Sudan is the largest country in Africa, bordering Egypt, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya and Uganda. Getting a visa for Sudan is an expensive hit-and-miss affair, but if you do manage to get in, and you stick to the safe areas, you will probably have a fantastic experience. The Sudanese people are very hospitable, and you can visit some awesome tourist attractions without even seeing another tourist.
Sudan is afflicted by civil wars which have been raging, on and off, for more than 40 years. When the colonial map-makers divided up Africa, they included in Sudan the predominantly muslim people of the north (including Nubians and Arabs), who share much of their history and culture with Egyptians, and the largely Christian and pagan Bantu people of the south, who have more in common with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa than with their northern countryfolk. Nowadays, an Islamic state, operating Shariah law, rules over a population of Muslim, Christian and Pagan people. Many in the south want independence or autonomy from the northern-influenced rule of Khartoum. Although autonomy was briefly granted in an effort to still the civil war, it was later rescinded and the war flared up again. The situation changes frequently but many areas in the West and South are currently very dangerous to visit.
Outside of conflict areas, however, the country is extremely safe to travel in; the Sudanese place great value on respect and honesty and this makes theft a rare occurrence (which may be helped by the fact that the punishment for theft is the amputation of the hand...). Begging is unheard of outside Khartoum; the only hassle a traveller is likely to come across is from officialdom, in the form of bureaucracy.
Much of the Middle East and Africa has a reputation for warmth and hospitality but Sudan is in a league of its own, making it a joy to travel in. It is common to be invited to stay at someone's home and most rural Sudanese would never dream of eating in front of you without inviting you to join them. Talking the afternoon away over a glass or five of tea is a serious national ritual, which extends to dealings with officials.
Sudan is as geographically diverse as it is culturally; in the north, the Nile cuts through the eastern edge of the Sahara: the Nubian desert, the site of the Ancient Kingdoms of Cush and Mero, and the land of the Seti. Here, some modest farming and husbandry supplements the staple crop of date palms. The East and West are mountainous regions, and much of the rest of the country comprises of savannahs typical of much of central sub-Saharan Africa.
Sudanese travel visas are expensive and difficult to acquire for some nationalities or for people with an Israeli stamp in their passport. It is advisable to obtain the Sudanese visa in your home country if at all possible.
Registration is obligatory within 3 days of arrival in the country. It takes over 33US and if in Khartoum it could take you a full day. Registration is also possible in Wadi Halfa. Some people get away with not having registered.
Hours-long waits for customs clearance are not unheard of, and landing in Khartoum can be tricky. Entering or exiting by land goes smooth.
Alcohol is forbidden in Sudan, and attempting to import it could bring strict penalties. Photography is not permitted in many parts of Sudan, and photographing government or military buildings or personnel anywhere is inadvisable.
Keep your political and/or military affiliation to yourself, especially if you are from the U.S.
Lufthansa, British Airways (through a subsidiary, British Mediterranean Airlines),Emirates, Gulf Air, Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, Qatar Airways and Sudan Airways all fly to Khartoum. There are some flights to Dongola and Port Sudan from the Middle East.
One way to get in from Ethiopia is via the border village of Gallabat. The road crossing from Egypt periodically closes, depending on diplomatic and trading relations between the two countries. Check for information before trying this route.
There are busses from Nairobi that go to the southern border Sudan and in late summer/early autumn of 2005, there will be bus service starting up from Kampala in Uganda to southern Sudan. As for now, this route is off limits for tourists. The route though passes through an area of extreme insecurity where the rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda operates. As of late 2005 Vehicles are being ambushed by the LRA along this route and great care should be taken on any road journeys in this region. Even when open, there is no public transport via the road crossing from Egypt.
The most reliable way to ender Sudan from Egypt is via the weekly ferry from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa. Currently it runs on mondays to Sudan and back on wednesdays. Prices recently went up to 33 US. The boat is old and crowded with people and goods (the best place to sleep is on deck amongst the cargo) but it takes in some magnificent views (including that of Abu Simbel). Food and drink are available on-board. There are frequent ferries from Saudi Arabia.
Independent travellers in Sudan (definitely those with their own vehicles and possibly those using public transport) require a Permit To Travel. Obtaining one is an arduous ordeal, costing US$15 and taking around a day (in Wadi Halfa). Independent travellers also need to register with police on arrival in any town or city. This is fairly quick and painless, once the police point has been located - and often the police will hear about your arrival and find you before you find them.
There is a weekly train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, which leaves some time after the weekly ferry from Aswan arrives. "Some time" can mean anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days but word usually spreads around town before the train leaves. There is also a train between Khartoum and Port Sudan, via Atbara, and from Nyala to Er-Rahad in the West.
Driving in Sudan is chaotic but not especially dangerous by African standards. Visitors to the area who are inexperienced at international driving are advised to hire a taxi or a driver. In most of the country, a 4WD is essential; Sudan's main highway is sealed for much of the way but most of the roads in the country are dirt or sand tracks. If going south from Wadi Halfa, the first several hundred kilometres are a sand track, and even this often disappears (although it is hard to get lost). Conditions can be especially difficult after the rains.
While buses do run frequently in the better travelled areas, in remoter areas people tend to use trucks or "boxes" (Toyota Hiluxes) - they're usually just as crowded as the buses but have fewer people sitting on top and get stuck in the sand less often. They tend to go whenever they fill up, which can take half a day or so. If you have money to spare, you can hire a whole one to yourself (you might want to invest in a cushion while you're at it...).
It is possible to cycle around Sudan, legally speaking, although it might be advisable to forget to mention your mode of transport when getting your permit to travel. "Cycling" will often consist of pushing the bike through sand or rattling along corrugations but the scenery and the incredible warmth of the Sudanese people more than compensate for the physical and bureaucratic hassles. Water is frequently available from communal clay pots at the roadside, cafes, people's homes, passing trucks or, if desperate, the Nile (NB There is a 145 kilometre stretch between Wadi Halfa and Akasha without water - the only place to refuel is just a few kilometres before Akasha). Theft is not a problem; it is generally safe to leave bicycles unattended in villages and towns. Flies, puncture-generous thorn trees and, in the far north, lack of shade, are the only real annoyances.
The official language in Sudan is Arabic. English is not widely spoken except by officials and hospitality workers.
During conversation, avoid asking direct questions about people's political opinions unless you know the person quite well and sense that they would be comfortable; repercussions could be serious for them. Tact is a necessity in a country that has suffered the trauma of more than 40 years of civil war and refugees from affected areas are spread around the country, especially Khartoum.
The most ubiquitous food in Sudan is 'fuul', a dish made of (sometimes mashed) beans, onions and herbs and usually served with flat bread. Grilled meat, stewed chicken and fried Nile perch are also common, depending on the region. Flat bread and "La vache qui rit" / "Laughing cow" cheese are available from even the smallest rural shop.
Islam is in charge here, so the only thing that's frequently drunk in Sudan is tea; usually sweet and black. Hibiscus tea called Karkadeyh (red) is a delicious alternative. Sudanese coffee is available in most souks and is similar to Turkish style coffee; thick and strong, sometimes flavoured with cardamom or ginger with a powerful kick and altogether delicious. Not to be taken before bed though if you want an undisturbed night's sleep! The general advice is not to drink tap water; in most rural areas you will not be able to, as there are no taps... Where there are no bore holes (which often yield water that is fine to drink), water is often taken directly from the Nile. However while Alcohol is strictly illegal in the Muslim north (but not in the semi-autonomous non-Muslim south) locally brewed alcohol is widely available in various forms and at various degrees of potency. A local beer (merissa) brewed from sorghum or millet is cloudy, sour and heavy and likely to be brewed with untreated water and will almost certainly lead to the 'Mahdis' revenge' (the Sudanese version of 'Delhi belly'). Aragi is a pure spirit distilled from sorghum or in its purest form, dates. Potent and powerful it should be treated with respect and is sometimes contaminated with the likes of methanol or embalming fluid (!) to add flavour and potency. Be aware though that all these brews are illegal and being caught in possession can result in the full implementation of Islamic law punishments. In the towns of south Sudan such as Rumbek and Juba, Kenyan and Ugandan beers are starting to appear in bars at inflated cross-border prices.
Most larger towns and cities have affordable hotels. In rural areas, travellers are frequently invited to stay in people's homes. Wild camping is easy in rural areas outside of the south, as long as the usual precautions are taken. Outside of the large towns and cities, beds are generally string beds and showers are usually bucket showers, often with Nile water.
A bit of Arabic, including how to read and write numbers.
Homosexuality is punishable by death.
Travel for solo women is relatively safe (in areas unaffected by civil war), if you dress and act appropriately for an Islamic country. You will raise a few eyebrows but will generally be treated with great respect.
Photographing or filming military personnel or installations is a quick way to get into trouble.
Sudan is a malarial region, so be especially cautious during the rainy season. Poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions are common to the southern areas. All drinking water is unsafe, and even the Sudanese drink only bottled water. Sanitation in some areas is nonexistent, so wash your hands frequently and do not eat food from streetside vendors. Sudanese currency is notoriously dirty, and even the Sudanese handle small bills as little as possible. A hint would be to carry antibacterial wipes or gel in your luggage to treat your hands after handling filthy currency notes or shaking too many unwashed hands. Sudan has reported ebola outbreaks in 2004 and it is not advised to take local hospital treatments unless there is a real urgency.If you have malaria-like symptoms, seek medical assistance when possible.
Sudan is an Islamic nation, and the northern government has imposed a relaxed form of Sharia law. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden (though many people dip a kind of snuff, and a few make moonshine), and women are encouraged to cover their heads and wear long sleeves and pants. Men should wear long trousers, not shorts, and be careful to treat local women with respect. Non-Muslim Arabs and Christians are more numerous in the South, so you may experience different degrees of religious tolerance. If in doubt, play it safe and cover up.
To show the bottom of your foot is an insulting gesture.
The Sudanese do not expect foreigners to adhere to Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, but it would be tactless to eat, drink or smoke in public. (Many people, e.g. diabetics and those travelling more than a certain distance, are exempt from Ramadan, so it is possible to find open restaurants during the day but they are not well advertised so you have to ask where they are.)