The Red Sea
North Sudan’s only point of contact with the sea is the narrow strip of coastline that runs along the north-east of the country, from Egypt down to Eritrea. The capital of Red Sea State, Port Sudan, is roughly equidistant from the two bordering countries and remains a vital gateway for goods into and out of North Sudan. Even though it has split with the North, expectations are that the South will continue to use the Red Sea port for some of its trade, although an increasing amount is likely to be routed through Kenya.
The Red Sea area is hot and humid for most of the year. The weather is most pleasant between November and January, whilst the summer months can be very hard to adjust to if you are used to colder climes.
Fortunately, along the coast, regular sea breezes bring welcome relief from the heat, whilst inland the Red Sea hills offer greater altitude and therefore cooler weather.
British soldiers, who used to be stationed in Port Sudan before independence, would often escape the stifling heat by retreating into the hills for short breaks. Arkowit was a particularly favourite place to go.
The Red Sea coast has a lot to offer the traveller in Sudan. Whilst the country's tourist industry has been slow to catch on to this potential, things are starting to change.
Diving in the Red Sea
Some of the best scuba diving in the world is to be found in the Red Sea. However, Sudan (unlike its northern neighbour) is still relatively unknown as a diving destination.
Part of the reason for Sudan’s apparent unimportance in the world of scuba is the difficulty and cost of getting to the good diving spots. Whereas tour companies in Egypt ferry diving enthusiasts out to sea by the boatload, lack of demand in Sudan keeps the number of tour operators to a minimum and the prices fairly high. However, more and more tour operators are starting to enter the market. As they do, expect to see prices come down and customer services go up.
The lack of other divers has its advantages, of course. It means that you get to explore many of the dive sites almost entirely on your own.
There are two ways to approach diving off the coast of Port Sudan. One is to organise a tour on a live-aboard. This has become a particular popular option, but the downside is that you often have to book the tour in advance and may have to allocate a number of consecutive days for the diving trip.
An alternative way of seeing the wonderful underwater world of the Sudanese Red Sea is to arrange day-trips from the mainland. Such a diving centre has yet to properly develop in the country, but one new establishment that does offer such trips is the Red Sea Resort. Such excursions are becoming increasingly popular with weekend-trippers from Khartoum, who do not have the time to arrange a tour on a live-aboard boat.
Port Sudan was established by the British in 1905 to replace Suakin as the country’s main commercial port. It was felt that Suakin, lying in shallower waters, was unsuitable for the larger ships that Britain was now bringing to the country.
These days, Port Sudan has a rather faded, has-been look about it. It is still Sudan’s most important sea port, and ships still linger in the docks waiting for their latest cargo to be hauled aboard, but the hustle-and-bustle of activity is nothing compared to what it was half-a-century ago.
There is a certain relaxed charm about the town centre. In the evening, the docks are a great place to come and drink coffee. You will see families and groups of friends sprawled on straw mats along the quayside, sipping their jabana or shae bi laban, chatting and playing cards.
You'll also see people smoking sheesha in this area, and there are a number of pool tables along the sea-front that you can make use of (an hour's pool usually costs 10-15 SDG). There are even some fried-fish restaurants here, although you'll get better quality nosh if you go elsewhere.
Not far from this area is a small spot where you can swim, if the thought of sharing the waters with all those oily boats doesn’t put you off.
Port Sudan is a lovely place to spend a few days and its leisurely pace of life can easily persuade you to spend longer in the town than you intended.
However, don't let the pleasant vibe in the town throw you off your guard. Port Sudan is generally less safe than Khartoum and there are a greater number of beggars. Be especially careful in the area behind the Coral Hotel, where the deserted streets, as well as the proximity to wealthy tourists, encourage some rather dubious characters to hang out.
The temperature of Port Sudan is generally very hot and humid — hotter than in Khartoum, although this is tempered by the occasional breeze sweeping in from the Arabian Peninsula.
The main part of the town is not large and is quite easy to navigate. You can either walk or take a rickshaw between areas for a few SDG.
Along the Red Sea coast, 50 km south of Port Sudan, lies the ancient seaport of Suakin, slowly falling into decay and ruin.
Prior to 1905, when Port Sudan was founded, Suakin was the major port in the country, full of ships carrying goods abroad and bustling with pilgrims on their way to Mecca during the Hajj.
The exact date when Suakin was established is not known for certain, although early records show that the port existed in the 12th century. The port was initially created as a way for pilgrims to get to Mecca.
In bygone days, the slave trade made Suakin a very wealthy town. People caught in Bahr al-Ghazal and White Nile State were sold by slave traders in Suakin. Every year about 3000 slaves were transported from Suakin to slave markets in Jeddah and Cairo.
This was a lucrative trade, going on for some centuries, and the money in circulation made Suakin a place of renowned beauty. Attempts to restore the buildings to their former glory were started in 1881, but now everything lies in ruins.
Suakin is fairly small and you can walk around it in a reasonably short time but, if you don’t fancy this, then take a rickshaw.
There is a small vegetable market in the centre of town and several shops on the outskirts.
The highlight of any visit to the area is a tour of Suakin Island, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway. Here, you can wander through streets full of once-beautiful buildings that are now in the final stages of crumbling away. There is an entrance fee of 10 SDG for visiting the island.