South Sudan – Untamed Africa


My trip to the South Sudan was a great reminder that the wild parts of Africa still exist. There are no buses full of fat American women here. No groups of college girls with large backbacks or frat boys coming to see elephants and drink cheap booze.

The South Sudan is the newest country on the planet. It was formed in 2011 when it split from the Sudan. The peace was not destined to last. In 2013 the country was once again torn a part by war. The vice president insisted he was the real leader. He commanded a strong following of “rebels” and the civil war began. This served the dual purpose of plunging the country into violence and keeping 99.99% of tourists out of the country.

The country is currently listed as a level 4 country. This means “DO NOT TRAVEL.” It’s probably not bad advice, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity.

I contacted a travel guide named Mayom. He’s a brilliant, educated and enthusiastic guide, based in Juba. He was also one of the lost boys of the Sudan. He has seen more of the real world than almost anyone on the planet.

I traveled to Juba and was picked up by Mayom at the airport. I then got into a 1994 Land Cruiser and was off to the cattle camps with a driver and my other guide, Biar. It took 4 hours to get to the cattle camp. I did have a run in with the patrol at one of the checkpoints. They insisted that I had taken a picture illegally and threatened to detain me. Luckily my guides sorted that out. We got into the cattle camp at 10 and had dinner at 11PM.

I attempted to sleep, but that didn’t really work out. Goats from the camp decided to scream all night long. A screaming goat sounds like a child that is being murdered. It’s also rather hot (probably has something to do with being in an arid land on the equator). I slept for one hour.

In the morning we got up at 6 and started to explore the camps. I’ve been to 72 countries and this was by far the most alien and exotic experience I have EVER had. It was completely surreal. Imagine an arid scrubland, with 1000 cows and goats, fires burning every 100 feet or so. The fires are comprised almost exclusively of cow dung. The smell is overpowering. At first there are only a few Mundari. The unlucky members that were tasked with guarding the cows the previous night. They emerge from next to the fires and greet me. They smoke bowls of pungent tobacco, but the overwhelming smell is of the burning cow dung.

The gorgeous African sun rises in the sky as roosters grow and the cows begin to say good morning to each other. I run around snapping hundreds of pictures. I could have taken 10,000 pictures and I could NEVER capture the beauty of the scene laid out before me. The fires burning in the early morning darkness and the horns of the huge cows will forever be imprinted in my memory. The temperature would reach over 100 degrees by noon. It’s surely one of the least hospitable places on earth.

The cows are skinny and the people even skinnier. Tough places breed tough people. I comment to my Mundari translator that these people are remarkably resilient. He responds that in this environment the weakest don’t last long, and that everyone I see before me is extremely hard. There is no place for soft people in the cattle camps of the South Sudan.

Around 10AM we had back for breakfast. My driver has a propane stove in the back of the old land cruiser. He cooks up some flour with eggs and onions in the middle of it. He calls it a Rolex. We eat the food and head back into the camp. By this time the temperature is approaching 100. I cover myself in sunscreen and bug spray, popping a malaria pill into my mouth. Almost all of the Mundari have had Malaria a dozen times during their lives. I ask if they are afraid of it, they shrug it off and say it’s just a part of Africa.

We begin a more in depth dive into the camps. We walk around for hours. The adult men wrap cloths around themselves like robes. Almost everyone under 10 is naked, with a few of them wearing dirty shirts. Most of the women are wearing shirts, but many are nude as well. To protect themselves from the sun they cover themselves in the dried cow dung from the fires the night before. The result is dozens of nude boys that look extremely ashy. It further serves to remind me that I’m essentially on a different planet.

The women are busy getting ready for a wedding later in that day. In a Mundari wedding the men present cows as a dowry for their bride. A special bride might get 500 cows. The one this afternoon was getting over 50 massive cows. The women were largely separated from the men. They went about getting ready for the wedding. The men made coffee and smoked Hookahs in the hot sun. We retired back to our little camp near the truck.

The young boys were keen to show off for me. They had crude bows and arrows, but were highly skilled with them. The day before they managed to kill a 7 foot cobra. A 6 year old Mundari boy put a steel arrow right through it’s head. Their primary form of entertainment is shooting small animals with the bows, and wrestling each other. The Mundari are famous for wrestling. The young boys are remarkably tough. The slam each other around in a way that would have American mothers screaming bloody murder. They slam each other into the ground, smiling the whole time. If they are every hurt they don’t show it. No room for weakness.

One of the young boys informs my translator that he wants to wrestle me. I’m 200 pounds and he is maybe 40. I pick him up and toss him in the air, then lower him back down. He grins and we “pound it” with a fist bump. He is thrilled to have gotten to be thrown around. Two of the boys killed some rats. My cook jokingly says he will cook the rats. The young boys don’t get the joking aspect of it, so they slap the rats down on his clean cutting board. My cook has to chase them off.

The original plan was to spend another night in the camp. At that point I had slept for 7 hours in the past 5 days. Informed my guides that I wouldn’t make it another night without becoming ill. I’m not built like they are. I’m a product of a softer place and it shows. We head back to Juba. The hotel in Juba is shockingly nice. A giant Christmas tree fills the marble lobby. I have goat for dinner.

In the morning we get up and tour Juba. We first go to the local market. There they have grains, spices and meat. Most places I have been (such as Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) have open outdoor markets for the meat. In Juba the building had no ventilation and the smell was overwhelming. We proceeded to the presidential palace. One year prior there was a fierce gun battle outside the gates. The walls on both sides of the street were peppered with holes from the AK47 rounds. Many people had died on those streets. We then went to a local crafts market where I purchased a few items to bring back home.

Finally it was time to fly back to Uganda. I’ll forever be grateful for the experience. When I’m an old man I doubt that much of this Africa will exist. It’s likely that the fires of the Mundari camps will have gone out decades ago. I hope not. It’s an incredible experience to walk through an African cattle camp in the early hours of the morning. The air is filled with burning cow dung, cows with unimaginably large horns are everywhere on the horizon. South Sudan is Africa in it’s most untouched and authentic form.

South Sudan is an another world from the one we live in, and even another world from the rest of Africa. It’s a world I’m blessed to have seen.

Categories: Uncategorized

3 comments

  1. Incredible experience. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Thank you very much for sharing such and awesome story. I can almost picture it just by what you wrote.

    Like

  3. Great wired up. I can vividly visualize everything from reading this and the few photos I saw. Thanks

    Like

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