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Big Sur - Hiking Andrew Molera State Park

One of the great delights of living in the Bay Area is the proximity to the natural beauty of California and it's hard to beat the stunning drive down Highway One to Big Sur. This is certainly one of the iconic American road trips, but for me the joy of being in the area is getting out of your car and hitting a trail, so you can be "in" the landscape rather than just looking at it from the asphalt. 

Sudan - A Travel Agent and an Itinerary

We loved Sudan and I'm excited to finally be blogging about the  Nubian, Islamic, Christian and Egyptian sites we saw. There's so much great stuff  to cover that I'm not sure where to start; with the magnificent pyramids at Meroe, the Egyptian temple at Soleb, the Nile, the Nubian villages or the incredible UNESCO sites around the sacred mountain of Jebel Barkal? Perhaps the best place to begin is with some practical advice on the travel agent and the itinerary, we can get to the history later! 

Please note this is NOT a sponsored post, to be clear none of the posts on So Much More to See are sponsored. We spend our own money so when we recommend, or rave about an agent you know it's not because they comped us a trip...I don't generally bother to address this but it's ubiquitous in the blogosphere and I don't want there to be any confusion here...

HOW TO CHOOSE A TRAVEL AGENT FOR SUDAN
Initially we'd considered going with a group organized by the British company Undiscovered Destinations - you can find  their Sudan itineraries here. I've always liked the look of this company and I would certainly consider traveling with them. We also contacted the high-end Italian Tourism Company based in Khartoum who run both the characterful and comfortable Meroe Tented Camp as well as the lovely Nubian Guesthouse in Karima. This is the only foreign run travel agency in Sudan and they're the in-country operator for most of the high-end UK and US agencies. However,what we found was that the group itineraries didn't include the Egyptian temple at Soleb - except as an expensive add-on after the tour which was inconveniently dependent upon a minimum number of people signing up. The Italian Tourism's Company's original price looked ok  but their customized trip had lots of expensive add-ons including entrance and photography fees. When we finalized the costs with Soleb the whole thing was getting prohibitively expensive, particularly as Sudan was part of a much longer trip for us, more details on the anatomy of the entire trip here. 

We generally prefer to travel on our own and the irony is that in Sudan (as we found in Burma and Iran) it's cheaper to arrange a fully customized, private trip for two, than to book a group trip with an agent from the UK or the US. Lets be honest, Sudan isn't an average destination and anyone selling tours here is a specialist. But it's the kind of place you want to have local knowledge and an on-the-ground fixer, which means it's the ideal country to consider using a local agency, even if you haven't done this before. I believe you couldn't do any better than Waleed Arafat of Lendi TravelWaleed's name kept coming up; he was highly recommended by   Lonely Planet and on the TripAdvisor Forum his name was repeatedly recommended - an Australian traveller told me they'd had a great trip with Lendi and that they thought Waleed was a great guy. Additionally he was recommended in the Bradt Guide but it was what I read in the acknowledgements to the book that had a real  impact, "Waleed Arafat of Lendi Travel got us an 11th hour visa when no-one else could, and so without him this book would never have happened". In a place like Sudan that was the guy I wanted in my corner, if anything went wrong he was the chap you'd want to  call. 
The reviews looked good and Waleed was responsive, friendly and exacting. In person and by email we found he deserved his reputation. He listened to our requests and he had an opinion about what we should include and why. What I like about working with a good agent is that it takes time to sort out an itinerary and you build a rapport with them. By the time we arrived in Sudan and shared dinner with Waleed we felt we were his guests and that he would do anything to ensure we enjoyed the trip. His enthusiasm for the country was infectious and  he went so far out of his way throughout our tour that this was one of the very best travel  experiences we've had. Incidentally, we later found out (not through Waleed but through an woman on her second trip to Sudan with Lendi) that he's the Sudan fixer for the New York Times and  that he even has his own byline in the Times ! 
WHERE TO GO?
Sudan isn't a cheap destination because you need a four-wheel drive and there are a lot of kilometers to cover as it's a large country. During our stay we saw only a couple of backpackers, a few small groups, some expats and academics and several overlanders with their own vehicles. Part of the joy of visiting is that you'll have incredible UNESCO sites  entirely to yourself. Waleed recommended that we head to Soleb, covering a enormous amount of ground in the first few days, and then making our way more slowly back to Khartoum. This enabled us roughly to follow the history starting with the earlier sites first and moving forward in time. 

Without Waleed's  strong encouragement to head to Soleb and his more reasonable pricing that made it feasible, we might have missed out on one our favorite part of the trip. Although the accommodation was fairly basic for the first few nights  (squat toilets, basic showers, camping etc.) we loved the  desert landscapes, the Nubian villages, the Nile and the extraordinary ruins at Kerma. While I highly recommend  the Italian run Meroe Tented Camp and the Nubian Guesthouse in Karima (which I was thrilled to see after several nights without a western style toilet) I would strongly encourage you to include the north on any Sudan itinerary.  It's important to understand that almost all the Western groups base their itineraries solely at these two properties and they often involve long day trips out and back. The advantage is you have the higher standard of accommodation and food but for us it was enormously advantages to get further out and see Soleb as well as a variety of other sites, many of which see very few travellers. 
Other itinerary options: There are lots of other places to go that we didn't see including Port Said and I would love to visit the Nuba mountains when the situation stabilizes. Ultimately we were working around frequent flyer miles but we'd thought about  taking an overland trip from Khartoum to Abu Simbel and that's certainly feasible as Soleb and Sai Island (which Waleed also recommended) are relatively close to the Egyptian border, so this could be an option for some of you.

Here's our final itinerary - which hopefully will helpful for anyone considering a trip. You could certainly add days in to make a more relaxed trip. 

DAY
DATE
OVERNIGHT
ACCOMODATION
MEALS
HIGHLIGHT
1.
JAN 05 THURSDAY
KHARTOUM
ACROPOLE HOTEL
D
Arrivals at Khartoum airport Meet assist transfer to the hotel.
2.
JAN 06 FRIDAY
KHARTOUM
ACROPOLE HOTEL
B/L/D
Guided exploration of Khartoum.
3.
JAN 07 SATURDAY
ELSELIEM
SHARLIS BONIS HOTEL 
B/L/D
Khartoum, Bayoda desert, Khandag, Dongola.Elseliem.
4.
JAN 08 SUNDAY
SOLEB
PRIVATE NUBIAN HOUSE
B/L/D
Elseliem-Dongola, Tajab, Sesibi, Soleb.
5.
JAN 09 MONDAY
TOMBUS
PRIVATE NUBIAN HOUSE
B/L/D
Soleb, Jebel Dosha, Sadenga, Koka, 3rd cataract, Sebu, Tombus.
6.
JAN 10 TUESDAY
KAWA
CAMP IN DESERT 
B/L/D
Tombus, Kerma, Kawa.
7.
JAN 11 WEDNESDAY
KARIMA
B/L/D
Kawa, Old Dongola, Karima.
8.
JAN 12 THURSDAY
KARIMA
B/L/D
Karima ,(kurru, petrified wood,Jebel Barkal
9.
JAN 13 FRIDAY
MEROE PYRAMIDS
B/L/D
Karima, Nuri pyramids,Gazali monastery,Bayoda desert,Meroe pyramids
10.
JAN 14 SATURDAY
MEROE PYRAMIDS
B/L/D
Meroe pyramids& royal town of Meroe.
11.
JAN 15 SUNDAY
KHARTOUM
ALSAHA BOUTIQUE HOTEL
B/L/D
Meroe pyramids-Shendi city- Mussawarat-Naga-6th cataract-Khartoum.
12.
JAN 16 MONDAY
KHARTOUM 

B
Transfer to the air port for departure  to Addis Ababa.Assist on departure.

Here are some issues that might be worth paying attention to in planning a trip to Sudan:
  • How many hours of driving is included per day? Is it on road or off road?Distances are long, if you don't like time in the car think about how to modify your itinerary to suit.
  • How many people will be in the vehicle? What kind of 4x4 is it? We saw people in pickups with extended cabs - which are far less comfortable than an SUV.
  • In the simple Nubian guesthouses you may have a private bathroom but this doesn't mean it's ensuite. Remember the hot water may come in a bucket, you might want to ask if there's a western style toilet.
  • Where will you eat, are you happy to eat at small local restaurants or not? We had a cook for the first four night outside of Khartoum and we ate very well but it made for a more crowded vehicle.
  • Are the archeological fees included in the price? Can the agent arrange a visa on arrival and what is the cost for doing so?
  • How long has the guide been working in the field? Will you get a chance to walk about or have time on your own. We needed this and  Waleed and Ayad the guide worked hard to ensure we had enough time to ourselves.
  • What is the payment schedule? Given the US financial sanctions against Sudan sending money to a local agent may be complicated. We paid nothing an advance and brought US dollars on arrival, which also protects you against any radical change in circumstance including social and political instability.
CONCLUSION 
Sudan is an amazing destination with great variety and I highly recommend visiting. I'll be talking in a lot more detail about the places we visited and stayed but suffice it to say it's an incredible country with a magnificent history and welcoming people. Yes, the situation in the south and the west is both difficult and heartbreaking. The government has involved the Sudanese in a variety of misadventures and consolidated their power through constant conflict. But for the tourist the north is stable and safe. Waleed came through for us with a great trip and I'm very grateful to him. I'd give Lendi Travel my highest recommendation and  we certainly hope to travel with them again. 

Much of what we see on the news is unrelentingly negative when it comes to both Sudan and Africa in general and it's certainly true that war, upheaval and  and food insecurity maybe  greater issues in sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere. However, it's also important to realize that these are large countries and that lots of other things are happening in Sudan too; people are going to university, protesting against the government, learning trades, making art, starting businesses, farming, raising their families, protecting, restoring or excavating the historic sites, getting married and practicing their religion. 

Part of the joy of visiting a place like Sudan is seeing somewhere so many foreigners haven't visited and bringing home a more nuanced and informed story about the people there. Go and see it for yourself, I'm happy to answer any questions you have in the comments of by email!






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