When I first started travelling, I was quite excited to visit all the more famous places in the world. I wanted to go London, Paris, Rome, etc, which is what I did. I absolutely enjoyed those trips, but I quickly learned a few things about myself.
I do not enjoy the intense hustle and bustle that comes with enormous cities, the bad habits of other travellers can sometimes drive me batty and I am always happiest when I have a place all (or almost) to myself.
This has led to me seeking out some much more ‘off the beaten track’ destinations over the years – and these trips have absolutely brought me the most satisfaction and excitement.
So, about four years ago when I learned that Sudan was home to more pyramids than Egypt, it went straight to the top of my travel wishlist.
I had never heard of anyone so much as talking about visiting Sudan, let alone actually doing so. It seemed like the kind of place where tourism numbers were guaranteed to be low, so naturally, I wanted to go!
Whilst getting a visa was slightly complicated and it was a little tricky to plan the trip with such little information out there, it was well worth doing so, and I hope that this blog not only assists other people with the planning of there Sudanese adventures, but also inspires people to visit Sudan who may never have done so otherwise.
First things first, we had to organise our visa. We ended doing this by obtaining a Letter of Invitation (LOI) from the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum and then sending this letter (along with our passports, application forms, proof of hotel booking, passport photos and $150 AUD each) to the Sudanese embassy in Canberra.
Getting all these documents organised took quite a while, but once we had finally gotten them all together and sent them off to Canberra on a thursday afternoon, we had our visas issued and our passports shipped back to us within one day! We received everything back to us by the following Monday! I must admit, I was incredibly surprised by the efficiency, but in the end, our visas were issued without too much difficulty.
Once we had our visas, we had to go ahead and book our flights. There aren’t a tonne of options when it comes to flying in and out of Khartoum, but still more than I would’ve expected. The most frequent (and reliable) connections are from Cairo (EgyptAir), Addis Ababa (Ethiopian Airlines), Nairobi (Kenya Airways), Dubai (Emirates), Abu Dhabi (Etihad), Bahrain (Gulf Air) and Istanbul (Turkish Airlines).
We flew with Ethiopian Airlines via Addis both for our arriving and departing flights and had no major flight issues, although it is worth noting that if you have the ability to carry with only carry on luggage, I would highly recommend doing so.
Our bags were never lost or damaged, but when we arrived into Khartoum, there was so much baggage coming off of our flight that we had to wait over 90 minutes for our bags – it was bonkers!
Also, whilst at the airport, it is advisable to exchange just enough USD to Sudanese pounds to get you to your hotel as the official exchange rate and the black market rate vary enormously. Also, I would highly recommend getting a Sudanese SIM card for your trip. Outside of Khartoum free wifi is just not a thing (it is barely a thing in Khartoum as well to be perfectly frank) so for planning, contacting drivers and being able to update your socials, a SIM is absolutely necessary.
We each got a SIM with 1GB of data and limited national calls for 75 SDP – approximately $1.70 USD on the official exchange rate – from the MTN office inside Khartoum airport.
Once we had our bags, cash and sim cards it was time to head to our hotel in Khartoum and finally get some sleep! Most of the taxi drivers outside the airport were quoting prices double what I knew was normal, but with a little patience we were able to find a sweet little taxi man to take us to the Acropole Hotel.
After a much short nap than I expected, we got ourselves up and went for a little explore around Khartoum. We walked along the river, drank tea at a little stand and ate dinner at a delicious lebanese restaurant.
The next morning, after an incredible nights sleep, we got up at the veritable ass crack of dawn to board a bus bound for Karima. The journey according to Google Maps was to take around 6 hours, but Google was very much wrong on this occasion. We were told the bus would leave at 06:30am, it didn’t leave until well after 9am!
About halfway into the journey we stopped for food and to use the toilets. None of the women on our bus spoke any English, but they invited us to sit and eat with them all the same! Our first taste of Sudanese hospitality was a lovely one.
After eating, it was time to use the toilets, although I use the word ‘toilets’ quite loosely. These open air mud brick stalls provided very little privacy and enclosed holes dug in the ground.
Word to the wise? Keep toilet paper in your pockets!
Then, instead of being a 6 hour drive, the trip took a good 9 hours. We got into Karima with just enough light to find our hotel for the night!
We ended up staying at Al Nassr Hotel. It was just around the corner from the bus stop, had clean beds and air conditioning. The toilet was less than stellar and the shower was far too cold to actually use properly (full disclosure, neither of us had a proper shower outside of Khartoum) but it only cost the equivalent of $8 AUD per night, which was far cheaper than the nicer hotels!
Just down the street from our hotel was a kind of open square with lots of little restaurant stalls and a whole bunch of tables and chairs. It was absolutely bustling! We settled on a meal of fuul – a traditional Sudanese bean dish, some kind of mystery meat, more deep fried mystery meat, hard boiled eggs and bread. It was a little odd, but after a long day of a travel it certainly hit the spot.
The next day, it was finally time to do what I had really come to Sudan to do – see some pyramids!
Fun fact of the day: There are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt!
We jumped in a tuk-tuk and arrived at our first stop of the day – El-Kurru. I had come across recommendations for this UNESCO World Heritage Site when I had been doing initial research for our trip, but all I could really remember was that it was some kind of ruin and that I’d need to look for ‘the man with the key’.
However, our visit did not get off to a great start. When we arrived the man working there told us we would need to pay $30 USD for entry – a price that is absolutely insane considering all other costs in Sudan. I couldn’t remember the cost of entry quoted online, but I do remember knowing that it wasn’t more than a few dollars. In the end, stubbornness and RBF (resting bitch face) paid off. I told him that I didn’t have any USD on me (a bold faced lie if I ever told one) and after 10 minutes of tsk-ing and glaring, he eventually let us in after we paid 1000 Sudanese pounds, which was the equivalent of about $2 AUD.
Quite the price difference!
When we entered, I’ll admit, I kinda wondered why we bothered. It just looked like a whole lot of rubble and poorly preserved columns, but after about ten minutes, like a mirage, an adorable old man seemed to appear out of nowhere – waving a key!
He ushered us down some stairs into this tomb, and I’ll admit, for a hot second there, I had some reservations about the whole thing. However, as soon as we got down there, all concerns instantly vanished.
I have been lucky enough to travel through Egypt, and saw some incredible Nubian artwork in the process, but the paintings and hieroglyphics inside this tomb were so much more impressive than anything I had ever seen in Egypt!
The tomb wasn’t large, but the colours and inscriptions were so incredibly well preserved – I couldn’t believe that such an incredible sight was hidden below a sketchy looking hole in the ground.
I could’ve spent hours down there, letting each image sink into my brain, however, we had other places to visit on this day, and so we said goodbye to El-Kurru and headed to our next stop – Nuri.
I’ll admit, El-Kurru had not started off well (it was a major humbug to be frank) but I was so glad that we had stuck it out and made it into this incredible tomb.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much from Nuri, stuff I’d read on the internet made me think that there wouldn’t even be any pyramids there anymore.
Apparently, locals have taken a lot of the bricks from the Nuri pyramids and used them to build their own homes!
However, once we arrived, I was much more enamoured with the pyramids than I expected to be!
We had a lovely man walk us around these pyramids and give us a little history through extremely broken English. We may not have understood much, but he made such a lovely effort, and the pyramids were undeniably charming.
There was one more spot I wanted to visit while in Karima, but I really wanted to do so at sunset, so we made our way back to what I’m calling the market square near our hotel and got ourselves some lunch.
We eventually decided on this little restaurant (I cannot for the life of me find it on Google Maps) and I am so glad we did! We indulged in some random meats that smelled good and holy moly, the chicken was one of the best things that I’d eaten in a long time!
There was a young guy working there who we eventually discovered would be moving to Melbourne in the following few weeks! He handed us these sweets and vehemently refused to let us pay for them – it was so sweet!
I do hope that wherever he is now, he is doing well and if he’s in Australia, I really hope that he is loving it.
After we had eaten and spent a little time napping through the hottest part of the day, it was time to set off to the pyramids next to Jebel Barkal – which is a sacred mountain that lies just on the outskirts of Karima.
I’m glad it wasn’t further away than the outskirts, I am not sure if our tuk tuk could have taken any further!
In just a few minutes, the hustle and bustle of Karima was behind us and five gloriously beautiful pyramid ruins were basking in the golden hour light before us.
I had dreamed of this moment for so long. I had heard so much about the beauty of Sudan and here I was with this stunning ruin all to myself!
If you know me well, you will be aware that some of my favourite and most special travel moments happen when I get off the beaten track and away from busy crowds. The last time I had seen real pyramids it was in Egypt, and as much as it was a good experience, having people shout at me to buy a camel ride every few minutes definitely put a dampener on it.
These pyramids may not be as big or epic as the pyramids of Giza, but having them to myself?
Well, this is the travel memory that I will remember more fondly, that’s for sure!
We spent the next hour or so climbing the pyramids (or attempting to) after our driver made it look so easy, taking gorgeous photos, taking my drone out for a spin and just genuinely enjoying this oh so beautiful and as a bonus – totally free – travel experience.
After the sun had well and truly gone to sleep, we jumped back in our tuk tuk and went straight back to our new favourite restaurant – we wanted our last fill of that incredibly delicious chicken!
The next morning we were up bright and early. We had a big day of travel ahead of us, so an early morning alarm was the way to go. Google says that it only takes 3.5 hours to drive from Karima to Atbara, but I had a very strong suspicion that it would take a lot longer than that!
We checked out of our hotel, found someone selling bus tickets, bought a ticket for a bus and then had our morning coffee while we waited for it to arrive.
We arrived in Atbara by lunch time. We found an extremely cheap and exceptionally gross hotel across the road from the bus station (the walls were covered in grime, the floors were revolting and there was a room adjacent to the bedroom that had nothing but a chair and a tiny table in the centre of it – which might be the most depressing sight I have ever seen.
There really isn’t much to see in Atbara, but it seemed like the easiest way to get back to Khartoum via Meroë. A lot of travellers go directly from Karima to Meroë and then hitchhike back to Khartoum, but we didn’t love the idea of sitting out in the hot sun for hours just hoping for someone to take us back safely, so instead we opted to spend the night in Atbara and organise a private driver to take us back us back to Khartoum and wait for us at Meroë on the way.
We got some fuul for dinner and found a guy to drive us the next day before getting an early night.
After a bit of a rocky start in the morning (the guy who we had organised to drive us ended up fobbing us off to another driver and then tried to negotiate a higher price) we eventually got on the road and in just a few hours, we had finally arrived at Meroë.
The Meroë pyramids now lie in ruin, but this site was the Kush Kingdom capital from around 590 BC until the collapse of the kingdom in the fourth century CE. It is easily the biggest tourist attraction in Sudan, not just because of the incredible history, but also because of the utterly unique shape and design of these pyramids.
To me, these pyramids look like something out of Star Trek, and wandering between them as well as up and down the surrounding sand dunes truly did make me feel as if I was on a planet far far away.
There has been a lot of very obvious restoration done to these pyramids (I imagine the harsh desert winds are not kind) but there are also still a lot of incredible Nubian carvings and art visible on the bricks and inside the pyramids themselves.
Your entrance fee includes a guide, although we did eventually ditch our guide to explore a bit by ourselves. He was only able to give us a little bit of history and seemed more interested in showing us the less visually pleasing parts!
Once we had gotten our fill of the gorgeous ruins, we were back on the road and en route to Khartoum, but not before we stopped for a quick roadside coffee courtesy of one of the angelic coffee ladies!
When we arrived back into Khartoum we were absolutely exhausted, but we had to suppress those feelings, because it was a Friday afternoon, and something exceptionally special happens in Khartoum on Friday afternoons!
Each friday at 1600, observers of the Tariqa gather at the tomb of Omdurman to cheer, dance, pray and twirl – an action which serves to create a level of excited and unabashed abandon, which is thought to allow them to to communicate directly with Allah.
I am not a religious person, but witnessing this incredible ceremony was so much fun and such a positive experience. Be sure to check out these two videos below – photographs simply can’t capture the magnificence of the moment.
Where we travelled.
Site details + expected costs*
Visa organised through Sudanese Embassy in Canberra: $150 AUD
Acropole Hotel Khartoum: $100 USD per night
Assaha Restaurant Khartoum: 5000 SDG (~$8 AUD)
Bus from Khartoum to Karima: 4000 SDG (~$6 AUD)
Average meal: 2000 SDG (~$3.50 AUD)
Al Nassr Hotel Karima: $8 AUD per night
El Kurru: 1000 SDG (~$1.60 AUD)
Nuri Pyramids: 100 SDG (~$0.15 AUD)
Jebel Bharkal: Free
Bus from Karima to Atbara: 4000 SDG (~$6 AUD)
Terrible hotel in Atbara: 5000 SDG (~$8 AUD)
Meroe Pyramids: $20 USD
Private driver from Atbara to Khartoum via Meroe: $50 USD
*Please note all conversions take into account the better value unofficial exchange rate.
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Acropole Hotel: This hotel is easily the most expensive in Khartoum, but the owner George organised our LOIs and helped us settle into Sudan with ease, so I cannot recommend this place enough. Also – it was the only hot shower we got in Sudan! Click here to learn more
Meroe Pyramids: These pyramids are a fantastic reason to visit Sudan and are a scarcely visited site that you will be able to enjoy all by yourself!
El Kurru: Getting into this site is a pain in the ass thanks to the men who try to rip off anyone who visits, but if you stand your ground, deny that you have any USD and give them enough of an evil eye, you will eventually get in, and it will absolutely be worth the trouble!
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 lenses as well as with a DJI Mavic Pro Drone (now discontinued)
Remember: Bring sunscreen, patience and a tolerance for a freezing cold shower. Sudan travel isn’t always straightforward, but it is absolutely worth the trouble!