South Sudan is Africa’s wild Wild West. It’s also the world’s newest country, fairly recently independent from its northern namesake. If you are looking for a real adventure truly off the beaten path, then South Sudan might just be a fit for you.
I spent 4 full weeks in South Sudan, and would have gone for longer but my visa wouldn’t allow me to stay. The ‘faded tourist brochure’ for South Sudan suggested that the country’s Boma National Park is home to one of the world’s largest migrations, second only the wildebeest in the Serengeti. Sadly, the migration is also the pantry for warring tribes, and so travel there was ill advised. One day though I can see tourists hopping on light aircraft and flying 45 minutes from Juba for safaris, holidaying in luxury tented camps. For now, though, that elusive jewel will wait for more peaceful times.
In the first few days that I had been in Juba, South Sudan’s endearingly scruffy capital, I pretty much walked along every street. Roads lined with littered plastic bottles, bags, and large shady trees with silent stories to tell, dusty from the red dirt thrown up from passing traffic. I battled money changers and avoided government weirdos who were suspicious of me, assuming I was a spy. As sadly there was no such glamour available, they wanted me to get in a car with them, to where I never found out.
Being out on the streets of Juba isn't something that foreigners seemed to do, which excitingly meant the streets were mine to explore. My yellow hair sticking out like a sore thumb, I was stared at, smiled at and greeted with curiosity. The United Nations workers and other NGO’s were being driven from living compounds to working compounds in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers, lives in air-conditioned safety behind barbed wire fences and newly built, already rotting tall cement walls, a stark contrast to the burning heat that made sweat bead down my neck. “It’s like fire out here, FIRE!” His friendly grin, common amongst a people who for years had endured, now emboldened by their independence imagining a real future. He was right, as we flew along the paved dusty roads weaving past potholes and leaning into roundabouts, the passing air felt like a hair dryer blowing square on, not quite fire, but close.
A South Sudan Road Trip
I had chosen to head to Yei, because with a name like that of course you must. It could have been Wau, but Yei seemed like it would be happier to see me rather than surprised! Juba bus station is bedlam, rickety old shops selling strong smelling food and mobile phones, framing a quadrant of diesel fumes. A pack of Toyota minibuses pointing this way and that, one exit and one entrance, and there in the middle of the bus soup is a sign saying Yei. At first glance I’m not sure if it’s the rust or the paint that’s holding my bus together, turns out neither are, it’s some plastic rope and a few zip locks.
I’m squeezed between a fat lady and a quiet student on a two-seater bench. The quiet student looks out of the window, and the fat lady stares at me. The bus fills up until it’s a restless sardine can. I briefly ask myself why, and smile, reminding myself that this is why these moments, the crappy hard ones, make the best memories.
The only road leading out of Juba that is paved is the one to Uganda, not the one I was on. The rest of the country’s main arteries are red dirt tracks, with craters in them lined by scrub land mines and bush. I call them tracks and roads, but Toyota killers would be more fitting a description. It’s a tricky business breaking a Toyota, as the TopGear television show found out when they threw one off the top of a skyscraper and then drove it away. Today though, as my ride hits a hole and bounces high enough to leave the ground, the impossible is achieved.
A Rube Goldberg Fix
We pile off the bus, all rubbing our heads and muttering, I’m amazed at how full the road looks now the minibus is empty. The driver’s already on his back under the chassis, cigarette in mouth he’s barking orders at some young fella who seems to have been nominated as the stand in mechanic. The Toyotas suspension is about as broken as anything I have ever seen, the wheel arches are resting on the wheels, and this van is going nowhere.
But then, the jack comes out, and it’s not to jack up the van. It’s being strapped by the drivers belt to the broken suspension, which in turn is raising the wheel arch and the rest of the van with it off of the wheel. It’s a 5-minute job, and we the sardines, are all piling back in the van to continue our journey to Yei.
After 8 more hours of bouncing, the minibus limped into Yei, a small nothing town that swallowed us into it without event. The staring fat lady waddled off kicking up red dust, the student jumped into a waiting car and zoomed off, and the minibus turned around ready to head back to Juba, the jack and belt now a permanent fixture. I walked off stretching my legs with a new freedom, looking for some place to stay, and a cold beer to cool my soul.
My South Sudan Takeaway
Today, if anyone ever asks me about my experiences in South Sudan and how did I like it, I tell them of the triumph of adventure, and that there are still places on this wonderful planet where the journey is the experience and not the destination. South Sudan occupies a small corner of my memories, abstractly, these memories are epic, amongst some of the very gnarly and most life affirming any traveler could wish for.
Written by: John and Tara Newby
John and Tara got married in Antarctica, by a penguin. With a baby on the way they are currently traveling through Europe in a self-converted camper van. John has independently travelled to 163 countries, with highlights including horse riding in Afghanistan, a 32 state USA road trip, and swimming in the Congo River. Tara is Zimbabwean and her heart is in Africa, safari is in her blood. Since getting married, Tara has joined John on this lifelong adventure, their promise to each other; that lines across a map are more important than numbers. So, ticking off the whole world (193) can wait a while, until more lines are joined up and adventures have been had. The most exciting adventure of all, how to fit a newborn into a rucksack!
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