Country: South Sudan
Heading north out of Juba the river soon becomes an expansive entanglement of implied channels flanked by vast swamps and flat, lush flood plain. The grass is trimmed by the thousands of cattle that roam looking for new pastures; all kept under the watchful eye of Bari and Mundari herdsmen.
Juba had been raucous - the wild west of Africa - full of soldiers, NGOs and missionaries. The recent conflict had put everyone on edge though and a night-time curfew just added to the sense of tension. The main roads were full of refugees - families of every tribe fleeing the violence in the north - as a result huge IDP (internally displaced persons) camps had sprung up. I visited the main Nuer camp inside the UN base at Tomping, where 20,000 displaced people were camped in hard conditions fearing the oncoming rains.
I stayed at Bedouin camp, a popular hotel packed between an abattoir and a graveyard where dogs have been known to dig up human remains. Still, it’s the only place in town where you can meet talkative characters full of useful information, and the beer is cold.
On the day we arrived we were prevented from filming by South Sudan’s National Security Agency and escorted to the notorious ‘Blue House’- a government compound where political prisoners are held under high security. It took a lot of sweet talking to get out of that one. Apparently people don’t come to South Sudan to walk along the Nile.The civil war had been raging now for 4 months and everyone had said it would be impossible to travel outside of Juba - that it was too dangerous to go beyond the front line in Jongelei state - but I knew that I had to at least give it a go. For the sake of the expedition I had to get as far as I could then to see for myself, with my own eyes, the reality of the situation. However questionable, my inner explorer harangued the reality of the situation demanding to know how I could give up simply on the advice of others. I knew I needed to go north and understand the ‘ground truth’. It took over a week to pass from the Central Equatorial state to the Lakes state, through tiny villages where the local people had become desperate because there was no food.
There were roadblocks everywhere and the police were suspicious. Luckily, since our close encounter with the National Security, we’d been allocated two soldiers to ‘accompany’ us everywhere and that helped smooth the passage. We’d sometimes sleep at abandoned police stations, empty schools and churches or even in people’s back yards.It was difficult to get close to the river here as we reached the infamous Sudd swamp - the biggest wetland on earth - which at its height is over 500 miles from north to south. The Sudd is a spectacularly beautiful rich thicket of vegetation filled with crocodiles, hippos and prehistoric fish the size of men. In the past it has proved an impenetrable barrier for navigating along the Nile defeating Roman legions, Victorian explorers and, it was likely to defeat me. The only way to cross this 20-mile-wide entanglement of papyrus reeds is by boat. So I chartered a small rickety fishing vessel and made the crossing to Bor and the front line. Against the odds and all advice I had received... I made it North of Juba and to Bor.