TOURISM

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- From Meroitic pyramids and snorkelling in the Red Sea to Sufi dervishes and the Nubian Desert, Sudan has a good deal to offer visitors with a taste for adventure -

While not as large as the great pyramids of Giza of Egypt, the pyramids of Meroe are testament to a once great kingdom. Just south of the border with Egypt, the pyramids, temples and palaces are the remnants of a royal city of the Meroitic era which lasted nearly 1,000 years to 350AD. The Egyptian influence is evident, but the isolation of Meroe's people allowed the development of their own individual script and distinguished art.

Excavations have revealed that these inhabitants also had a sophisticated iron industry before it was overrun by Christian Axumites from Ethiopia. Meroe is located 180km north of Khartoum and can be visited in a day. Much closer to the capital, and well worth the visit, is Omdurman. Here lies the silver-domed mosque and tomb of the Mahdi, who died in 1885. They were destroyed by Lord Kitchener after the battle of Omdurman in 1898 but rebuilt by the Mahdi's son in 1947.

Omdurman boasts the largest souk in Sudan and the tomb of the Mahdi

The largest souk in Sudan is in Omdurman, and a short distance north from that is a huge camel market, where camel trains lumber in from the desert. Visitors to the city may be fortunate enough to witness a display of frenetic dancing by Sufi whirling dervishes. Port Sudan on the Red Sea is 1,200km and a tough and dusty drive away from Khartoum, and, although it is not a particularly attractive town, there are good beaches nearby and the Red Sea is excellent for snorkelling and diving. Some 60km up the coast is the small island of Suakin.

Once a major trading centre, particularly for slaves in the 19th century, it was eclipsed by Port Sudan and its faded beauty lingers on in the many buildings made of coral. To visit the key sites across the one million square miles of Sudan would take several weeks and require a strong constitution and a good deal of stamina. The Nubian Desert, which stretches from the east bank of the Nile all the way to the Red Sea, is best experienced in a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Another splendid opportunity for the adventurous is a trip to the Nuba Mountains, which lie 600km from Khartoum and are blessed with some of the most verdant landscapes in Sudan. Much has been written about the people of Nuba, famed for their athleticism and their custom of going naked. Few foreigners go there. Out in the western desert is one of the country's most arid cities, El Obeid, where temperatures hit 50C and water has to be transported in. Yet it is one of Sudan's largest towns, with a population of 140,000.

It is also the self-proclaimed gum arabic capital of the world. One of the most important sites in the desolate western region is El Fasher, a stopping place on the caravan route that once carried rich cloths, spices, ivory and slaves from all over Africa to Egypt. In the 18th century, El Fasher was the centre of the Fur Sultanate and his palace can still be visited. The easiest way for tourists to cover the vast distances of Sudan is to fly, although this will require some forward planning as flights are often booked solid.

Dongola, in northern Sudan, is accessible by air from Khartoum, but a pleasant alternative is to take a trip on a steamer up the Nile. It is the centre of a major date-growing area and a popular seasonal attraction is to watch young boys nimbly shin up the trees to cut down the fruit during the harvest. The lack of a fully-fledged tourism industry is, for some people, an advantage. They will be able to visit places in an unhurried way, without finding themselves caught up in a crocodile of tourists as they might in the world's better-known destinations.

Despite Sudan's recent history of civil war, the Sudanese are friendly people who are only too happy to meet visitors to their country. At first there may be a slight stiffness, but this usually melts away after an introductory cup of tea or coffee. In many areas, where hotels are lacking, the only accommodation is often in the homes of local families. Although Arabic is the national language of Sudan, there are more than 90 different tribes, many owing their origin to migration from Arab and African countries. These tribes have their own dialects, but English is widely spoken throughout the country.