The EA guide to Sudan holidays
There’s year-round scuba diving in the Red Sea, but operators tend to close during July and August when temperatures of up to 50C make things unbearable. During this time Khartoum is a little cooler but more humid, and can receive rain. If you’re travelling during the winter remember that nights can get cold, so pack accordingly. Check the dates for Ramadan (they change each year), as lots of things are closed or have restricted opening hours during this month. And remember that because Sudan is an Islamic country, the weekend here is Friday and Saturday. Expect reduced opening hours and transport links at this time.
Sudanese food is excellent, with influences from various cuisines, including Egyptian, Ethiopian and Turkish. But you can’t enjoy a crisp white wine with your evening meal – Sudan is officially alcohol-free.
Legs and arms should also be covered up in this strict Islamic culture, but thin, breathable fabrics are a must in this hot climate. It’s not compulsory, but female travellers might also like to wear a headscarf.
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The best time to visit Sudan
Sudan is hot and dry, ranking as one of the hottest countries in the world. The best time to visit is December through to February when temperatures drop down to 30 degrees and nights can be around 15 degrees.
Regardless of when you visit, always plan your activities around early morning and late afternoon. Use the heat of the day to simply relax in the shade or air conditioning if you have it!
Wildlife in Sudan
Sudan is certainly not well known for its diversity of flora and fauna.
There are some 287 species of mammals recorded and 207 birds. Parts of the country are home to the Nubian giraffe, Sudan cheetah, Nile Lechwe (pictured), maneless zebra, spotted hyena and even elephant. Of course you’ll see camels everywhere! In terms of flora, you’ll see acacia, desert shrub, short grasses in the northern desert and the grasslands of the west. There are woodland and forest regions in the southwest while date palms line the banks of the Nile. There’s a healthy marine life in the coastal waters of the Red Sea.
There’s a place in Sudan where more than 200 pyramids rise from the sandy dunes of the Nubian Desert . It’s one of the most incredible sights in eastern Africa. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the ancient city of Meroë, roughly 250 kilometres northeast of Khartoum near the banks of the River Nile. Egypt’s iconic ancient pyramids are 2,000 years older and infinitely more famous. But with fame and popularity come crowds. The Meroë pyramids, on the other hand, are practically unknown. You can wander the desert and not see a sign, a ticket office, a barrier – or even another tourist. t’s just you, the desert and 5,000 year-old stone structures steeped in fascinating history.
These are Nubian pyramids. Constructed out of large blocks of sandstone, they look quite different from their Egyptian counterparts: they’re smaller (ranging from six metres to 30 metres high), with much steeper sides. Just like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, however, they were built as elaborate royal mausoleums for ancient kings and queens; in this case the royalty of the Kingdom of Kush, which ruled Nubia for centuries.
The pyramids in this ancient royal cemetery are in various states of repair. Over many years they’ve been plundered – and damaged – by tomb raiders seeking treasure. Most notorious of all was an Italian treasure hunter and doctor by the name of Giuseppe Ferlini, who blew up more than 40 tombs looking for valuables in the 1830s. While many of Meroë’s pyramids still stand, some are ‘decapitated’ thanks to Ferlini. Thankfully, there’s still some great stuff to see inside, too. Enter the antechambers of some tombs and you’ll find well-preserved decorative elements, including hieroglyphics and carvings.
The Meroë Pyramids are well off the beaten track, but you can visit them by yourself – from Khartoum a self-drive trip would take about four hours, or you can join an organised outing with a local tour operator.
In a large Islamic cemetery in the city of Omdurman, you’ll find the the tomb of a 19th-century Sufi leader, Sheikh Hamad-al Nil. Every Friday afternoon, you can watch an incredible spectacle here. At around 4.30pm (5pm in winter), whirling dervishes belonging to the Sufi community gather to dance and pray. Wearing long robes in red, green and white, accompanied by cymbals and drums, they chant and spin as part of a sacred ritual called dhikr. They whirl around the tomb, whipping themselves up into a spiritual ecstasy – some enter a trance state – that supposedly lets their hearts communicate directly with God. Colourful and laid-back, this is a don’t-miss experience that foreigners are welcome to attend – and photograph.
About 480 kilometres from Khartoum, the Taka Mountains rise majestically over the city of Kassala in eastern Sudan. Dating back to the 16th century, Kassala is a famous holiday destination of the Sudanese, particularly honeymooners, and is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
The massive rocks and granite peaks of the Taka Mountains, which rise more than 485 metres above sea level, have led to it being nicknamed the ‘Yosemite of Africa’ by some. It’s the ideal place for taking short treks and scrambles, and watching the sun set across the Sudanese plains. Climb to the top and you’ll be treated to a magnificent view overlooking the city, the desert and beyond to the mountains in Eritrea.
At the southern edge of the Taka Mountains, located at the base of the rock faces, lies the village of Toteil. It’s famous for its colourful and quirky cafes built on top of massive boulders, vibrant atmosphere and excellent coffee served with a side of popcorn. Not far from the cafe, in a delightful setting at the base of the mountains, is the Khatmiyah Mosque. Non-Muslims are welcome to take a look around this building believed to have been built on soil brought from Mecca, and featuring a pointed octagonal minaret. Make sure you do: it’s stunning.
Jebel Barkal is a 98-metre-tall sandstone monolith in Sudan’s Northern State. It’s located within walking distance of the town of Karima, about 400 kilometres north of Khartoum. Considered sacred ground thousands of years ago, Egyptian pharaohs and later Kush rulers oversaw the construction of pyramids and temples here, many of which are still standing. Today, about a dozen well-preserved pyramids are scattered around the base of the mountain, as are the ruins of statues, hieroglyphics and temples.
One of the largest is the Temple of Amun, dedicated to the god Amun (both the Egyptians and the Kushites believed that the mountain was home to the god Amun), and the Temple of Mut, dedicated to Amun’s wife, the Egyptian sky goddess Mut. You can take a 20-minute hike to the top of the mountain for a great view of the site and the city of Karima. There’s also a small museum near the Temple of Amun that’s worth checking out.
Scuba diving in Sudan
Think of Sudan and you probably think of sandy deserts, but there’s actually some incredible diving on the country’s Red Sea coast, at sites that are uncrowded and pristine. Here, you can swim among vibrant coral gardens and schools of colourful reef fish, as well as manta rays, dolphins, sharks, humpback and pilot whales, turtles.
One of Sudan’s best-known dive sites is Sha’ab Rumi Reef, famous for its hammerhead sharks. It’s also the site of one of the most intriguing projects ever carried out under the sea. In 1963, the pioneer of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, carried out an experiment in underwater living called ‘Conshelf II’ (made famous in his award-winning film, World Without Sun). Today, the airtight dome of the submarine garage remains and is a bit of a Holy Grail for modern divers. You can also dive with hammerheads – as well as grey reef sharks and loads of other different types of sharks and reef fish – at the Sanganeb Atoll Marine National Park and Angarosh Reef, about 12 kilometres east of Mukawwar Island.
There’s also a couple of seriously incredible wrecks in the waters off Sudan. Who knew? There’s the Blue Bell (a.k.a the ‘Toyota wreck’), a cargo ship that sank in 1977 with its load of cars, trucks, tractors and spare parts, and the incredible 0SS Umbria, a 500-foot-long freighter that was scuttled during World War II. This is considered one of the best wrecks in the world. It lies in fairly shallow waters just outside of Port Sudan, meaning there’s plenty of light, amazing visibility, and even snorkellers can get in on the action. The ship is still relatively intact, and you can easily enter the holds to view three classic Fiat Lagunas, hundreds of bottles of wine and, unbelievably, 360,000 individual aircraft bombs that were on board when the ship went down.
This famous souq in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum is the largest in all of Sudan. Its endless alleyways and side streets are lined with shops and stalls selling everything from spices, perfumes, clothes, fabrics and food to handicrafts and souvenirs from across Sudan. Buzzing with colour, energy, smells and sounds, Omdurman is said to be the heart of Sudan.
In addition to the souq, you can visit the Sufi Mausoleum and Imam Al-Mahdi tomb (pictured).
This is one of the most important archaeological heritage sites in Sudan. It’s testimony to one of its most important historic periods, the Meroitic era (300 BC to 350 AD). With a magnificent setting among low sandstone mountain ranges in Wadi es-Sufra, about 25km outside the Nile valley, its main attractions are the striking Temple of Apedemak, the Great Hafir (Sudan’s largest ancient water reservoir), and the labyrinthine building complex of the Great Enclosure. This maze of temples, rooms, corridors and courtyards, boasts intricate architectural decoration, including elephant and lion figures. Together with Naqa it’s part of the Island of Meroë, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
The city of Old Dongola, located in what is now Sudan’s Northern State, was founded in the fifth century as a fortress but later became the capital of a Christian kingdom. Its heyday was between the 7th and 14th centuries AD, when numerous churches were built here. Today, you can see the remains of a dozen churches, monasteries and a cathedral in this medieval city. Some of the beautiful frescos that were originally inside the churches can be seen in Khartoum’s National Museum. A few hundred metres from the main Christian sites at Old Dongola is a large Islamic cemetery containing numerous massive mud-brick qubbas, or Islamic domed shrines, that were erected in the 17th century. The sand-swept setting of this ancient city is sublime and, like so many places in Sudan, you’ll more than likely have the entire place to yourself.
Port Sudan fish market
Take a tuk tuk ride (they’re cheap and everywhere) to the famous fish market down by the Red Sea in Port Sudan. The men who work here are seriously skilled and you’ll be amazed at how quickly they can gut, scale and skin their catches. You’ll definitely want to bring your camera here. Don’t fancy buying some fresh fish? There’s a nearby restaurant if you work up the appetite for a fish supper.
A fantastic ancient site is Naqa, a ruined ancient city about 170 kilometres northeast of Khartoum. Here you’ll find a large and well-preserved temple of Amun and a glorious Lion Temple, dedicated to the lion-headed god Apedemak.
Both date from the 1st century CE. Together with Musawarat es-Suffra it’s part of the Island of Meroë, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
Not all local culture is found in ancient archaeological sites. Every Friday before dusk, people gather at the wrestling arena in Hajj Yousif in Khartoum, to watch a tradition that dates back for thousands of years. Once upon a time Nuba wrestling was practiced naked, but nowadays fighters wear t-shirts and shorts. It’s very famous, attracts hundreds of spectators and photography is permitted, so bring your camera. Just like every visitor to Australia should attend an Aussie Rules match, every visitor to Sudan should attend a Nuba wrestling match.
(Image courtesy of Khartoum Star)
I’d love to chat about Sudan
Also check out a wonderful solo female traveller’s diaries of Sudan from a few years ago. It’s a really wonderful insight into Sudan and why we think it’s worth visiting. Click to see the blog