Naked Wrestlers And Africa’s Greatest Lake: My Travels In South Sudan And Uganda

Right after experiencing the most frightening moment of your travel career — being held hostage in terra nulius by machine gun-toting Bedouins — what do you do?

Do you take a break from it all and go lounge on the beach in Bali with rainbow nomads? No!

You carry on to one of the world’s least developed countries — Sudan’s neighbor to the south… South Sudan.

If you have’t already learned about my experience in Bir Tawil and adventures in and out of Sudan, read about them now. If you’re all caught up, let’s carry on with the rather new nation that split away from Sudan. And no I’m not talking about the nation of Staatenlos. 😉

It’s time for you to hear about South Sudan, followed by Uganda, where I actually became a rainbow nomad during my excursion to Africa’s greatest lake. 

What is South Sudan?

Given that nations like Staatenlos, the Kingdom of North Sudan and Islandia still lack formal recognition, the world’s newest country — or at least the most recent one to join the UN — is none other than South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

Sudan, itself, only gained its independence in 1956, having been Anglo-Egyptian run for the first half of the 20th Century. Sudanese independence began with a civil war between the north and the south, which lasted until 1972. This First Sudanese Civil War ended with the formation of the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region. Then the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out in 1983 and lasted until 2005, making it one of the longest civil wars ever. About 2 million people died as a result of fighting, famine and disease caused by the Second Sudanese Civil War. The conflict gained notoriety for atrocities like ethnic cleansing in Darfur, as well as mass rapes, killings and slavery. Plus a big refugee crisis, with many of the refugees from Darfur eventually settling in South Sudan. Ultimately, the Second Sudanese Civil War paved the way for South Sudanese independence.

Unlike its Islamic neighbor to the north, South Sudan is a country with a majority population that is either Christian or belonging to traditional faiths. 

And some of its inhabitants are so traditional they don’t even have to wear clothing.

Not safe for social media

What’s life like on the tribal lands of South Sudan? Let’s go and find out.

Setting foot in the south

My expedition into East and Central Africa began with a flight from Khartoum in Sudan to Juba, the capital and largest city of South Sudan. After learning at the last minute my initial flight was canceled, I waited an extra day and a half in Khartoum. This wasn’t such a pleasant because I got stung by a bunch of mosquitoes while trying to arrange my new flight. Eventually, I boarded the plane and touched down in Juba.

Southbound

Believe it or not, the airport in Juba does not rate very highly on lists of the top airports in the world. It was a bit of a mess to collect my baggage and find my guides.

After waiting for about an hour for my baggage, it finally appeared. I then decided to go outside to look for my tour guides and found them waiting for me, also a bit confused. Probably, there was some miscommunication about where we were supposed to meet.

Downtown Juba

They took me to my hotel which turned out to be quite a nice little fancy palace. It had a swimming pool, internet connection, air conditioning etc. This was quite luxurious by South Sudanese standards. 

Not bad..

Not bad..

The hotel made for quite a contrast to my initial impression of the South Sudanese capital. Juba basically has one paved road. The other roads are muddy, bumpy and full of potholes.

A typical street in the South Sudanese capital

I rested in the hotel for a bit before meeting up with my guides to explore start exploring Juba.

Another proposition was to travel a little outside of Juba to watch the weekly wrestling matches that take place between Dinka tribes every Sunday. 

There are roughly 56 different Dinka clans and they take wrestling very seriously. Whoever is considered to be the best wrestler in the clan is sort of the alpha male. As you’ll see in some pictures below from my visit to the rival Mundari people, boys train to wrestle at very young ages.

We drove to the spot of the wrestling venue, and unfortunately nobody was there. Apparently the large amounts of rain as of late had made for unfavorable conditions.

Wrestling or not, it was nice to see the countryside of Juba and to get a glimpse at all of the rural people living outside the city.

Juba countryside– Taken from the plane of course

After some more exploration of the city, we found a nice restaurant called Da Vinci’s right on the edge of the Nile. It was a pretty fancy place with a wooden balcony that extended right over the river. We enjoyed a couple of beers there while watching the sun sink in the sky.

Nilefront property

This part of the Nile is considered the White Nile. Generally speaking, the White Nile is what flows Lake Victoria (coming up in this post) to the Nile rivers confluence that I visited in Khartoum.

Back at the (White) Nile

Anyway, we enjoyed the views, including of some pretty South Sudanese women who were also enjoying watching the Nile.

After we finished our beers and the sun finished setting, my guide took me back to my hotel and said goodnight. I knew the next day was when the real adventure would begin, so I enjoyed my comfortable room and called it a night early.

The Mundari

I’m not as big as I look 😉

I woke up the next day to meet my guide and left immediately to meet the Nilotic tribe of people known as the Mundari.

For your information, Nilotic simply means nomadic people who are indigenous to the Nile Valley. The Dinka are also Nilotic people.

Mundari kids

While many Dinka have converted to Christianity, the Mundari still largely practice an animistic religion.

The Mundari are similar to many Nilotic tribes, including the Dinka, in that they are cattle herders, and cattle are an extremely important part of their culture and daily lives. They use cattle as currency; prospective grooms must offer cows to their brides’ families in order to get married; and the Mundari even engage in cattle wars with the Dinka. More on that in a minute…

A cattle oriented society

As soon as we got close to the Mundari settlement, suddenly there were cattle everywhere.

The settlement is located about an hour north of Juba along the Nile River. On the way there I was surprised by the quality of the roads. Apparently, the Chinese desire strong trading routes around the world — as part of their New Silk Road/Belt and Road Initiative — and East Africa is a focal point.

Before arriving at the Mundari camp we picked up a couple of Mundari guys who would welcome us into their settlement.

The Mundari are known as some of the tallest people in Africa on average. Remember I’m 6’7″…

The photos describe the settlement and Mundari way of life as well as words can. I will say, though, the children were very happy to pose with me and have their pictures taken. 

Another interesting thing is that the Mundari have a practice of ritual scarification. Most men and women have these big scars on their forehead that they receive from around the ages 11 or 12. It is a practice fairly common around much of Africa, but used for different reasons in different places.

Scarification

Some places in Africa use it as a form of identification, almost like an ID card. Your scars indicate what family or clan you come from or what rank you are etc. This is why it is not uncommon to see statues and sculptures with scars. Usually they indicate the person’s tribe or prestige.

In other places there are religious and aesthetic reasons for scarification. In one of the more bizarre scenarios, sometimes women will have their abdomen scarred to protect the health of the baby.

It seems strange to me, but that is part of their culture.

The Mundari smear themselves with what??

After a couple of hours hanging with the Mundari it was starting to get dark. My guide took me to my accommodations for the night, which was basically a tent without great insulation. The Mundari have a tradition of smearing themselves with cow shit and urine to keep the flies and mosquitos away, but I decided to pass on that method myself.

But maybe I would have been better off covered in cow shit and piss. I basically had a sleepless night in this poorly insulated tent in what was very humid weather. 

I would have been happier to drive back to the hotel in Juba. But we had another day to spend with the Mundari, so I sucked it up and tried to enjoy my third world slumber.

We spent the next day almost entirely with the Mundari. They are vegetarians for the most part and worship the cattle that they herd. The longer the horns of the cattle, the more impressive they find the animal to be. The cow with the most impressive horns is sort of believed to be some deity in reincarnation.

An impressive bovine..

It is very very rare that they eat one of their cattle. Despite being surrounded by cows, the Mundari don’t indulge in steaks nearly as often as I do. 

While the cows look very intimidating with their unkempt horns, they were very friendly and used to being around people. In fact, the Mundari value them so much that they massage the cows oftentimes multiple times a day! It must be nice…

Some of the young Mundari even rode them around like horses.

Giddy up

They do use the cows for yogurt and milk and such, by the way. So don’t get the idea that the cattle are there just to be worshipped.

Truthfully, I only needed a few hours with the Mundari to get a sufficient taste of their way of life. After spending the morning with them, we pitched our tents, setting them up as far away from the cows as possible. Not to say we were scared of the cows, but the flies and mosquitoes that the cows convoyed were really obnoxious.

Cow shit fight?

I read most of the day and returned to the Mundari camp around sunset to see what the village was like at night. Most of the boys were wrestling and many of the older men were watching and advising them. It is some part entertainment, and also partly to determine who is the strongest of the young children.

Mundari wrestling

Takedown

While there weren’t a lot of vehicles around, I did see a motorcycle surrounded by AK47’s and other weapons. Apparently they use these because other Nilohitic cow-herding tribes will try to steal their cattle at night. 

Some Mundari technology

Because of this cattle theft phenomenon, there are actually perpetual wars between the different Nilotic peoples. What people are willing to die for…

Protect thy herd

After sunset, I returned to my tent for another poor night of sleep. At sunrise it was time to say goodbye to the Mundari and drive back to Juba. My South Sudan adventure was already drawing to a close.

My tent and my guard

Getting out of South Sudan

Apparently, when you leave South Sudan you need a special departure permit, which the foreign affairs department is in charge of providing. They demanded some ridiculous bribe which we were unwilling to pay, so my guide advised that I should pick one up at the airport instead.

He dropped me off at the airport and wished me luck.

Departing Juba and departing South Sudan or trying to…

Unfortunately, his wish wasn’t immediately granted. I was now alone at the airport and found out I couldn’t get the special departure permit from the airport after all. Luckily with my frequent flier status, they let me through customs anyway. 

But then I found out my flight had been canceled. It would have been nice to have been notified of this in advance, but that surely was not the case.

There was another flight leaving shortly later that I could make, but because I wasn’t on the passenger list, I had to go to a different office which happened to be located in a local hotel instead of the airport :l

At this point, I was completely out of money, because as in Sudan, the ATM machines didn’t accept my cards and I had used up all my cash. This meant me running from office to office trying to figure out how in the hell to get out of this country. 

After several foreign affairs offices and many confusing conversations, I tracked down the main manager of the airport who mentioned there was a flight to Rwanda which I could board that was leaving in just one hour. From Rwanda there was another leg to Uganda.

I booked that flight and about an hour later I was finally leaving South Sudan en route to Entebbe, Uganda with a layover in Rwanda.

Arriving at Africa’s greatest lake

I landed in Entebbe and immediately took a taxi to my hotel. I was staying at the Protea Hotel by Marriott on the shore of Lake Victoria, which you can imagine was a very nice reprieve from the mosquito/fly sauna I had been sleeping in the previous nights.

Marriot Entebbe

This Marriott even had a private beach right along Lake Victoria, which is the largest lake in Africa and the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. I enjoyed the views of the lake from my room while I did some overdue consulting work. As some people may have noticed, at times it can be difficult to contact me. If I’m sleeping amid swarms of insects alongside cow shit-clad people in the middle of nowhere in South Sudan, I’m simply not very accessible. 😉

Private Lake Victoria beach

Anyway, I relaxed during the day and then around late afternoon I got prepared for my expected wine and cheese boat cruise. This was supposed to be a sunset cruise on Lake Victoria. 

I arrived at the boat club and waited and waited to no avail. The boat never showed up. I was quite disappointed.

But maybe it was for the best. I found some local fishermen, paid them $100, and they took me on their boat for a little Lake Victoria sunset cruise.

I think this turned out to be a much more authentic first experience of Africa’s greatest lake. The fishermen even threw in a couple of beers and agreed to take me to the island where there is a monument marking the exact spot where the equator runs through Lake Victoria.

Equator posting

I’ve now stood on the equator in EcuadorSao Tome and Uganda.

Sunset over Lake Victoria

We got back in our boat and headed back to Entebbe. All credit to the lake and sunset itself, but I think I got some really beautiful photos of this Ugandan sunset.

Entebbe Sunset

When we docked in Entebbe I thanked my new fisherman friends and headed back to enjoy the night in this lakeside Marriott. The next day I would begin a 3-day Safari in western Uganda culminating in Murchison Falls National Park.

Safari time

I was picked up early by my guide and we first embarked on the one hour drive to the Ugandan capital Kampala. Then we headed north to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, which was the first stop on this safari.

Because it’s a Rhino sanctuary and the only place you can find rhinos in Uganda, it didn’t take us very long to spot some. As soon as we got to the sanctuary they were everywhere.

Selfie with a Big 5 member

You may recall from my big African safari hopping adventure, that the rhino is 1 of the Big 5. Do you remember what the other 4 are? 🤔

Rhinos are massive animals that are actually quite dangerous and can run very fast but have terrible vision — something you may recall from when I dodged death by rhinoceros in Nepal.

Rhinos everywhere

Since we saw the rhinos early and took some nice pictures, there wasn’t a whole lot to do for the rest of the day. The rhino sanctuary had a nice lodge where we had lunch and dinner and a solid internet connection, so I was able to get some work done. For what it’s worth the private room I was staying in was called “Obama.” I think the story goes that there are 46 total Rhinos and the 44th one was named after Obama, since he was the 44th president. Also for what it’s worth, Barack Obama is still popular in East Africa.

My Obama room

I had a nice sleep in the Obama Ugandan vacation lodge room and left early the next day to make the long drive to the Murchison Falls National Park. The park is located in Western Uganda near Lake Albert, another one of the African Great Lakes.

Upon entering Murchison Falls, you can see some chimpanzees if you’re lucky. We drove for a while before we found some. They were very high up, so it was difficult to take a picture. Luckily, one of the chimps seemed either curious by us or just wanted to say hello. He came down almost to the ground, and the photo taking ensued.

Hello there

It was my first time seeing chimpanzees in the wild and it was amazing to see how fast they can climb up and down trees. At one moment they are visible and then they are gone.

First time seeing a wild chimpanzee

From the chimp sighting area we hiked to the Victorian part of the Nile River. Known as the Victoria Nile, it is still part of the White Nile. The Victoria Nile flows northwest from Lake Victoria through Uganda, connecting to other lakes and waterfalls.

The Victoria Nile

We got on a boat and sailed up the Victoria Nile a bit, getting to see some hippos, elephants and finally a crocodile along the way.

Elephant wading in the Victoria Nile

As soon as we got close to the actual Murchison Falls, it became apparent how awesome the waterfall really is. Even from a distance, the power of this massive amount of water was overwhelming.

Some members of my tour group decided to stay back with the boat. Our tour guide offered to take some of us on a safe hike up to a great vantage point of the falls.

As somewhat of a waterfall connoisseur, how could I say no?

Murchison Falls

We made the hike which turned out to be pretty strenuous. Along the way, the closer we got, the louder and more intense it all seemed.

When we got to the vantage point I was blown away. I have seen some of the great waterfalls of the world like Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls in Southern Africa and even Mulafossur in the Faroe Islands, but this one was the most spectacular I have ever seen. 

Because the Nile is the longest river in the world, it seems to give these falls this raw, natural power and immensity that you hardly find anywhere else.

Of course you can expect from me the obligatory waterfall selfie. But my Murchison Falls selfie was truly a memorable one. Look:

Rainbow nomad at last 🙂

After leaving the waterfall, our guide took us back to cross the Nile and see the savannah side of the park. There I snapped one of my favorite photos while in Uganda.

We spotted this giraffe right at sunset. Being able to see creatures like this up close and in front of beautiful sunsets reminds me why I love spending time in Africa. 🙂

Sunset giraffe

After catching this giraffe and sunset, we had another half an hour drive to a camp where we would spend the night.

This was a pretty interesting camp because we were surrounded by animals and the many noises they were making. We enjoyed a nice dinner and went to bed early to prepare for the final leg of the safari. 

We left camp the next day at 6 am to try to spot some animals in their morning routines. I didn’t see any more rhinos, which wasn’t much of a disappointment considering I had seen more than a few the day before.

Morning giraffes

However, I was very satisfied to see some buffalos, lions, and elephants… Where does that leave my Big 5 count for this safari? Do you know? 🤔

Apparently it’s quite rare to find a lion sleeping in a tree, typically something leopards do instead. But my luck was good that day, and I got this picture: 

Sleeping Lion

It almost reminds you of something out of The Jungle Book.

We saw some more lions lying around in the grass and a few leopards here and there. The leopards were a bit harder to…. Spot. 😉

Mating grounds

Wrapping up our safari, we drove back to the Victoria Nile and took an unfinished bridge across the river. Apparently the Chinese were building bridges in the area but hadn’t finished. Structurally the bridge was sound for at least one car at a time. We had to wait our turn in line, though, before we were able to cross.

Lovely setting

Once we finally made it to the other side of the Nile, it was time to make our way back to Entebbe, where my flight to Burundi was (hopefully) waiting.

Great Lakes hopping ahead…

Having already paid a visit to Africa’s greatest lake and safaried right by another member of this club of large bodies of water, my trip around the Great Lakes region of East/Central Africa was now in full swing. The craziness and discomfort of Bir Tawil and Mundari tribal life was behind me and lake hopping in little Burundi and Rwanda is upcoming. But so is a stop in an Ebola-ridden area of the region… in my next post.

Final Ugandan Sunset 🙂