The team for Secret Compass' first expedition of 2012, 12 days in the remotest parts of South Sudan, up mountains and along rivers, began to coalesce at Nairobi Airport as various connecting fights arrived to meet the twice-daily Kenya Airways shuttle into Juba. Five of the eight team members dutifully shuffled aboard and barely 90 minutes later shuffled off again in the capitol of the world's youngest country. To be hit immediately by the full force of the mid-afternoon 40C heat. For a crew which had only shortly before left London's near-freezing conditions, this was a physical shock.
Minutes later it was accompanied by a cultural shock, as the world's youngest international airport struggled to cope with the arrival of two full planes in quick succession. To be fair, for most of the past 50 years the south of Sudan has been locked in conflict, so providing a pleasant and efficient airport experience has not been high on the national priority list. To describe the arrivals process in detail would only spoil the anticipation for those who are still to experience it. Suffice to say that a philosophical outlook and a touch of patience are the order of the day.
Two minutes later we were introduced to two sights which would prove to be more than welcome over the next 10 days. The first was Pete Meredith, the legendary South African river explorer and guide who would take care of us through the Nile section of our expedition. Tall and wiry, he's cool enough to make Fonzie look like a nervous hypochondriac. The second welcome sight was his enormous truck, which would be at various times our transport, pack animal, kitchen, sometimes bedroom, and welcome sun shelter in the days to come.
One of the genuine pleasures of expeditions of this nature is the fantastically diverse array of people who make up the team. From memory we had a forensic accountant, an ex-professional footballer now running an academy in India, an insurance broker, a surgeon, two IT specialists (whatever it is that they do), and a matching pair of freelance photojournalists. And even more are the stories of previous adventures they bring. We wasted no time in jumping into friendly been-there one-upmanship. Venezuela? Yup. Antarctica? Of course. I'll see you Afghanistan, and raise you North Korea! The discussion was only curtailed by the arrival of some surprisingly good food, followed by a rugby international on the big screen (it can't be all hardship you know).
The next morning was a leisurely start to a long day in the truck as we headed south and east out of the Juba sprawl. That smooth blacktop was soon a thing of the past and we lurched and bumped past the forbidding South Sudanese countryside. The landscape was desert and low scrub, which reminded me of the Australian outback, and from the vantage point of the truck seemed to be just as inhospitable to human habitation at anything but the smallest scale. We passed many small villages of half-a-dozen round mud-walled and thatch-roofed huts; or sometimes just a lone hut by the side of the road. The villager's possessions, in any Western sense, were undoubtedly meagre, and their cattle thin. However we were unfailingly met with enthusiastic waves and beaming smiles by both elders and children.
Lunch was spent in the town of Torit, and its lively Lomoliha market. Since the tourist trade here is literally zero, there was perhaps a suspicion that any Westerners sporting large cameras - and that was just about all of us - could not be up to anything good. A degree of discretion is advised here as some locals are fine with having their picture taken, some are not. It is better perhaps to be content with shopping for the fantastic fresh bread, fruits, vegetables and dried fish on offer, all at incredibly cheap prices. There's even a general store (ok, shack) with an enviable selection of liquor, including at time of writing a bottle of Sheridan's liqueur! I can't imagine it's a high-demand line, but you never know.
Back on the road-like construction, we made good time south. The vegetation became gradually thicker, the trees taller and greener, and we eventually entered the rolling low mountains of the Imatong Range. Our destination for the day was the village of Katire, on the bank of the river of the same name and about 10 miles as the bird flies to our ultimate objective, the summit of Mt Kinyeti, Sudan's highest. As Pete "Laconic" Meredith guided us to our campsite there was again much curious waving and smiling. I would venture that they don't get too many ex-British military trucks festooned with digital cameras and their slightly sweaty owners in this part of the world.
We were greeted warmly by the two villagers who would be our guides for the next few days. James, who spoke good English, and Donata, the "landlord of the mountain" (and according to the wording on the back of his mauve - yes, mauve - overalls, also "Water pump mechanic") were local hunters from the Lotoko tribe. The village children, although curious, kept a respectful distance as we pitched our tents and prepared our last proper meal from the ingredients which Laconic seemed able to produce at will. We went to bed early, interrupted only by the high-volume discovery of an errant spider in one of the tents; a situation which was soon rectified, but not in the spider's favour.
With the almost-silent Donata in the lead, the next three days would be spent following the tiny hunting trails through head-high grasses, thorny undergrowth, plantations of mature Eucalyptus and rock-hopping across idyllic fresh-water streams. The hunters had cut their narrow paths generally across the ridge lines, rather than following the natural contours, so our ups were often followed by more downs. On a rare occasion when we became separated from James and Donata or lost the trail, Laconic Pete would go a few paces ahead, bend to inspect the undergrowth, then proclaim "This way" as he headed off into the bush. Invariably he was right.
Our evening camping routine was the work of, if not a well-oiled machine, at least a cohesive team. Some would fill water bottles at the nearest stream, some would check for spiders, some would forage for firewood, check for spiders, get the fire started, spider check, boil water for a brew and rations, spiders, and finally sit around the campfire as the sun descended through the trees and behind the ridgeline, to swap more travel stories, barter our respective rations and keep an eye out for spiders. Campfire conversations, warmed by the fire and the satisfaction of having a good day's work behind us, are always a quiet joy of any expedition. Bedtimes were generally early and with most of our tents sans flysheets we could fall asleep looking up through the trees at the sky full of stars.
Day three was our summit day. After an early(er) start, we came out of the rainforest late in the morning onto the grass and rock covered summit dome. A quick and easy scramble finished the ascent and we were all standing on the highest point in Sudan - 3187 metres, or the far more impressive-sounding ten thousand feet. There were the expected handshakes, high-fives and photo opportunities. Less expected was what Tom produced from the bottom of his rucksack - a celebratory bottle of champagne! We may not have been the first Westerners to stand on Kinyeti's summit (although the first organised group to do so); but we are absolutely sure that we were the first to salute Queen and country with champagne in cheap camp mugs whilst there.
The Imatongs may never be regarded amongst the world's great ranges, but the view from the summit of Kinyeti is rewarding and breathtaking in its own way. Standing in the middle of the range, there are rolling forest-covered peaks and ridges to the horizon in all directions, almost untouched by the hand of man. And all bathed, at midday, in the sort of pure sunlight that can only be found after serious travel.
Our fourth and final day on the mountain involved retracing our steps of the first two days. This was the longest and most challenging of days. Although we were moving generally downhill, the temperature rose as we descended, and we had a long distance to cover this day. Sometime after 4pm we rounded the final bend in the trail by ones and twos, to see the never-more-welcome sight of Pete's truck. More handshakes and back-slaps followed, but we wasted little time in making for the nearby river for a swim and clean down of clothes and bodies. The sight of nine tired yet excited Westerners swimming and splashing drew quite a crowd of curious villagers.
The next day we moved by truck from Katire back to Torit and its market, before turning south-west again for the long and bumpy drive to Nimule national park, on the southern border with Uganda. This was a long 11-hour day in the vehicle. We were treated to a magnificent African sunset, and caught our first glimpse of the legendary White Nile in the last light of the day. It was well after dark when we finally found the camp set up by Pete's team of African River rafters earlier in the day. Here we met up with Reuben, a Kiwi; Davey, from Scotland, and Ugandan-born Timmy, the safety kayaker. These three quickly became known, for unexplained reasons, as the Mighty Oaks.
They would take us downriver while Pete shadowed us in the truck for the length of the trip.
Come midday and we were just about ready for the off. Pete may affect a carefree attitude at most times, but there was no mistaking the seriousness with which he takes his responsibilities with regard to those in his care. His final briefing to the Oaks left no room for uncertainty. In turn, they briefed us on basic rafting ("paddle when I say!"), safety procedures and the rescue process if and when any of should go for an unplanned swim. Eager grins amongst us masked a slight nervousness. We could hear in the background the roar of the rapids both above and below us.
In matching helmets and flotation vests we boarded the rafts - suddenly named Big Thunder and Lady of the Nile! - with Timmy running point in his kayak. Almost immediately we were in violent whitewater. "Forward paddle! Hard! Bend your backs. Hold on!!" Reuben and Davey manned the oars and shouted the commands at the same time. We did the best we could, as the Nile tried to rush into the boats while flinging us out. Soaked through, but not caring one bit, we plunged into the second set of rapids for a repeat dose.
The third set was more challenging still. A bit of advance scouting by Timmy determined that there was no safe line for the rafts on either side of a reed island in the middle of the river. So we pulled up on the island and resorted to good old brute force to drag the laden boats across and re-launched them on the downstream side. After some careful manoeuvring from Reuben, Big Thunder ran the final rapid and emerged the other side. Lady of the Nile followed with Davey on the oars. Watching from the lead raft, we saw the Lady tip almost on her side, seem to hang there for a second as if making a decision, then somehow land again right side up, with all hands miraculously still on board. We were told later that these were grade 4-5 rapids, and at that moment we were prepared to believe it.
Late on our short first day we found a camping spot on the western bank and pulled in to unload the rafts. We were in for another surprise. Having lived on dehydrated rations and trail mix for four days in the Imatongs, Pete and the Oaks had spared no expense for us in the culinary department. We feasted on fire-grilled steaks with stuffed and roasted butternut pumpkin, accompanied by red wine, and even a shot of scotch - on ice! All this while sitting on a log under a tree by the side of the Nile. Quite possibly these were the only Michelin starred rafts in east Africa! Needless to say we retired to our tents happy and satisfied.
Several times we saw pods of hippos lurking in the reeds at the edge of the river. Fortunately we were past them before their curiosity could give way to the fierce territorialism of which they are infamous. They watched us float by in the middle of the current with something like a "What the … ?" expression on their faces. On the second night of riverside camping, the Oaks heard a hippo munching the reeds alarmingly close to where we had landed the rafts. It passed by, possibly looking for a new spot to come onto land. The next morning we kept a keener-than-usual eye out as we set off, but there was no further sign.
Our other wildlife alert was for crocodiles. On a couple of occasions we heard the splash as one would enter the water as we went past. But no official sightings, to the great disappointment of some in our party; but probably the great relief of the guides.
For lunch on the second day we pulled in below the ruins of a fort constructed by the deposed governor of Equatoria (roughly what is now South Sudan) Emin Pasha in the 1880s, when his forces were on the run from the Mahdi armies from Khartoum. What's left of the fort sits on a slight rise on the Nile's western bank and is little more than a six-foot high overgrown stone wall overlooking the river. It would have had a commanding view of that section of water, but it would also have been a very lonely place to wait for the relief mission of Henry Morton Stanley, which had attempted to travel up the Congo and then overland. It was a quietly sobering reminder of the immense hardships faced by all those in the interior of Africa in the age of the great explorers.
Some things have changed very little since those days. Several times we saw local fisherman in dugout canoes. Their craft were just that: a hollowed-out log, in which they rode far at the back and steered with a single paddle. If any of us had attempted it, we would have capsized immediately, but they seemed remarkably stable. One canoe with a pair of fisherman pulled into our evening camp spot with a large freshly-caught fish and the intent to trade. After Timmy's bartering skills were put into action we had a fresh fish of indeterminate species, and the fisherman had a new pair of Slazenger shorts, as his were little more than holes held together by a waistband. It would be the following night before we cooked the fish over our campfire. The anticipation had built during the day; it dissipated immediately. When filleted, the fish had the appearance of cheap cheese, the flavour of nothing and the texture of Dunlop retreads. We quickly christened this unknown species the Cheesefish, and wondered if the fisherman's wife had been equally disappointed with his side of the trade, when she had been expecting something to cook for the family.
As we headed further from the Ugandan border the forest on either bank became thicker, with huge mango trees overhanging the river on each side. Reuben marvelled at the untouched nature of the wilderness here, whereas other sections of the Nile had been chopped and cleared for firewood, or grazing and farming land. Sparse habitation was the odd single-hut fishing community, and we were once again greeted with smiles and waves, as we had been days before on the road.
After five days on the least visited section of the entire White Nile, we pulled up just south of Juba where Pete was waiting with his truck. A small crowd of local children watched as our by-now well disciplined team unpacked the rafts for the final time, before hauling them up onto the bank, deflating them and loading them onto the truck. Big Thunder and Lady of the Nile had done us well, as had their pilots, the three Mighty Oaks. All that was left now was the short drive back to Bedouin, a more-than-welcome shower, and then the inevitable gathering in the bar for the liquid refreshments and retelling of tales which always conclude a major expedition.
Just as the team had gathered by ones and two, so we slowly split up again. Some caught an early flight out, the rest said our goodbyes and thank-you to Pete Meredith and his African Rivers stalwarts before braving Juba airport again to return to Nairobi. There we went our separate ways and to our own agendas, with promises of staying in touch and collaborating on possible future expeditions. Somehow, with the type of crew which Secret Compass attracts for their unique style of adventuring, I think those promises will be kept.
By Glen Downton, Secret Compass Team member