During the recent survey period I managed to only visit two new countries (booo!). With only 34 left out of 196 this is hardly surprising but what was surprising was that I managed to get there at all. I had tried for the previous two surveys to get a visa to visit Sudan, without success. The first port of call when organising a visa is to visit the country’s official consulate website which usually details exactly what paperwork you need. This often consists of passport photos, a completed application form, hotel and flight confirmations, a letter from your employer and an officially stamped invitation letter from a company in the destination country. For a Sudanese visa you also need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum but, try as I might, this was proving irksomely unachievable. I Googled to see if this is a common problem and came across a forum where there is an ‘easier’ way of getting into Sudan. And this is when I stumbled upon the wonderful George and the Acropole Hotel. The hotel is not five star luxury accommodation with a swimming pool, sauna or state of the art fitness centre but what it lacks in finery it makes up for in service – something too often overlooked in many top end hotels. It’s a small hotel, popular with journalists and also where Sir Bob Geldof stayed during his time in the region during the famine of the 1980s. So, if you ever wish to visit Sudan on non-official grounds then get in contact with the Acropole Hotel who will bend over backwards to ensure your stay (and entry) goes smoothly. George was even still awake at 3am in the morning to greet me when I arrived all weary and bleary eyed off the plane.
In the morning I wasted no time in getting out and about to the shops and surprisingly it was actually very safe to walk around. The name ‘Sudan’ often conjures up thoughts of warfare and strife but the capital, Khartoum, is anything but. Yes, in the south of the country there are huge problems in the border areas with South Sudan (whose capital, Juba, by contrast is a real no go area for us IDRs – much to the chagrin of the Cost of Living department!) and in the western Darfur region bordering Chad there has been ongoing troubles for over a decade, but Khartoum rarely witnesses any spill over from these areas. This FCO map shows this quite clearly.
Khartoum is a hot and dusty city so you don’t really want to be walking outside for too long, although I did have a pleasant walk from my hotel along the shaded tree-lined Nile Street to the point where the White and Blue Nile rivers meet. The street is home to many government buildings and also to the rather odd looking Corinthia Hotel, probably Khartoum’s most luxurious. It’s often referred to as Gaddafi’s Egg as it’s thought that the ex-Libyan premier financed its construction. Other than the ‘egg’ the city skyline is fairly uninteresting as everything is spread out rather than concentrated in one area. The wider urban area of Khartoum is actually made up of three ‘cities’. There is Omdurman, the more traditional Sudanese area with souqs, bustle and camel markets which is to the west of the White Nile. To the north of the Blue Nile and east of the White Nile is the imaginatively named Khartoum North, which is mainly an industrial area. But to the south of the Blue Nile and east of the White Nile is the area where 99% of expatriates live and where all facilities a foreigner would require are to be found.
If you pop in for lunch at the Ozone Café (which is bizarrely in the middle of a roundabout) then you would have no idea that you are in an east African city on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Freshly baked baguettes and creamy eclairs as well as lush ice cream and Western staples abound for the expatriate business clientele. The supermarkets, however, are not the best I’ve seen in Africa. Some items are hard to track down, or even find at all. One of the reasons for this is the trade embargo which the USA has had in place on the country since 2002. The sanctions also mean that for expatriates life in Sudan is a cash economy. Foreign credit cards are not accepted anywhere and ATM’s are useless too so cash is king. Indeed, I had to bring US dollars to cover my entire trip including all expenses.
Although Khartoum is a safe city, I was surprised to be told that taking photographs can often get the attention of the police. I like to record my travels with images and was keen to get some pictures of the country. Fortunately, good ol’ George at the Acropole was on hand to ensure that I got the correct government approved photo permit which I had to carry on me at all times. This is just as well as I booked to have a day off travelling north of the city into the desert to see some ancient sites – a must for all visitors and expats at some time during their stay. The sites don’t compare in grandeur to those of Egypt but what was special about them was that I was the only person there. The highlight for me was wandering around the pyramids at Meroe surrounded by undulating sand dunes and not a tourist or hawker in site. It’s very rare these days to experience world wonders without the crowds so it was a special trip. Another must-see if you ever find yourself in Khartoum is the mesmerising whirling dervishes of the Sufi sect which perform a rapturous and rousing ritual in the Omdurman area of the city every Friday just before sunset.