Crossing Sudan – From Juba to Khartoum on a Cargo Ship

The Arabian Spring was still enflaming Egypt and I had just left a temporary job in Cape Town. I am a journalist, so I started roaming Africa trying to grasp experiences and good stories.

And there I was, in the middle of my solo journey from Cape to Cairo in Africa’s youngest nation, South Sudan, which just declared its independence a couple of weeks before my arrival, ending a fifty-year long civil war. From Juba to Khartoum there were no coaches due to the rain which melted the primitive roads into an endless swamp, my only choice was boarding a cargo ship and sail the White Nile up to Kosti, 300 kilometres from Khartoum.

White Nile - South Sudan

There were no rooms, nor a beds. It was just the goods, the sailors and us, a bunch of more or less desperate travellers trying to reach the next destination. It also was a free ride, and I am not proud to say this side of the situation really appealed me.

After one week in Juba – an unbearable pit of sand and dust – I found a ship ready to sail in the right direction. I jumped in and started to make friends among the dozen or so Somali wannabe refugees, a few more coming from Darfur, some mysterious merchants and an Eritrean guy who just assured me, with the few English words he knew, ‘my food is your food, my water is your water’. Truly, they were all extremely kind and helpful, they had almost nothing but they were ready to share it with me, well knowing I was but a spoiled brat from Italy.

Juba - South Sudan

Two days passed before we arrived at the first village, two days under scorching sun and merciless rain, bitten by the warlords of all mosquitos and surprisingly avoiding malaria. Two days eating dry biscuits and bananas, exchanging a few words in Arabic with the Darfurians and teaching some Italian to the Somali guy – Mohammed, as most of them were called – who wanted to arrive in Italy and start a business. ‘I’m a business man!’, he proudly told me, and showed me the papers stating it, not understanding why coming it from a 19-year old boy who owns nothing more than what he carries in his pockets should make me smile.

Two days and then we arrived in Bor, a small village sinking in the muddy river bank, a main road framed by a few restaurants and lodges hosted in tin huts, and some fields used for grain and cattles. My Somali friends and me took the chance to sleep in a proper bed – if that’s what you would call those in the local lodges – I paid beers and we chatted all night long, telling stories about blood, hate, love, revenge, forgiveness and fate.
The next day we went back to the ship but no one of the crew members were around. A fisherman told us police got them all in jail. The reason is still a mystery to me, but being that a Sudanese ship in a South Sudanese village, I made my guesses and let them at that.

Bor - South Sudan

We remained three more nights in Bor until another vessel arrived. That lucky day Deha, Mohammed’s sister – another Mohammed, not the same one as before – woke me up early in the afternoon and hurried me to the harbour. I took my luggage on the new ship and waited for it to start, exchanging hugs and smiles with the rest of my desperado gang. But the ship didn’t move. Crew members told us it would leave next morning. Not knowing when we would have the chance to sleep again in a bed, I moved back to the lodgings with a few others and got us some rooms.
Five o’clock in the morning, my friend Mohammed – a third one – shouted in my ears ‘they left, they sailed in the middle of the night!. And damn, he was right to shout, ’cause they left with all my belongings but my money and papers.

Then someone smiled on us from above, and a third ship arrived on the same evening. A faster one: in two days we caught up with the others, who joined us at the next port and brought me my backpack. I stroke it and felt it warm and dry. Since the night before was raining, I asked how they kept it dry, and someone whispered in my ears ‘Khazim covered it with his clothes’.

White Nile - South Sudan

Khazim is the most amazing guy on one leg I have ever met. A machine gun got his left leg in Somalia and yet he would never complain or answer without a smile. From then on he became my close companion and it broke my heart when he told me about his dreams, his desire to go to school in Italy, find a job, get back to Somalia and buy a home… Cowardly, I had not the guts to tell him that once in Italy the only thing he would find was a slum-like ghetto for clandestines and refugees.

Closer to Sudan, the police raids started. They boarded the ship almost every night and woke us up with flashlights, then asked for our papers and extorted money before giving them back. ‘A contribution for the revolution’, they called it.

White Nile - South Sudan

Ten more days passed after leaving Bor. The kindness of my travel companions was the only thing to cheer me up, I was tired, constantly hungry and thirsty, a never ending buffet for mosquitos no matter how much repellent I used. I was in desperate need for a shower and I needed to feel safe again.

When we arrived in Kosti, I felt like entering a new world. Not only was I at the end of the toughest leg of my African adventure, I was also entering for the first time Arabic Africa. I felt proud, and excited. I felt incredibly alive. I also felt sad for parting from my Somali people.

Deha caught my glance, ran towards me and squeezed a bag of bread and tuna cans in my hands. Then she smiled at me, and reached his brother on the way towards the bus station.

5 thoughts on “Crossing Sudan – From Juba to Khartoum on a Cargo Ship”

  1. Pingback: Blue Marble Times | Crossing Sudan – From Juba to Khartoum on a Cargo Ship
  2. I did this trip, Juba to Kosti, in 1973. It took nine days, and we got stuck in a papyrus swamp around the fifth day. How long did your trip take?

  3. I traveled from Juba to Kosti in 1976. It was supposed to take 6 days but with numerous strandings and engine problems took about 17. There were 4 mazunga (white men) 2 Rhodesians, a Canadian and myself (Scottish) and about 1600 Sudanese passengers. We, the white men (boys really) lived in a delightful structure on the roof of the 1930’s paddle steamer,a teak framed gazebo with much-perforated mosquito netting and with a ramshackle assortment of loungers, “bombay fornicators”, on which we slept. Highlights were endless elephant herds in he papyrus swamps (I gave up counting after reaching 600 in about 3 hours), the horrid sight of one unfortunate passenger who fell overboard at night being consumed by a crocodile whilst illuminated by the glare of a the carbon-arc searchlight, naked nuer tribesmen hurling spears at the steamer apparently for fun, refueling the steamer by means of bucket gangs of naked men from a bunker barge. I was offered a leopard skin for 2 sudanese pounds in Bor, befriended a northern sudanese army conscript who shared his excellent bango (grass), showed my arrow and spear wounds and told me hair raising stories of the civil war.

    Now I believe the steamers no longer run, everybody is dressed in cast of western clothes, the elephants are extinct, there is Big Oil and Chinese interests, the warfare involves AK47’s and helicopter gunships rather than arrows and Lee-Enfields……..

    Sad times we live in.

  4. I did it in 1983. I recall there was a one eyed man who looked after the cafe at the rear of the boat. I had my Walkman with me and used to play it to them. They loved the electronic music of Yazoo. And Living on the Ceiling by Blanmange … It was almost surreal.
    Didn’t the boat catch fire and sink around the 1980s?

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