Witnessing the birth of a nation in South Sudan
Civil war and military coups have had a devastating effect on the people of Sudan, yet these children in a displaced persons camp are still smiling. (Damien Simonis/LPI)
The votes have been cast, the name of the nation decided upon, a national anthem composed (via an X Factor-style competition no less), a flag designed and on 9 July 2011, South Sudan will officially come into being.
The road to independence for the world's newest nation has been long and hard. Sudan, Africa's largest country, is an ethnic jigsaw comprising hundreds of tribes and languages. Broadly, these can be divided into a black African south and an Arab Islamic north. Southerners have always complained of discrimination at the hands of northerners and it was partly due to this discrimination that for 40 of the past 50 years, Sudan has been at war with itself; a war that left around two million dead. But with the hammering out of a peace agreement, the people of South Sudan went to the polls for a referendum on whether the country should stay whole or split in two. In January this year, they voted overwhelmingly for independence from northern Sudan.
It is not every day that a new country is born. So if you want to head to South Sudan for the celebrations, Juba, the capital of the new country and centre of the independence celebrations, will be the place to be. However, we must stress that travel to Sudan can be a dangerous affair, so any visitor needs to be fully prepared and keep up with the latest travel advisories.
How to get there
Unsurprisingly, visiting South Sudan is not that straightforward. To start with, a standard Sudanese visa is currently required for anyone visiting either northern or southern Sudan, and these are not easy to get (use a local tour operator to help you). However, if you are travelling from Uganda or Kenya, straight to South Sudan (and only South Sudan), then you only need a GoSS (Government of South Sudan) permit. These are issued without fuss in Nairobi and Kampala. Once paperwork is sorted, you can fly to Juba from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Khartoum, or you can be more adventurous and travel overland.
Buses now run daily from Kampala direct to Juba, although security issues are still a cause for concern on this route. Once in Juba, be prepared to shell out some serious cash for a bed for the night. Most people stay in one of the tent camps along the banks of the Nile, costing $200 to $300 a night. Fortunately a few budget hotels, charging around $50 to $60, are starting to open up.
Juba and beyond
As well as taking in the independence celebrations, make time to visit some of Juba's colourful markets and the grave of John Garang, the former leader of the South Sudan independence movement.
After 9 July, if you are not suffering from a post-party hangover, you could try venturing into one of travel's final frontiers - the South Sudan hinterland. But be warned, travel here is unbelievably tough and not at all safe. There is almost no infrastructure, roads and public transport are basically non-existent, accommodation is a wishful dream and the security situation is highly unstable. The most obvious route through South Sudan is to follow the Nile northward toward Kosti and the border of north Sudan. Currently only cargo boats sail the Nile, but with the journey taking around two to three weeks, all foreigners tend to fly.
Tourism in the future
In years to come, the big attraction of South Sudan might be the wildlife of the vast, and almost completely unknown, swampy region known as the Sudd. In 2007, scientists were left dumbfounded when they discovered that this forgotten wilderness contained herds of white-eared kob, Tiang antelope and Mongalla gazelle over a million strong. In addition, it is thought that around 8,000 elephants call this area home, as well as vast numbers of buffalo, ostrich, lion and other African classics. For the moment though, unless you happen to have a helicopter in your backpack, you will just have to dream about seeing this wildlife spectacle.
Visiting South Sudan will not be for everyone but for travellers in search of genuine adventure, 9 July will be an unmissable day in the travel calendar.
Stuart Butler is co-author of Lonely Planet's most recent Africa guide