South Sudan: The wildest frontier

The world’s newest country has a wealth of wonders – from remote mountains to the Nile. It just takes a bit of effort and flexibility, says Celia Topping

Standing exultantly on the summit of Mount Kinyeti, our small band of explorers boisterously congratulated each other. At a mere 3,187m, we were barely half as high as the brave summiteers of Kilimanjaro. However, it wasn’t the height of Kinyeti that was cause for celebration, but its location. We were at the highest point in the Imatong Range, in Eastern Equatoria – the wonderfully named region of South Sudan along the upper reaches of the White Nile. And we were the first commercial expedition team to climb the highest mountain in the newest country in the world.

Our trip, run earlier this year by the expedition company Secret Compass, was not without its risks. South Sudan, created on 9 July 2011, is a country born out of years of conflict and civil war and it remains an unpredictable place.

Happily, the leader of our 10-strong team, Tom Bodkin, is an ex-paratrooper. He and his partner, Lev Wood, take small groups into some of the most unexplored regions in the world. “We wanted to show that this remote area, which before had been thought of as inaccessible and dangerous, can actually be enjoyed if done responsibly,” said Tom.

At the top of Kinyeti, he pulled a bottle of champagne out of his rucksack and shared it around our battered metal camping mugs to hearty approval. However, just as we’d had the chance to catch our breath, we heard the familiar crackling of burning bushes and the pungent odour of wood smoke. Donato, self-proclaimed “Landlord of the Mountain” and our local guide, had set fire to vegetation on the mountainside, cutting short our jubilation and obscuring the fantastic panoramic view across the Imatongs with thick, eye-watering smoke. Ignoring our protestations, he shrugged and lit his cigarette from a nearby flaming branch.

Clearing the ground like this is a common hunting method used to encourage new grass growth and coax bushbuck out into the open. But I had an inkling that this time it was the result of a little braggadocio, proving to everyone for miles around that he really was the “landlord”, despite the fact that his blue overalls said “water pump mechanic” across the back.

Our journey had started five days previously in the world’s newest national capital, Juba. Since independence from the north was declared, Juba has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Its infrastructure is struggling to maintain such growth; ministries and embassies are housed in crude, corrugated shacks, and there are just a handful of paved roads. A layer of litter and dust covers every surface. Yet having been just released from centuries of persecution and brutality, it is also a city full of hope and excitement.

We spent just a night here at a place called “Bedouin Camp”, where the accommodation consists of converted shipping containers: a quirky yet necessarily cheap and simple solution for the sort of swiftly constructed accommodation that seems prevalent all over the city.

Our objectives in South Sudan were twofold: to climb the nation’s highest mountain, and to raft one of the most untouched sections of the Nile. This is the stretch from Nimule National Park, near the southern border with Uganda, back to Juba.

The following day, we headed south-east in a rugged converted ex-RAF vehicle through scrubby brown wasteland and several mud-hut villages. Some of these, we were told, used to belong to sympathisers of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. The SPLA was the military wing of the rebel political movement founded by John Garang in 1983, which fought against the Sudanese government.

A bitter second civil war (the first, known as the Anyanya Rebellion had lasted from 1955 to 1972) for autonomy for the south lasted 22 years. A treaty signed in 2005 provided for a referendum for the south’s secession; 98 per cent of the electorate voted in favour.

Not surprisingly, after two civil wars, the roads are terrible. The 150km to Torit took us more than three hours to complete. At a roadside stop on the way, we were warned not to stray far from the road, as mines still abound. Secret Compass carries out extensive risk assessment before each trip. “It takes a considerable time for a country to recover after conflict and around 10 to 15 years for the general public to deem it ‘safe’,” said Tom.

On arrival in Torit, we ventured into the colourful, haphazard Lomoliha market. Rows of women sat behind small piles of beans, greens and cassava. Others had stalls selling bright kangas (long African sarongs) or tables covered in mountains of dried fish. An immense number of motorbikes buzzed around: after the referendum, young men were persuaded to trade in their Kalashnikovs for a motorbike, so now many make a living by using them as a boda-boda or taxi.

South of Torit, the landscape becomes more verdant. Three hours later we reached Katire in the foothills of the Imatong mountains, where our trek was due to start. We were greeted enthusiastically by our two local guides, James and Donato, from the Lotoko tribe, then pitched camp and ate dinner before the African night-time noises of chirruping crickets and frogs took over.

In the morning, just after sunrise, we packed our rucksacks carefully; for the next four days we would be carrying everything we need on our backs. The trail began steeply and didn’t relent for the next seven hours. Curiously, the hunting trails we were on didn’t follow the natural contours of the land, but were aligned straight across ridge lines, meaning our progress was at times frustrating as we ascended dozens of metres, only to descend again on the other side.

At about four in the afternoon, Tom stopped: we’d reached our campsite. I looked around in disbelief – there were trees and thorny bushes everywhere. He grinned and handed me a machete. Twenty minutes later, sweaty and exhausted, I’d hacked out my own little space and felt very pleased with myself. The evening routine soon became familiar – and fun. After pitching camp, washing in the stream, fetching water, foraging for wood and building a fire, our troop sat around the fire, entertaining each other with stories of past adventures.

For the next two days we continued the steep ascent, hopping over rivers, crawling under fallen trees and sidestepping snares laid for bushbuck by local hunters. Finally, we emerged through the canopy and saw the rocky summit ahead. Bruised, battered and bitten we looked out over the jungle-covered mountains and on to the savannah of South Sudan beyond.

From the summit, we descended the way we’d come in a strenuous, knee-buckling day’s trek, then got back on the truck for the long bumpy ride to Nimule National Park.

The first person to raft the Nile from source to sea (in 2004, a mere 6,500km) was a South African named Pete Meredith. He is a river rafter and a man of immutable cool. And he was to be our mentor for the river section of the trip.

Once we’d arrived at Nimule, he asked if anyone fancied riding atop the truck to make the most of the African sunset. I leapt at the chance, and was soon bumping along, clinging on to the roof rack, and relishing every second as the pinky orange glow gave way to a black, star-studded sky.

The far-off glimmer of a campfire signalled that we’d reached our destination, just south of Fula Falls. I jumped down from my elevated position and met Reuben, Davey and Timmy, the raft guides who were to take us the 170km journey down the Nile back to Juba.

While Reuben and co pumped up the two rafts and loaded them with all our gear, Pete took us through the various scary situations that we might find ourselves in over the next few days. Hippos, crocodiles, fierce rapids, tsetse flies, scorpions and snakes were all to be part of our next few days of travel.

We were also told that we’d hit some grade-four rapids – and hit them we did. “Get down!” yelled Davey, and I threw myself into the bottom of the raft, clinging on as instructed to the safety rope, as a succession of immense waves pounded down on top of us. I gasped for breath as I felt the raft lurch dangerously. For a moment I was completely submerged, expecting the raft to tip over on top of me. Then, suddenly, we were upright again. This was my first experience of rafting in grade-four rapids on the White Nile. In at the deep end, indeed.

The first task when we stopped for the night was to ensure we didn’t pitch our tents on hippo access points to the river. Then Reuben, Davey and Timmy started chopping, mixing, roasting and grilling in an impressive, field-kitchen frenzy.

Dinner was served: flame-grilled steak, roasted and stuffed butternut squash and salad. After the dehydrated rations of the previous few days, it was a sumptuous feast.

Beyond, the Nile was mainly calm. We spotted hippos near the banks and watched monkeys leaping around in the overhanging mango trees. I asked Reuben, an experienced rafter living in Uganda, what he thought about this section of the Nile. “It’s wild here,” he told me. “It reminds me of Uganda 20 years ago.”

After four days, the jungle started to thin out and more buildings appeared on the banks. When we began to see a car here and there, we knew the expedition was over; we were back in semi-civilisation.

By bringing people to South Sudan and to other former conflict zones, Secret Compass hopes to empower the local community. With time and investment, this beautiful country may become as popular a destination as anywhere with such a wealth of natural wonders at its disposal.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Secret Compass (020-3239 8038; secretcompass.com) runs its next trip to South Sudan from 3-15 February 2013. The two-week group expedition costs £2,999 per person, including guesthouse and camping accommodation, all meals, 4x4 transport, local guides and drivers. Flights extra.

Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; kenya-airways.com) flies to Nairobi from Heathrow, with onward connections to Juba.

More information

The Foreign Office advises against all travel to within 40km of South Sudan’s northern border with Sudan. “The situation is liable to change quickly and has been exacerbated by cross-border actions by both states and contested border demarcation.”

It also warns, for the country  as a whole, “banditry and crime are a growing problem”, with “widespread ownership of small arms across the population”.

It advises: “Maintain several days’ stock of food and water and maintain a back-up means of communication such as a satellite telephone. The security situation can change quickly, impacting on the borders and supplies of goods.” In addition: “All photography in South Sudan requires a formal photographic permit from the government.” Consult the UK embassy in Juba (00 211 95 558 4193; fco.gov.uk).

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