time beneath the waves exploring the wrecks and eyeballing fish or, if you prefer to keep your feet dry, instead go to Suakin, the island of djinns (genies), with its coral buildings and two 16th-century mosques. Finish your trip with a safari in the Dinder National Park, staying in the Dinder Tourist Camp and driving out to catch a glimpse of baboons, antelope and hyenas and, if you’re particularly lucky, even the occasional lion.