Held Hostage By Bedouins In Terra Nullius: My Trek To And Escape From Bir Tawil

I’ve been to Somalia. I’ve been to Venezuela during political unrest, and I’ve been to Syria during civil war. I’ve circled the globe many times and am nearing completion of the United Nations countries list. 

Yet never before I stepped foot on the world’s last remaining terra nullius — located along the border between Egypt and Sudan — had I ever been held hostage. It finally happened at the behest of a Bedouin gang that does not claim Bir Tawil but certainly controls it.

In this blog, I’ll take you along on my adventure across Northern Sudan — a region actually rich in ancient sights and pyramids — to Bir Tawil, the only true terra nullius.

After getting a taste of pyramids; desert temples and tombs; and life along the Nile River, we’ll finally enter terra nullius and find out what this armed Bedouin gang is up to and why they’re so hostile toward foreigners.

Are you ready?

Briefer on Bir Tawil

So why is Bir Tawil unclaimed land?

If you look at it on a map, Bir Tawil looks like it is part of Sudan. The Egyptian-Sudanese border looks like a straight line, and it looks like Bir Tawil is located on the Sudanese side of the border.

But things aren’t so simple. There is a longstanding border dispute between Egypt and Sudan, which centers over an adjacent and much larger strip of land called the Halai’b Triangle. This triangle stretches to the Red Sea in the east and intersects with Bir Tawil in the west.

Basically, whoever claims Bir Tawil loses their claim to the Halai’b Triangle. So neither side claims Bir Tawil.

But a handful of travelers and micronation founders have laid claim to Bir Tawil, something I may do as well and something that may get my tour group in trouble…

YPT meetup in Cairo

My Sudan adventure began in Cairo, Egypt. I had flown into Cairo from Iraq to meet the rest of my travel group. This was another Young Pioneer Tours adventure. You may remember YPT from my North Korea, Central Asia and South Pacific trips. When traveling to a place like Sudan, it’s a relief to be going with a tour group like YPT.

Sudan hasn’t always been the easiest country for foreigners to visit. That’s changed somewhat in recent months, though.

Earlier this year in April, a military coup overthrew longtime Sudanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir. The Bashir regime had ruled Sudan for 30 years and was accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Many people in Sudan are confident the future will improve now that Al-Bashir and his allies gone from the government.

Optimism for a better future

Because of the recent change in government, the process to get a visa for Sudan wasn’t very difficult. However, to travel outside of the capital Khartoum, you need a special travel permit. It only took about an hour for all five members of our group to get our travel permits. And we didn’t have to bribe anyone.

We were all set. From Cairo, we flew directly to Khartoum.

Arrival in the Sudanese Capital

Khartoum is commonly known for being the city located at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. Technically this marks the beginning of the Nile River since the Blue and White Nile are considered two very different rivers until they merge. 

Which Nile or The Nile?

We landed in Khartoum late the first night. We were staying at the Khartoum Plaza Hotel, which has a nice Syrian restaurant inside. We ate there before heading to our rooms.

Alcohol is completely prohibited in Sudan, so I didn’t find any cocktails on their menu. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the restaurant had Guava juice. Whenever I am in South America, for instance, this is one of my favorite drinks to order.

Guava juice is great for your immune system. I ordered one, happy to have boosted my immune system before spending a week in the desert.

As it turns out, my immune system would be the least of my worries in and around Sudan…

Day tripping in and around the confluence

On our first full day in the Sudanese capital, we wanted to visit the National Museum of Sudan in Southern Khartoum. Unfortunately, it was closed that day. The museum is basically a warehouse for all the ancient artifacts from the region, and it is highly regarded, so I hope to return one day.

Instead of the museum, we ended up driving to Khartoum’s sister city, Omdurman. 

Omdurman lies west of Khartoum on the other side of the White Nile. Crossing the Nile on a bridge meant we could see the famous muddy waters where the Blue and White Nile converge. In Arabic they call this al-Muqran, which means “the confluence.”

The confluence of the Niles

In Omdurman we had the pleasure of doing a little socializing. As you can see, I got to know some of the local girls. I needed the translation help of our guides in order to talk to them. But no amount of language barrier would wipe the smiles off their faces. 🙂

My harem and I

We also visited a couple of markets. First off, we paid an interesting visit to a Sudanese supermarket.

Other than alcohol, the supermarket was stocked with just about everything you’d need. My group bough some supplies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to buy much. 

I had forgotten that my credit cards wouldn’t work in Sudan, and I couldn’t pull money out of ATMs either. I had just $175 in my wallet when I arrived and would need it to last me all 10 days in the country. Luckily food is included in the prepaid cost of a YPT adventure. I wasn’t going to starve, but I still needed to ration my money just in case.

Everything you want… except alcohol

Some people used this shopping opportunity in order to buy tents. I didn’t think I would need one for just a couple of nights sleeping in the desert.

After leaving the supermarket, we visited the Omdurman souk. It’s considered to be the largest souk in Sudan. With my budget in mind, the only thing I could take from there were pictures.

Sudanese Souk

From the souk we went straight to visit the Tomb of the Mahdi. 

Tomb of Al-Mahdi

Muhammad Ahmad was a ruler, religious leader and mystic in Sudan in the late 19th century. He was proclaimed the “Mahdi” when he was only 37. This means he was meant to be the messianic savior of the Islamic faith. In their tradition, the Mahdi is supposed to team up with the second returning of Jesus to defeat the antichrist.

We visited Muhammad Ahmad’s very impressive mausoleum, then crossed back over the bridge and returned to Khartoum. 

While crossing the bridge, we had a great view of a luxury egg-shaped hotel called the Corinthia Hotel Khartoum. 

New age pyramid

We were heading toward the giant egg for a Nile cruise, which started at the base of the hotel. From underneath and up close, you see it really is a spectacularly designed building.

A photo of the giant egg I took later in the trip

Anyway, our cruise was only about 45 minutes. It mostly consisted of going to the confluence of the Blue and White Nile.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the season to see any crocodiles, or so we were told.

After the cruise, we had dinner at the same Syrian restaurant in our hotel and said goodnight. In hindsight, I might have taken for granted how nice it was to stay in a hotel…

Ancient cities along the Nile

Source of life meets the desert

The following day we hit the road and had about 500 km of driving, something that would become more of a norm than an anomaly over the duration of the trip.

On our first full day of driving, we had plenty of desolate desert landscapes. On the bright side, that meant there were very few places I could spend the little money I had.

Desolate desert

The drive itself wasn’t particularly interesting, but the sights were well worth the wait.

Our first destination was the ancient city of Dongola, located along the banks of the Nile.

Hundreds of years ago Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt were part of the once-Christian Kingdom of Makuria. Originally Dongola was simply a fortress put there to protect that area of the Nile.

But a town named Dongola was eventually built around the fortress, and it grew into the capital of Makuria. 

We visited what is now known as Old Dongola. It’s been a ghost town since then 19th Century, when its population moved downstream and across the Nile to form the present day city of Dongola.

Old Dongola

In Old Dongola, many gravestones and tombs remain. These tombs are referred to as “beehive tombs.” I’m sure you can see why:

Beehive Tombs

Our next destination was an archeological site on the other side of the Nile. This meant we needed a ferry to take our four cars across the river.

We crossed the Nile, drove aways and reached the ancient city of Kerma. This archeological site is home to the large adobe temple called the Deffufa. It’s dated to about 3800 BC.

Ancient Deffufa of Kerma

After Kerma, we headed to a traditional Nubian house, where we spent the night.

Nile hopping

The next day we had to head back across the Nile on our way to the ancient Nubian town of Soleb.

But first, we drove up a hill to a viewpoint looking down on the river with a nice panorama.

As you can see, the presence of water can turn even one of the harshest deserts into lush landscape. All around the Nile you can find lush green vegetation.

Sacred ancient waters

At this point, we were Nile hopping. Time spent admiring one of the most influential rivers on the planet is hardly time wasted — especially since this site will soon be destroyed in order to build a dam.

This viewpoint was also special because it was where I managed to spot a Nile crocodile. So much for it not being the season. 🙂

We descended to catch our ferry, which happened to be an hour late.

Sudanese Uber

We arrived in Soleb as the sun was setting. It was a bit late to explore much, but just early enough to get some great shots of the desert sunset.

Temple of Soleb at dusk

That night we stayed at another Nubian style homestay, which was not far from the temple. As always, our hosts and the local Sudanese people were very warm and hospitable.

The Palmyra of Sudan

The next morning was our chance to explore Soleb properly in the daylight.

Ancient Nubian carving in Soleb

These ancient ruins are fun to let your imagination run with. Thousands of years of history give them a bit of an otherworldly aura. The place reminded me a little bit of Palmyra in Syria. Well, minus the threat of landmines leftover by ISIS.

Temple of Soleb

It was time to say goodbye to Soleb and journey toward Karima.

Karima is a Sudanese town located beside the ruins of the ancient Nubian city-state of Napata. The area is full of ancient sights and attractions.

We had a long drive to the Karima area. Hence, this might be a good time to mention the surprising road quality in this part of Sudan. The roads across much of Northern Sudan are paved and quite good. This is apparently because of oil companies operating in the area.

Thank you, oil companies.

When we reached the Karima area, we came upon our first real Sudanese pyramids.

First we visited El-Kurru, a pyramid cemetery for Nubian royalty. It is basically a pyramid with an underground crypt and temple reserved for kings and pharaohs. The tombs have well-preserved hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs in an underground tomb at El-Kurru

El-Kurru was an incredibly holy place for Nubians because it is where they believed their King would rise with the Gods beside him.

Later in the day we made it to Jebel Barkal, a small holy mountain with temples at its foot. We visited the Temple of Amun before climbing the small mountain. Amun-Ra is arguably the most important deity in Egyptian mythology.

The ruins of temples, like the Temple of Amun, lie at the foot of the holy mountain Jebel Barkal.

Jebel Barkal is a perfect landmark for anyone sailing up or down the Nile. Better yet, you are allowed to hike to the top… if you think you can make it. 

I did 🙂

We summited Jebel Barkal right around sunset. This sunset was among the best because it came with views of pyramids, other ancient ruins, the city of Karima and the Nile.

The sunset view

Finally some pyramids

And to top it off, there were sand dunes. One face of the mountain is actually a sand dune.

We had fun running down the sand dune at sunset and even after dark. It’s much easier going up than down.

Sand dune extravaganza

After running or rolling down the mountain and actually staying down, we headed into town.

That night we surprisingly stayed in a fairly nice hotel. It’s called Merowe Tourist Village and it’s located in Karima.

Karima — a typical Sudanese town along the Nile

We got some rest and ventured out early the next morning to see the nearby Nuri pyramids.

The Nuri pyramids

The Nuri pyramids were nice to see, but nothing too special.

Small pyramids by Sudanese standards

That’s right. Much more impressive pyramids lie ahead on this journey…

Some friendly locals hanging out in front of the pyramids

We enjoyed the company of some locals around the pyramids.

This wasn’t the only time we got a picture of desert life in Sudan. The next day we stopped at desert settlements amid a very long drive.

Here’s a look at a typical desert hut in Sudan:

Desert life

And here’s a look at someone who lives in a desert hut.

More than 100 and counting…

This woman is more than 100 years old. She’s basically been living forever in a small desert hut.

Pyramids and camping

Our desert hut stop took place amid the long drive from one set of pyramids to the next. We were headed to the ancient city of Meroe.

Thankfully we didn’t have to drive these to get to Meroe.

The Great Pyramids of Giza are probably the best-known pyramids in the world. The lesser-known Meroe Pyramids are pretty incredible and much less crowded, but still the most touristy sight in Sudan.

We arrived at the pyramids fairly late in the day. We had a quick walk around while we enjoyed the sunset.

The Meroe pyramids: spectacular!

Before dark, we found a place nearby in the desert to set up camp for the night. 

Due to budget constraints, while my group set up tents, I foraged around for a spot somewhat protected from the wind. It was going to be cold, but I was happy to fall asleep gazing at the stars.

Night one of sleeping under the stars

The next morning we got an opportunity to explore Meroe in the daylight. At one time Meroe was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Today, more than 200 Nubian style pyramids remain.

Pyramids galore

Meroe transport

In addition to tourists, there were a lot of vendors trying to sell souvenirs and memorabilia. 

It was quite a surprise to wake up surrounded by a bunch of Bedouins who were waiting for you to wake up so they could sell you things.

Luckily I didn’t have to lie when I said I didn’t have any money to spend 🙂

Morning Bedouin ambush — a sign of things to come??

After seeing the pyramids of Meroe, we headed to another ancient sight in the area, the ruins of Naqa.

Naqa was an ancient city that served as a strategic trading post that enabled an exchange of goods between Africa and the Mediterranean region. Because of its historical role, you could find European influence in Naqa.

Today, the Naqa ruins contain a well-preserved Roman kiosk, as well as a couple of temples.

Naqa Ruins

One the temples is the Temple of Apedemak, the lion god. It’s also known as the Lion temple, which you can see explained in Arabic, as well as in my native language:

The Germans are everywhere…

After Naqa it was time to make our way to the final regional outpost — the town of Abu Hamad. 

But first it was time for a group shakeup. Three members of the group would not be joining us on the journey to terra nullius. Meanwhile, five new brave souls would be. They were just then arriving from Khartoum.

We said our goodbyes and hellos and at last it was time to venture…

Into the Wild

Abu Hamad is the last permanently inhabited settlement before the vast, open Nubian Desert, which we would need to cross off-road in order to reach Bir Tawil. 

How do we get to terra nullius when no road leads there? We basically follow tire tracks in the sand.

And we get a local guide.

Bir Tawil is not a war zone, but it certainly isn’t the safest or most manageable place to be traveling as a foreigner. Because of this, you need to hire a special guide who is familiar with the area and the desert. 

When we finally found one, our YPT guides wanted to be sure he was competent. They interrogated him for about an hour and eventually decided they could trust him.

So with that, our Nubian Desert adventure began. We drove our Jeeps off the roads and started the day and a half journey through the middle of the desert.

The real journey begins…

We made a couple of hours of progress the first night, then found a place to set up camp. There was a bit of a sandstorm going on, so this was an uncomfortable night of sleep for all of us. Even those with tents had to rough it. They needed to forcibly hold the tents down to keep them from blowing away.

The stars from my mattress in the desert

After a bad night of sleep, we woke up with a 10-hour drive to look forward to. 

It was a fairly uneventful drive to start. We passed some gold camps — places where people come prospect for gold and then leave. We didn’t make much of this at the time, but it was certainly a sign.

Other than that, we just passed nice desert landscape.

Gold mountain

When we were about three hours away from Bir Tawil, two of our Jeeps broke down. Similarly to when a Jeep broke down on my trek across the Wakhan Corridor of Tajikistan, we had no choice but to leave it there.

Luckily we had three other Jeeps or our tour group might have looked like this

But we couldn’t leave the driver of the broken car alone in the middle of the desert. So one of our guides had to ditch us and tow the broken car back to the gold camp.

This left us with 3 cars to share among 13 people. Things got more cramped, but it was manageable. 

Eventually, we made it to Bir Tawil right at sunset.

Arrival in terra nullius

There is no border or signposting, but based on our GPS we knew we had made it. We enjoyed watching the sun set behind a volcano-shaped mountain that lies just outside of Bir Tawil.

Meanwhile, we found a nearby sand dune to set up camp next to. Then we threw a small party to celebrate our entry into terra nullius.

Sunset on the edge of terra nullius

A bit more Bir Tawil background

This 800 square mile strip of land along the Egyptian-Sudanese border has a rather recent history of being claimed by micronational leaders.

What is commonly known as the first attempt to claim Bir Tawil occurred 2014. An American named Jeremiah Heaton traveled to Bir Tawil and claimed it as the Kingdom of North Sudan.


Heaton’s young daughter had asked if she could be a real life princess. So her father made her dream come true by founding a kingdom in the world’s last remaining terra nullius.

Heaton, the “Sovereign Monarch for the Kingdom of North Sudan,” planted his flag in Bir Tawil soil in June 2014.

Since then, some others have followed, claiming Bir Tawil either by physically going there like us or doing so from afar.

Founding of the Free Private City of Bir Tawil

The next morning was my time to claim Bir Tawil. 

Alone, I ventured up the sand dune a few hundred meters away from our camp to a remote location where no one has been and I expect no one will come. The volcano-shaped mountain was clearly visible in the background.

I brought with me a Staatenlos t-shirt. When I reached this ultra-isolated spot, I left the shirt pinned down on a pile of rocks and wrote in the sand “Free Private City of Bir Tawil.”

Welcome to the Land of Staatenlos: Because your life belongs to you!

Then I recorded a video in which I claimed Bir Tawil as Staatenlos, the first country belonging to Christoph Heuermann.


I also took some photos, including a selfie. Then I triumphantly left. 

Proof I stepped foot in terra nullius

The shirt is probably still there. It’s quite well hidden. No one will find it unless they know exactly where to search. May the shirt remain there eternally, and may the land remain Staatenlos!

Exploring terra nullius

I returned to the group and we set off to explore Bir Tawil. There wasn’t much to see, except there was surprisingly a wadi with greenery. In this wadi we found bushes, trees, birds and butterflies. Apparently Bir Tawil gets some rain, which creates a really beautiful sight at the right time of year.

We also visited a gold mine.

As you may have gotten the impression by now, Northern Sudan has relatively large gold reserves. There are Bedouin tribes that mine gold in the Nubian Desert, and they have strict rules about each other’s territories.

The Bedouins who were at this gold mine in terra nullius weren’t too friendly. They told us not to take any photos. We looked around briefly and left.

After a couple of hours, we were done exploring. We were already preparing to depart terra nullius. We just had one last stop.


We climbed a small hill for a little ceremony.

It was now time for the others to claim Bir Tawil.

The YPT guides claimed it as Islandia.

The Islandian claim to Bir Tawil

Islandia is a micronation — one that I’ve actually invested in — that is a project of Young Pioneer Tours. Expect to see this flag again, flying on a small private island in the Caribbean. Islandia should easily become a party island populated by lots of adventurous young people. 🙂

Meters away from the Islandian flag, other members of my tour group were plating a flag of their own. It was a very… phallic flag. As a joke, one member of the group painted a penis on a flag. The idea stuck.

During the little ceremony we had, both the Islandia flag and the joke penis flag were planted on the hill. Two more new countries were declared.

And it was exactly at that time when a car in the distance started approaching us.

In such a remote place the chances weren’t likely that this was going to be anything good. But we waited for the car to come.

The vehicle pulled up beside us. There were six Bedouins inside.

Uh oh

The Bedouins were armed with machine guns. They jumped out of the car and started questioning us. They only spoke Arabic, so we had to interact with them through our guide.

Yelling in Arabic, the Bedouins ordered us to follow them in our three remaining cars. 

Apparently, our visit to the gold mine was what triggered this hostility.The Bedouins at the gold mine phoned the headquarters of their operation. And then a car was sent to go search for us. 

They found us in an area that may actually have a lot of gold.

The metal that caused all the trouble… (we didn’t take this from them)

We needed to follow the Bedouins back to their headquarters — basically a base camp — while they summoned their chief to decide what to do with us.

But the chief was far away. And we would have to wait for his arrival.

When we got to the headquarters they searched everything in our cars and bags and ordered us not to take any photos.

Still they treated us diplomatically. They fed us some falafel and served us drinks. At one point, they slaughtered a goat for us.

Not only were these Bedouins heavily armed, they had quite powerful equipment. We could hear dynamite blasting holes in the nearby mountain.

Bedouin man praying

After several hours, when the chief still hadn’t arrived, they told us we needed to camp nearby and wait until the morning.

Our tour guides negotiated and negotiated. We had planned on leaving Bir Tawil at midday. Now it was looking like we were going to be held captive overnight by armed Bedouins. 

I spent most of the afternoon doing nothing and reading a book about Prussia.

The negotiations ended with our guides insisting we would leave by 7 the next morning whether the chief showed up or not. 

We essentially caved to their demand, and the Bedouins brought us to some nearby area in the middle of the desert where we were told to set up camp beside a circle of stones.

I set up my mattress next to some stones about 100 meters away from other members of my group. And about 200 meters away were Bedouins with machine guns watching over us.

The Bedouins also set up a camp to make sure we wouldn’t leave. It was all pretty spooky.

The first Airbnb in the new country of Staatenlos

When we all woke up in the morning, the Bedouins came over with their machine guns. The negotiations resumed.

Things got a bit scary. Some of the aggressive young Bedouins actually started firing their guns. The older ones were more reasonable, though.

Our guides did a good job.They argued that we were just stupid tourists. And they seemed to convince the Bedouin gang of that.

We handed in the Islandia flag and hid the penis flag.

Yes, we were pictured with the Bedouin tribe

But we weren’t allowed to just stroll back to our vehicles and take off.

We were forced to be individually recorded on video saying our names and nationalities. That way, should we ever set foot in Bir Tawil again, we could be identified and severely punished. How severely is anyone’s guess. 

They made it clear we should leave and never return and tell the world to stay clear of Bir Tawil.

In all, we were held hostage for about 20 hours.

A departing gift

Before finally leaving, we returned to the Bedouins’ headquarters where we had lunch and they filled us up with petrol. That was actually a big favor because petrol is highly regulated by the military in Sudan. At some points during the trip, we were delayed by multiple hours as we had to scavenge for petrol along the Nile and on the black market.

Goodbye Bedouins

Fed and fueled, we set off. The Bedouin gang did, too. I managed to snap this illicit photo of them as they were leaving. 

Gold, gold, more gold and the return to civilization

On the way back to Abu Hamad we took a different route. On this route we passed dozens of gold mines. The area where all these gold mining operations take place looks like a huge crater.

It was very fitting we took this route on the way back to civilization.

After another 10+ hour drive through the desert, we made it back to Abu Hamad just in time for dinner. Unfortunately, all the hotels were full so we would need to camp outside for a sixth consecutive night.

I woke up the next morning on a mattress in the desert, for the last time in a while. I hope 🙂

My other nation’s shirt after six days sleeping in the sand

From Abu Hamad, we drove back to Khartoum, very happy to have returned to civilization. The initial reward for our struggles was being treated to a fancy dinner high up in The Corinthia, that big egg-shaped luxury hotel.

Well deserved chocolate fountain high up in the egg

After almost a week of chicken, beans and bread in the desert, the buffet at the hotel was kingdom come.

This was the proverbial last supper for our tour group. We had a nice evening discussing Sudan and our thoughts about the whole experience.

Who really are these Bedouins?

I’m sure you’re curious as to who these Bedouins who held us hostage really are. And you’re in luck because I do know more information about them, which I gleaned over the course of this crazy experience.

These machine gun-toting Bedouins come from a real, known tribe. The tribe is called Ababda. The Ababda people comprise a big tribe that’s based in Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt.

Some members of the tribe have actually lived in Bir Tawil in the past. The would only live there seasonally, though.

These people are quite nomadic. And they are quite wealthy.

These wealthy Bedouins are not doing the difficult prospecting work themselves. Rather, they employ workers who are from or who have fled war-torn Darfur. The poor people from Darfur work in terrible conditions as they mine gold in Northern Sudan and Bir Tawil. So much so that they can only work for a couple of weeks a year.

Still, the gold mining operations in the area are highly lucrative — at least for the wealthy Bedouins.

Hence, foreigners who come to the area and eye the operations are viewed as threats that must be suppressed — whether or not they are wide-eyed tourists carrying penis flags or Staatenlos shirts.

Summing things up

Long story short, Bir Tawil is not claimed but is controlled. I may have established a stateless country there and a free private city, too. But the world’s last terra nullius isn’t terribly free.

You have been warned not to go there. But if you do, and if you search hard enough, you will find proof I successfully evaded a gang of robed men with machine guns and staked claim to the world’s only unclaimed land.

On this journey, our prayers were answered. Allahu akbar!