Jebel Marra

David Else describes the extinct volcano of Jebel Marra.

Written by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare


Jebel Marra Sudan Africa by Hammy07 Wikipedia© Hammy07, Wikipedia

The Marra Plateau in central Darfur covers an area of over 12,000km2, reaching from the Tabago Hills north of El Fasher to the Tebella Plateau south of Zalingei, near the Chadian border. The heart of the plateau is between Nyala and Zalingei, at the 3,088m peak of Jebel Marra, Sudan’s second-highest mountain. Surrounded by rolling hills, it’s the homeland of the Fur, who keep terraced farms and orchards, and raise their herds here. In happier times, Jebel Marra could offer the best trekking in Sudan.

The plateau is classified as montane woodland, with dry woods surrounded by Sahel. Jebel Marra itself is well watered, receiving up to 1,000mm of rain a year, most of it falling between May and September. The lower slopes are secondary grassland, with terraces as high as 2,600m. There has been much deforestation to clear land for farming and fuel, but the upper slopes are more heavily wooded.

Until the middle of the last century, game was relatively common in the Jebel Marra region. Greater kudu and scimitar-horned oryx were the largest antelope represented, and there was also a small (but now long-gone) lion population. Baboons still live on the higher slopes and Dorcas gazelle are sometimes spotted lower down. The closest Jebel Marra gets to a prize mammal are the Burton’s and hairy-footed gerbils, both endemic to the area and critically endangered. Among the birdlife sightings, Nubian buzzards and black vultures are common, with the most widespread species being the African collared dove. The rusty lark is a near-endemic.

Jebel Marra is an extinct volcano, with a huge crater, or caldera, formed by the collapse of its cone. At its centre is a large lake, and a smaller secondary crater that is also full of water and that’s known as ‘the eye of Jebel Marra’. The two lakes (deriba in Fur) are ascribed genders, and the local Fur tell stories about the supernatural powers of the smaller, female lake. Some say that any bird flying over it will be sucked down into its bottomless depths or that it is inhabited by spirits, although herders seem happy enough to graze their goats on its shores.

The nearest large town to Jebel Marra is Nyala. The old trekking route to the Jebel Marra crater started at Neretiti, a small town halfway between Nyala andZalingei. From here it was possible to buy supplies and even arrange a guide (or pack donkey) if needed. The route heads straight for Jebel Marra, with a half-day walk to the village of Quaila (called Karonga on some maps), where there is a pretty waterfall in a valley and good potential for camping. The path continues through a canyon up the side of Jebel Marra, passing hot springs along the way. The climb is steep and sometimes indistinct among the rocks. Ahead is the flat-topped peak of Jebel Idwa, Marra’s northern twin. At the top, the path follows the rim of Jebel Marra, offering spectacular views of the crater itself and the surrounding area. The descent is tricky and the path completes nearly half a circuit of the rim before a gap allows passage back down. The green crater bottom provides a stark contrast to the rocky walls of the crater. It is possible to camp in the crater, but the lakes are sulphurous and freshwater springs are tricky to find.

With an early start, one can reach the crater from Quaila and return – or continue descending the opposite side of Jebel Marra – in one day. The village on the eastern slopes of the mountain, Tarantonga, used to have a weekly market on Saturday, with trucks running to Nyala. Attempting this in the opposite direction, it may be possible to hire a guide in Tarantonga. For a longer trek, there are plenty of options in the open country. One possible route could be to approach Jebel Marra from further east, starting in Menawashi (on the Nyala–El Fasher road) and spending several days walking in the rolling hills on the lower slopes of the plateau. The village of Gollol, a day’s walk south of Jebel Marra, was also popular for its waterfalls. The 1:250,000 Sudan Survey Maps on sale in Khartoum are the best available, but given their age they should not be relied upon totally. The central part of the plateau is covered by four sheets, but Sheet ND35 covers most of Jebel Marra itself. A compass is essential, as are waterproofs in the rainy season. Nights are cold throughout the year, so warm clothing and a sleeping bag are also a must. It is best to be as self-sufficient as possible regarding food, so stock up in Nyala as there is little on offer in the villages around Jebel Marra.

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