Sudan - Security, Sand, Oil and Discontent
Sudan is about the size of Europe (or the combined states of California,
Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New
Mexico and Arizona). Sudan has 1 million square miles (that's 1000 miles by
1000 miles) and 35 million people. It has 9 international borders
(Clockwise - Egypt, then Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti,
Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, and Libya)
which may explain why it always seems to be either fighting a border
dispute, or providing a haven for refugees. It also has oil - 1 million
barrels/day and the Nile flows all the way through it from South to North.
So, borders, oil, some of Africa's most valuable water and a military
dictator (who seized power in 1988) and has ruled ever since. A potent brew.
We arrived without any guide book, which was compounded by the lack of
anything produced locally and the contemptuous 'Ministry of Tourism' (whose
single action was to threaten us that if we stayed out beyond 7pm they would
lock us up in the local prison which is conveniently to hand - we ignored
their threats and stayed out till 11pm but its worrying all the same). So
we had to do the best we could by talking to Sudanese, looking at the quaint
museum, and our own experience. Don't even think of an internet café.
The Port of Suakin was in 1800's the busiest in the Red Sea, taking pilgrims
to Mecca (via Jeddah, 100 miles across the Red Sea), and bringing in British
exports to Sudan and Africa, and Sudanese exports. Unfortunately Port Suakin
was also a hotbed of revolutionary zeal, and when the British General Gordon
was massacred in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan where the Blue Nile (from
Ethiopia) and the White Nile (from Lake Victoria) meet, sympathetic
uprisings against the British flared up all around Suakin, about 8 of which
were successful as the Dervishes overran the stretched British military, and
'broke the British square'. A first punitive expedition was disorganized
and sabotaged sufficiently to fail, and it took a 2nd with 14000 troops plus
Egyptian army regulars to regain control.
The British alarmed by their vulnerability to a single port, and with the
opening of the Suez Canal making Red Sea ports strategically important,
decided to by-pass Suakin (which in any case was a long narrow inlet not
well suited to large numbers of ships), and built Port Sudan instead 50
miles north. Port Sudan flourished and now has 2.3 million people, and
handles most of Sudan's trade and oil. Suakin, once all the businesses had
moved to Port Sudan in 1922, declined not gradually but rapidly and the best
image I can give you of the city is the photographs you see of Hiroshima
after the atom bomb - there are just two buildings in Old Suakin still
standing - every thing else is crumbling literally back into the mud and
dust that it came from. No-one pulled it down, its just that no-one
maintained or rebuilt it. As it declined, it retained of all things slave
traffic which was apparently still being conducted up to the WW2 (1940),
although quite how the British authorities turned a blind eye to this I
Old Suakin is on an island. Inland from the causeway live some 10,000
Sudanese in conditions of complete poverty. Forget cars, donkey carts are
the means of transport, 100's of them, houses are often put together by
fixing whatever has floated in on the tide into a make shift wall then
covering it with fabric with more holes than patches, and settling down to
have children. Social encounters take place in the enclosed bay which also
does for toilet and washing, so on a typical evening much of the population
is bobbing around with just their heads above water, chatting, peeing and
god knows what else.
A very few Government officials have cars, Mohammed is one, he used to be a
ships agent until he realized that it would be much easier for everyone if
he was also Immigration and Customs for yachts. So Mohammed as agent ($30)
greets you when you arrive by yacht, advises you what is required and helps
you fill out a form, takes your requests for laundry, diesel, drinking water
etc, then takes away your passports to his house where Mohammed the
Immigration Officer issues shore passes ($30 each) Mohammed the Customs
approves your manifest, ($30) Mohammed the Finance Officer changes your
money, Mohamed the Port Officer charges you Harbour dues ($20) and finally
Mohammed the tourism officer (in lieu of the official tourist clown) issues
you a cruising permit and takes you on a tour of the museum. All of which
costs about US$350 in advance. Which would be annoying except that a. there
is no alternative; b. its done with such easy grace; c. its done so
efficiently that within one day we were talking about 'Mohammed time' (ie on
the dot, or usually a bit before).
We asked Luc and Constance on Oddhin on Intrepid for sundowners, which
lasted a good time then went into the sophisticated restaurant on the
waterfront for dinner. Jill, Nicky and Constance do wonders at looking nice
when they go out, especially when the first hazard is getting out of a
dinghy bouncing up and down on broken bottles in sewage like water at the
entrance to the restaurant. We were about the only party able to afford the
chicken, salad and beans, but there were electric lights, some Arabic music,
the moon shone down and we had a good time - until I was charged 75000 Dinar
(US400) for the meal. Now the chicken was OK but this seemed a bit steep, so
over the next 30 minutes we dissected Sudanese money pretty thoroughly. The
Sudanese Government has just invented the Sudanese pound (2=US$1), and 100
Dinar make 1 Sudanese pound. But everyone seems to add a nought to the Dinar
figure so our bill eventually was settled at 65 Sudanese pounds or $33.
Late in the evening a 40 foot catamaran anchored, and next morning I went to
say Hello. They had not spoken to their families for 2 weeks, so I lent them
our satellite phone, explained the ins and outs of Suakin and since they
were in a hurry, they moved on. Luc later told me he was Philippe Jeantot,
winner of the Vendee Globe and lots of other major long distance sailing
races. Pleasant unassuming guy.
Mathew is one of about 10% Christians in Sudan (Orthodox, Coptic and RC) he
comes from the South inland from Ethiopia, and his face shows a more
'African' than 'Arabic' heritage. He came north to try to get a better
future but his only work is cleaning customs boats for S Pounds 100
($50/month). His wife is in Port Sudan with his 5 children and he is hoping
to move back to the fertile land he came from. He said that Christians are
tolerated but the nearest Church is in Port Sudan.
Next day we went round the market to provision - it was surprisingly well
stocked with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, eggs, aubergines etc and even the
meat market looked clean. The only hint of trouble came when I spotted some
ancient British army field guns outside a dilapidated fort. I started to
take a photo, but some people inside gestured no, so I put the camera away -
when an officious squirt came out and demanded my camera. I refused (he
wanted to destroy any pictures). Eventually he was persuaded by his
colleagues who I hope were embarrassed by him, to give up.
Awad is a nurse at a clinic and we crammed 5 into a tuc tuc (3 wheeler) taxi
to see it. It was surprisingly well stocked, with 10 male and 10 female
beds, a laboratory and a doctor, all there at 8pm when we visited. The
Doctor and pharmacist/lab technician were trained in Khartoum. The Doctor
said that he did minor surgery such as Caesareans, Vasectomies etc, and the
pharmacist showed me his stock of antibiotics, mostly made in India or
China. They cannot afford western medicines but some Chinese remedies eg for
Malaria they say are very effective and 1% of the price. The clinic is
funded by rich Nubians who live in the north of Sudan, and when we first met
Awad he was returning from vaccinating children and giving some vitamins so
there is community medicine as well. .
We went to Awad's house where Asha his wife greeted us with a coffee
ceremony much the same as Eritrea. Awad shares his 'house' of wooden stakes
covered with corrugated iron for a roof and material for the walls with his
brother and mother and his 5 children. We were given a tour by lamplight
(there is no electricity) and there seemed to be a child sleeping in every
corner, the lack of firm walls being an advantage to allow the cool night
air to flow in.
We crammed 5 in a tuc tuc to get back to the harbour with curtains down, to
evade the curfew and rules on only 4 in a tuc tuc. Next day Mohammed took us
to the museum, (we had to stop at a road block to have our papers checked).
The museum was lovingly put together complete with an embryo tourist
village about 7 years ago when Suakin fondly dreamt about having a tourist
trade. The only tourists now are about 100 yachts who call in between
January and May, and most stay just a day. I asked Mohammed about elections.
He assured me that the President wants to retire in 2 years, so there would
be elections in 2009. We'll see. I couldn't get anyone to say anything about
Dharfur, beyond the fact that the region is rich in oil and minerals, so
that may be why there is violence and genocide.
Next day we went round the part of the market where people from the hills
come to sell their goods and produce. Compared to the Suakin part of the
market this was distinctly more edgy, one man came up to Nicky and Jill and
started pushing them away. Interesting place. We weren't allowed to go to
Khartoum and anyway its 1000 kms; and while we were assured that in Port
Sudan you could buy anything, we didn't need anything, so departed Suakin
for some of the blissful anchorages up the coast.
We had arrived in Suakin via the inshore channel, a winding route often only
¼ mile offshore through the reefs that fringe the shore. On leaving, we
sailed NE to get round the offshore reefs 10 miles offshore and then as the
wind died, motored north to Marsa Inkifail, a delightful inlet where the sea
has broken the natural dykes and flooded a small area behind, producing a
wonderfully sheltered anchorage. The Red Sea is 500-1000 metres deep here,
rising within a few boat lengths to 30 metres. With snorkelling on the reef
that was extravagant in fish and coral. I saw some of the biggest grouper I
have ever seen here, plus huge multi hued parrot fish, and on the way in we
caught and released a 3 Kg jack, (because of the risk of ciguatera
The principle of weather windows is a good one: sail when the wind is
favourable, don't when its not. But given the distances and the need to get
to reef entrances well before dark, this means being in a state of perpetual
alert, ready at 5.30 am to sail if the wind is fair. I am afraid that after
a convivial evening, we were not, so although the wind turned south, we
decided to stay on the 2 days we had planned in Inkifail and take our chance
on the wind tomorrow. We are miles from anywhere, we haven't even seen a
camel, the hills are yellow dust covered, the land more desert than anything
else, just dust and dry wadhis, and the very isolation is appealing. 2
fishing boats begged for gasoline, (we gave them 3 litres each, all we could
Marsa Shinab is supposed to be the most beautiful anchorage along the coast.
Having lost by various means 4 previous fish, I caught a 4 Kg Wahoo at the
entrance, and we anchored 3 miles inside this very protected inlet. A
French school boat with 3 teachers and 7 children was there. They sail from
a private school in Marseille every October to Yemen, returning with 7
different children in June - terrific idea but their Gibsea 44 was old and
vulnerable - no electronic charts, no radar, no weather forecasts, engine
keeps breaking, their outboard was broken. However the kids seemed to love
it especially wading in the knee deep mud to shore. To our surprise, there
is a lot of earthmoving construction going on - 20 or so dump trucks, and
security of the nastier kind, who made the French wade and paddle back to
get all papers passports etc. even though the security had no ID at all.
There are some perceived wisdoms about sailing in the Red Sea:
1. Going north, sail early, get into the Red Sea by February at the
latest, and go as fast as you can north.
2. Eritrea is a sad country, avoid it.
3. Motor if your speed drops below 4-5 knots; motor sail if necessary
4. Go in convoys to avoid pirates through anywhere risky
5. You will get winds from the north all the time.
We found all these to be, in our experience false. The winds early in the
year are strong southerlies in the south of the Red Sea, and strong
northerlies in the north - very strong which many yachts describe as
harrowing. In April/May, the winds are more variable and lighter, often from
the east especially the pronounced sea breeze. By going up the Red Sea in
May you have much more time to see the South Asia. Eritrea is a gorgeous
hopeful country. Sailing is fun, whereas motoring all the time and
especially motor sailing is as good a recipe for stress and engine failure
as I know - and many boats seem to suffer engine failure here. Intrepid
may - but not for want of trying. And finally those in convoy say that
sailing at night without lights and having to keep a 5+ knot speed up
irrespective of the wind was far more stressful that the threat of pirates.
Sudan is so big and so complex, and given that it is all but impossible to
get a tourist visa, or travel as a tourist, so impenetrable that its wrong
to say too much. However it clearly has the potential of oil and water, and
strategic size and location. It can be a haven for terrorists , a resource
for China, or a force for good in undeveloped Africa. The events in Dharfur
are not encouraging, nor are the restrictions on travel, but the people are
generally friendly and would welcome new opportunities. To some extent the
West will determine which way Sudan develops.
Andy Nicky Chris and Jill, the crew of Intrepid.
PS Thank you to all who ordered copies of Get that Job! The books have been
ordered from the publisher and will be delivered to you as soon as
practical. Since I am not in UK until 20th June, if you want a signed copy
that means it will not be until early July. If you want it earlier than that
my sister has kindly offered to send them out, and I will sign them when I
see you personally. Let me know if you prefer delivery in July signed;
otherwise it will be delivery asap. The price will be 8.99 UK pounds
including postage, send cheques to me c/o 13 Hazelbury Close London SW19 3JL.