Things were going OK until my passport disappeared. Snatched out of my hand by a drunkard wearing a white singlet and combat trousers. I’d only been in the country thirty minutes. Welcome to South Sudan I thought to myself.

He first approached me moments after I’d crossed the border and gone in search of an immigration official. The newly built office block nearby, with a sign outside reading ‘Immigration Office Tsertenya’, was clearly closed and the flag poles bare. A good enough sign that few people came through this little-used post.

South Sudan immigration

I asked a group of men playing dominoes under the shade of an acacia tree where I could find the immigration officer.

‘Go and ask for Jacob up there’, pointed a disinterested police officer in the direction of several tin-shacks.

In doing so I had chosen to brush aside this drunken fool, who in a slurred drawl pumped his fist on a bulging scar in the centre of his muscular torso and claimed to be working for the CID. Criminal Investigation Department perhaps?

The immigration officer was fortunately sober, but confessed, somewhat embarrassingly while he stamped me into the country, that this fool was indeed a government employee. Without asking much more I got the feeling that if there was any hierarchy of authority out here, unfortunately he was quite senior.

I was just about to leave, after having filled my water bottles up, when he re-appeared on the track in front of me and demanded to see my passport.

It would have been wiser to hold onto it firmly for inspection. I recall doing this in certain places in Africa where law and order have little meaning and the person requesting to see my passport probably had little authority to do so, and was most likely, as on this occasion, drunk.

Well my passport wasn’t even opened before it disappeared in a side pocket and the fool stumbled off out of view. Great.

As I stood calmly waiting and wondering what to do, it also occurred to me that it would have been wiser to cross the border in the morning – less chance of dealing with a drunken border official. Actually, it would have been wiser not to enter South Sudan at all.

In the days and weeks leading up to entering the World’s newest country I mostly avoided telling people my plan to cycle there. The day before entering the country there had in fact been another signed agreement for a ceasefire to come into play between government troops and rebel forces loyal to the country’s Vice President. Whether that was going to make much difference to the general atmosphere in a country wracked by years of Civil War I had no idea. What I did know is most of the recent conflict was taking place in regions I would be well away from. Some solace as I looked out into a scenic expanse of green bush in the late afternoon sun.

I patiently let time pass as various people became involved in either trying to retrieve my passport, or attempting to explain, mostly in a drunken manner, that they worked for another government department and that now I must follow them.

The passport during this 40-minute time frame moved through various hands. There was plenty of discussion, but eventually it came back to me from the immigration officer, who in leaning towards me while handing it over uttered two clear words. ‘Go now’.

An abandoned tank appeared in the bush moments later as I rode between high elephant grass towards green mountains. Something in Arabic was written on the front and I wondered when in the past this had last been in use.

Abandoned tank

Heading to Ikotos in South Sudan

There were no villages visible. When I pitched the tent a short distance from the track I assumed it would just be the familiar sound of insects to fall asleep to in the sultry air.

Wild camping. First night in South Sudan.

I was wrong. Drumming, singing, voices and several gunshots were audible as I lay still trying to guess how far away this village was. Actually there must have been more than one village or compound of huts as the sounds came from different directions.

It wasn’t the only night I heard singing and drumming while lying in my tent during the short time I spent in South Sudan. As for the sound of gunshots – well I soon realised that the possession of a gun here was more common than that of a mobile phone. There probably aren’t many countries in the World that can claim that.

Toposa gun man

Guns were everywhere – nonchalantly slung over male shoulders from a young age. It was hard not to think how quickly a calm rural setting could change in an instant should one of these guns be in the possession of an angry youth one day, who just so happened to see a foreigner on a loaded bicycle approaching.

The reality was most people on the roadside looked on with bemusement as I rolled past with a hand in the air to greet them. When I did stop it was clear few people spoke any English, so I just pointed in front of me and named the next known settlement on my map.

People frequently asked for water, and when I had plenty spare I offered what was left in a bottle. On other occasions when I was running low I did my best to point and explain I had little left.

Girls on the road to Kapoeta

South Sudan girls

With the history of conflict it’s little wonder I saw no large animals as I rode through what my map demarcated as Kidepo Game Reserve. Surely nothing edible and valuable, such as elephants, could survive out here.

Much to my surprise the dirt track here had been recently regraded, although only one vehicle came past me as I headed towards Chukudum. The sky was a deep blue, and despite the many dry river-beds I crossed I guessed rain wasn’t all that uncommon in this part of the country.

South Sudan landscape

Road to Chukudum

Track to Chukudum

Kidepo River

‘Please bear with the situation’ said the local driver cheerfully as he slowed to greet me in a landcruiser with a ‘Norwegian Peoples Aid’ sticker on the side.

In Chukudum I managed to obtain a local sim card. The mobile tower pointing out of the greenery beside a single street of tin and wooden shacks was the only significant indication of the modern world I had seen since entering the country.

Sunset in Chukudum

I enquired about accommodation and got pointed towards a Catholic mission, which in structure and setting turned out to be one of the most impressive I have seen in Africa.

Mission in Chukudum

‘Built in 1947 by the Italians’, I think the Pastor had said. He gave me a brief rundown of the history and life in Chukudum, before I pitched my tent in the shade of some mango trees. I was too tired to remember much beyond him saying that most gunshots I might hear at night were just boys showing off or possibly hunting an animal. It was somehow reassuring.

The mountainous surroundings continued on my third day in the country as I rode towards the town of Kapoeta.

Road to Kapoeta

‘Be a little careful going through Camp 15’, cautioned the Pastor. ‘The Didinka and Toposa are sometimes raiding each others cattle’. This, for the most part, seemed to be the biggest security problem I had been hearing about. One tribe stealing livestock from another. Camp 15, which wasn’t on my map, but sounded rather ominous, turned out to be as peaceful as the rest of the countryside.

East from Camp 15 to Kapoeta

In Kapoeta I pitched my tent in the cool shade of a large campsite called ‘Mango Camp’. If ever there were an oasis of calm in a war-torn country this would be it. Campsite would actually be the wrong description, even if there were a number of large permanent tents in the compound. Aside from a few missionary and NGO groups passing through, I very much doubt anyone else came to stay here.

Mango camp: Kapoeta

The owner, who had in fact assisted me with providing an invitation letter to secure a visa for South Sudan, was out of the country. The main business here wasn’t providing accommodation, but running a borehole drilling company. There were also a number of containers belonging to a gold mining company on the compound. It would have been useful to meet him, not only to ask about where I could find boreholes on my route ahead, but information about the condition of the road and the general security. This task fell to the responsibility of a few individuals working for an NGO called the Carter Centre.

Back in Tanzania, when I hatched the idea of crossing through South Sudan, a former employee of the Carter Centre, working on Guinea Worm eradication in and around Kapoeta, had given me the idea that it would be possible to cross the border from South Sudan to Ethiopia. Until I saw a detailed road map of East Equatorial Province from one of the locally employed Carter Centre staff, I didn’t think it would be possible, but sure enough there were tracks, and more importantly boreholes from which to access water.

The distance into Ethiopia from Kapoeta would be about 350km, so I calculated around 4-5 days of travel, for which I would need to provision myself with food. There would be nothing to buy en-route and crossing into Ethiopia would involve walking up to a rocky plateau and then into a tribally sensitive no-mans land. It all sounded like pure adventure. My mind was made up.

I rested in Kapoeta for several more days, which as a settlement turned out to be a sprawling dump of tin-shacks where the smell of human excrement filled the air. The place had no toilets! Kenyans mostly ran small shops and other businesses frequented by the local Toposa tribe, some of whom lived in the town. Others had probably walked in from the bush. With little or no public transport in South Sudan I realised that people here were used to walking for an entire day or more to reach somewhere.

Central Kapoeta

My stay just so happened to coincide with some annual Carter Centre meeting. White faces, all American I think, flew in on small charter planes to the nearby airstrip. I only spoke with a few, one of whom happened to be living very close to Ethiopia on the route I had planned out. He clearly thought it was a mad idea for various reasons (security, roads, remoteness) and shrugged my idea off with little encouragement. We didn’t talk much after that.

On the way out of Kapoeta an immigration official caught up with me on the back of a motorbike. I needed to register my passport and details of where I was headed. I did so in a nearby tin shack. All seemed fine and I cracked on.

Road from Kapoeta to Kenya border

Toposa girl

That night I slept beside a Primary School in a small village with a borehole. It was a familiar African scene – schoolteacher and a small collection of other locals watching on as I erected the tent, emitting gasps of surprise and wonder as the sleeping mat was unrolled and inflated.

Primary School camp

The track which I’d now turned onto had also been recently up-graded. No vehicles, just a few toposa, walking I knew not where. Other than cow, goat meat and milk I couldn’t work out what people lived on out here. There appeared to be no cultivation of crops.

Toposa girl

Toposa girl

Toposa Shepherd boys

It was certainly a remote road, as well as scenic. In stretches where dry black cotton mud covered the road, I was thankful the skies stayed clear. Several hours of heavy rain would have been a nightmare out here. When I pushed the bike off the track to reach a borehole I ended up jamming the wheels with thick mud. It took the best part of an hour to get moving again properly.

On the road north to Boma

Flowering baobab tree

Baobab flower

I camped between thorny acacia bushes the next night and spent half the time while eating a bowl of spaghetti stamping on scorpions. They were obviously attracted to the light from my head-torch.

I had only been on the road the next morning for 10 minutes when a Toyota Hilux pickup came driving towards me. Two armed police jumped out of the back and a passenger in military fatigues stepped out of the vehicle.

‘Where is your document to be travelling on this road’? he asked as I handed over my passport. The visa was expiring in 3 days time, but I calculated I would be out of South Sudan by then.

There then followed a serious of questions about my mission, where I had slept the previous night and where I was going. I soon learnt that this vehicle, in convoy with another, had driven out the day before under the orders of the Police Commissioner from the town of Narus, some 150km away. I hadn’t passed through this town, where apparently I needed permission from the Commissioner to be where I was.

It all sounded like rubbish, but I was in no position to argue or defend myself. Moments later, with bike lying flat in the back of the pick-up and me over a wheel arch, I was being driven back in the direction I had just come.

That journey was one of the most frightening and painful I have ever taken in my life. Moving at speeds of 100km/hr and more on a dirt track while I bounced around in the back had me fearing for my life. The only time we stopped was to pick up two random walkers who jumped in the back with a goat. About 80km further on they were dropped off. Thanks to me I just saved them a 2 day walk.

Picked up by the Police

‘There are many wild animals out there like elephants, lions, rhinos and tigers’, said an older military-clad official who looked through the pages of my passport while my bags were thoroughly searched back in Narus. The journey back here, had taken less than two hours.

Wild animals sounded as much like bullshit as ‘special permission’ to be where I was. It wasn’t a closed area. There was no rebel fighting. I had a visa.

Apparently someone in one of the villages had reported seeing a foreigner on a bicycle with bags and the Commisioner, who I never met, decided to deploy two armed vehicles to drive out into the bush to get me.

‘You know people out there are backward. They might harm you’, said the immigration official an hour later. Not only had I been driven back to Narus, but I was now at the border with Kenya, 20km away from Narus, and effectively being deported from the country. I couldn’t believe this.

Well at least I remained unscathed following the journey in the pick-up. And contrary to what I feared when I first arrived back in Narus, no one had made any mention of a fine for having police deployed to drive out and pick me up. Things could have been a lot worse, although I still couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. I was basically just a random anomaly, attached to no organisation, and the authorities wanted me out of their head-space. Had I gone to the Police Commissioner in the first place to request permission to cycle this road and cross into Ethiopia I rather suspect it would not have been a simple case of agreement.

Whatever, I would now have to detour 350km through Turkana county in Kenya to reach Ethiopia, another challenge in itself.

You can view the map route for section of the journey by scrolling to the bottom here.