There were sixteen of us, taking this trip to Sudan, led by a British couple. We were to fly south to Juba, but our flight was delayed and over the next three days, we became well acquainted with the exceedingly scruffy domestic terminal of Khartoum Airport. The only facility it had available was a very dubious restroom that I used rarely with great trepidation. There being no seats, we spent many long hours sitting on the floor, swatting flies and re-thinking our plans.
Tourism, it turned out, was not being encouraged in southern Sudan, which was descending into civil war. The Government was doing its best to prevent visitors from flying to the south, even though we had been issued visas.
A harried British Airways representative that we happened to bump into was incredulous when we told him of our destination, saying emphatically “if I was you, I wouldn’t go.”
After hours of delay, our flight was “re-scheduled” for 4am. We checked back into the hotel for a few hours rest before our next ordeal at the airport.
This happened three times. We got into the habit of rising in the middle of the night to take breakfast in the hotel dining room, which was awash with cats. Then we would traipse to the airport for the next delay announcement, after which we would go up to the roof and watch the spectacular desert sunrise, which at least never disappointed us.
Suddenly, on Valentine’s Day, a crowd of people suddenly rose and formed a queue toward a waiting aircraft. For no particular reason that I can remember, we joined it and soon afterwards we found ourselves airborne and flying south over the Sudd, the world’s largest swamp. In the pre-monsoon season it seemed awfully dry.
In a steaming hot afternoon, we landed at Juba. The tiny, stifling terminal building was crowded with very tall, very black-skinned men. Many bore horizontal tribal scars on their forehead. These were Nuer people.
Other men, with “V” shaped scars were Dinka. They seemed to be co-existing, although this was certainly not always the case.
In an arid, harsh environment such as this, survival of the fittest takes on real meaning. It is little wonder that there has so often been conflict for this reason alone. As everywhere, politics and ethnicity were a very complicated business.
For the time being, there was peace, and we were allowed to join the Bedford truck that had been driven up from Kenya by our trusty driver Taff.
Our seats for the next fortnight, were two opposing, barely padded benches, along each side of the vehicle.
Bouncing around in the back of our grand transport, on the way to our first campsite, we got a view of Juba. I suspect I was not alone in asking myself why we had expended so much energy in getting there.
Southern Sudan is mostly pancake flat, although there are mountains on the southern border. It is blistering hot. The land is dotted with small villages of mud huts and wooden shacks, and not much else. In February it is also bone dry and extremely dusty.
My first night under canvas was in a wasteland adjacent to the local prison. A few village kids came to stare at us, but apparently we were not very interesting.
Bright and early next day we were packed up in the truck and on our way. There was a dirt road for Taff to follow, initially, but I wondered repeatedly how he knew where to drive. Often he just steered the truck at a crawl across miles of deep ruts, which would turn to mud when the monsoons arrived.
The back of a Bedford truck is not the recommended form of transport in these conditions. Especially when it is your turn to sit right at the back. (I don’t think it is recommended, period).
We were to travel in this manner all the way back to Khartoum, for however long it took.
Our flight home would leave in two weeks and we were three days behind schedule.