The world’s youngest independent nation has not had it easy since it decided, pretty unanimously (over 98% of the people here opted to break from the Republic of the Sudan when there was a referendum back in January 2011), to go it alone. Ongoing is the brutal South Sudanese Civil War, which has seen more than 300,000 deaths and more than a million displaced from their homes.
There are also open conflicts with militia groups and private armies, and the Sudanese to the north. That all adds up to make this one pretty much completely out of bounds for travelers. However, in the hope that things will ease up sooner rather than later, we’ve ranged from the soaring peaks of 3,000-meter-high Mount Kinyeti to the endless greens of the Sudd wetland in search of the top places to visit. Expect hartebeest-dotted wilds, the winding courses of the White Nile, and trading towns come metropolises alike.
Lets explore the best places to visit in South Sudan:
1. Boma National Park
Environmentalists and naturalists have been arguing for years over weather Boma National Park is the home of the largest or the second-largest annual land mammal migration on the planet.
Some say it’s the Serengeti and the movement of the countless wildebeest there, others – most notably the South Sudanese themselves! – claim the honor for this vast swathe of wilderness that clings to the edge of the Ethiopian border in the east.
But whether you come to see the great peregrinations of the white-eared kob or not, you can rest assured the park will be one to remember.
Zebras and gazelles, oryx, cheetah and gliding vultures are all visible, hiding amidst the rolling savannah and occasional bluffs of rock.
It’s precisely because of Wau’s place at the confluence of several of South Sudan’s most populous tribal groups that this city is now embroiled in some of the bloodiest episodes of the current conflict engulfing the country.
However, when that all subsides, the hope is that this multicultural gem – the third largest town in the nation no less – will flower once again.
And boy does it have plenty to offer: from age-stained colonial frontispieces to the ramshackle huts and marketplaces constructed from the raw materials of the African bush! There’s also an interesting cathedral topped with a dome to see – one of the biggest in the region.
3. Southern National Park
Covering close to 7,800 square kilometers of land in the very heart of South Sudan, the seemingly endless swathes of patchwork woodlands and grassy savannah that form the Southern National Park are amongst the largest protected game areas in the nation.
Curiously off-the-beaten-track for visitors to this part of Africa, the area has been little explored over the last 70 years.
Those who do come will get to see the likes of the Congo lion, the colobus monkey, bushbabies, marabou storks and kobs aplenty.
4. Kidepo Game Reserve
The Kidepo Game Reserve is located in the southernmost depths of South Sudan.
Contiguous with the famous Kidepo National Park in Uganda across the border, it’s a sea of greenery that extends for more than 1,200 square kilometers across the savannah grasslands and gallery woods of the region.
One of the real pulls for would-be safari goers is the tame and human-friendly nature of the animals.
You can expect to have up-close-and-personal encounters with elephants and defassa waterbuck, all of which wander right into the game lodges that pepper the boundaries of the reserve!
5. Bandingilo National Park
Another great place to come and witness the breathtaking phenomenon of the annual migration of the white-eared kob, Bandingilo National Park is the natural jewel of the Equatoria region.
Spread out over the riparian grass plains that stretch eastwards from the White Nile River, it’s a surprisingly accessible place – thanks largely to that proximity to the capital at Juba; and surprising because stats show that still hardly anyone comes here! If you do decide to take the trip after the current Sudanese troubles reside, you can expect the likes of Nubian giraffes and elephants to pepper the vistas at Bandingilo!
Juba is not a city with a long story to tell.
Founded only in 1922, it straddles the bends of the White Nile River in the deep southern reaches of the country.
It was once just a far-flung trading outpost, built by Greek merchants who wanted to establish regular caravan routes between East Africa and Britain’s colonial bases.
Since then, Juba has been a battleground in South Sudan’s civil wars, and been unexpectedly elevated to the status of capital in 2011. Although there’s not that much to see in this young epicentre of the nation (especially with the war raging all around), the town does have a bustling marketplace and a clutch of safari outfitters.
7. Kodok (Fashoda)
Kodok was formerly known as Fashoda; the town that once gave its name to the famous Fashoda Incident, when the power struggles between Britain and France came to a head in Africa, and these two great superpowers of colonial Europe final decided to divvy up the continent on roughly east and west terms.
Today, Kodok remembers these totemic episodes of African history, but also bears the remains of its onetime Shilluk kings.
Unfortunately, modern times have proved difficult, with famine and war also scarring the settlement.
8. Nimule National Park
For its size, the Nimule National Park certainly packs one hell of a punch! With verdant forests and some of the most biodiverse riparian habitats in the nation, it plays host to everything from swinging baboons to hippos and snapping crocs.
It’s cut through by the courses of the White Nile River, which can be seen drifting northwards towards Juba – the capital is just a short drive away, and safaris to Nimule can be organised from there.
The piece de resistance has to be Opekoloe Island though, which is packed with roaming elephant herds.
Or maybe it’s the Fola Falls, where local fishing folk cling to the rocks in their search of a catch.
We can’t decide.
Once the site of some of the first ever Christian missions to be set up in this region of Africa, Bor is now something of an abandoned ghost town.
The recent conflicts have really taken their toll, while the memory of massacres during the Sudanese Civil War are still raw and emotional – around 20,000 people were murdered here back in 1991! However, the current tumult notwithstanding, Bor still has its immersive tribal character, and it’s still one of the best places to come and see a traditional Sudanese wrestling match – the Muay Thai of Africa, if you will!
10. Radom National Park
Sprawled over the tenuous state lines where Sudan meets the Central African Republic, the protected reserves of the Radom National Park only find their way into South Sudan for a little part of their vast 1,250,000 hectares.
However, that small section of reserve certainly counts, with visitors (and there are virtually none in these trying times) able to see endangered doka woods, roaming herds of elephants, tree-peppered savannah, hopping gazelles, and oodles of other rare East African beasts.
Radom National Park can be hard to get to, with lengthy 4X4 drives from Raga the usual name of the game.
Imbued with its own international airport and a prime location right on the edge of the White Nile River, you might think that Malakal of the north was a prosperous town.
But the ravages of war have all but destroyed this erstwhile mercantile center.
The marketplace now lays empty and the grand headquarters of the Upper Nile State Government stand deserted.
Perhaps one day the life will return to its streets, and Malakal will be able to showcase its wild surroundings (made famous by the presence of the huge Ez Zeraf Reserve just to the south-east) again.
12. Ez Zeraf Game Reserve
Winding and weaving northwards through the very heart of South Sudan, the White Nile River delves into the vast wetlands known as the Sudd.
Between packs of zebras and mud-caked elephants, the area hosts some jaw-dropping scenery in its vast 1.6 million acres of land.
There are the seasonally flooded forests to navigate on canoes, soggy grassland plains and more, all dotted with the galumphing outlines of hippos and the occasional crocodile.
It’s little wonder that Zeraf – the reserve that encompasses all that – is now one of the major points of focus for conservationists in east-central Africa!
13. Shambe Nature Reserve
First gazetted way back in the mid-1980s, the Shambe National Park can be seen as the southern extension of the aforementioned Ez Zeraf Reserve.
That makes it home to an important part of the White Nile River ecosystem; a place of curious oxbow lakes and pop-up flood plains.
Animal wise, you’ll get all of the biodiversity of the larger park to the north, along with lions and hippos, wild foxes and swinging primates of different kinds, not to mention elephants by the hundred! Shambe Nature Reserve is also a designated birding area, made popular thanks to countless migratory species that pass this way throughout the year.
Now bolstered by the presence of all-new tarmac roads and the runways of its own airport, the city of Aweil represents one of the few glimpses of built-up development in the far-flung reaches of the Bahr el Ghazal region in northern South Sudan.
A couple of hotels, a UN mission, restaurants and decent transport links make the place a good stopover point for travelers eager to make the border to the north, or those heading to the remote wilds of the Radom National Park in the west.
What’s more, Aweil has proved itself resilient to the recent upheavals of the nation, with far less sectarian violence occurring here than in other cities.
The onetime home and birthplace of the legendary NBA player and activist Manute Bol (if you believe the locals, that is), Gogrial is the epicentre of its own eponymous state: Gogrial State.
It’s got its own airport (just a dust airstrip that’s suitable for small fliers) too, which us peppered with the decaying remains of old bomber planes left over from the Sudanese Civil War.
And its neatly delineated by the courses of the Jur River, which bends and winds away into the distance before converging with the mighty White Nile.