Circumnavigation – Red Sea Part III

29 Jan

Part Three of our Red Sea Sailing Adventure, Sudan, Africa – We are often asked, “What was your favorite part?” when people hear that we sailed around the world. And while the standard answer is that every country had it’s high points for us, the best area we cruised, or the best and most interesting memories at least, came from sailing the Red Sea. Which is why it is so disappointing to hear that these days, just six years later, cruisers are facing such a tough decision when it comes to choosing whether or not to sail these waters.

april 14 2006 : suakin, sudan, africa
We were up at three a.m. yesterday for another day long run to our next anchorage. Leaving a place like this, at three in the morning, wouldn't have been possible for us ten years ago, but now our electronic charts are so exact that we aren't even nervous about navigating through reefs and around numerous islands in the dark. The Sudanese coast is littered with small islands and reefs, five miles out from land with no navigational markings. In most places around the world, a coastline like this would be nothing but blinking lights after dark to warn the unsuspecting mariner. There must be a ton of sunken ships here.

Our anchorage was pretty unspectacular, though there was a lot of reef to go have a snorkel around. The coral was actually pretty interesting but again the water was so silty that you couldn't see much further than about five feet which is never much fun. Every time a school of fish comes flying past you expect a big shark to come blasting along behind them and run right in to you. This anchorage also had a pretty wicked mirage. All around us it seemed as if there was ocean right behind a little strip of sand with an island of trees in the distance. But in fact it was nothing but a flat expanse of sand as far as you could see.

Sudan Brain Coral

After relaxing for the afternoon and getting some sleep we were once again underway before the sun came up. The winds have been at their calmest in the early mornings which is why we've been anxious to get some miles in so early in the mornings lately. Although when the wind has shown up it hasn't been so bad and has been staying off of our nose for the most part. We've been doing a lot of motorsailing which is something we'll never complain about, especially here in the Red Sea.

Along the way today we were hearing this strange pinging noise every so often. I had a sinking feeling that it was the same pinging noise I had heard in Thailand last time when I found our dinghy davits about to bust off of the boat. I started looking around and sure enough, there is a fairly major crack once again. We have had the davits welded three times already on this trip, always different cracks, and yet again the crack is in a new spot. I don't know if it is cheap materials, bad design, or just too heavy a dinghy, but it is extremely annoying. About all we can do right now is to try and be as gentle with it as we can and hope it holds out until Egypt where we can get in a marina and once again have a welder out to the boat.

By early afternoon we were pulling into Suakin, which is about thirty miles south of Port Sudan. Port Sudan is a city of about three million people and is a pretty major port, so Suakin has sort of become the easier of the two for clearing in to the country. It was also one of the coolest looking places we've ever sailed into. After winding a couple of miles inland the waterway splits off and you come to a place called Old Suakin. It's this old port city that dates back a couple of thousand years, though it's hard to say just how old the buildings are. The cool thing is that the buildings, or what is left of them, are made of coral. The whole place is crumbling but there are a couple of buildings whose shells are still pretty well intact.

Coming in on the boat we had to go right in by shore just a few yards from the edge of the buildings where families were strolling among the ruins and men fished along the shore line. We anchored, and I headed in to try and figure out how to get us cleared in.

april 15 2006 : port sudan, sudan, africa
We made our way to the bus station early this morning for the short ride to Port Sudan. The bus was crowded, but was gloriously lined with open windows. These Sudanese know how to ride in style. Along the way the road was packed with camels, goats, donkeys, and beat up Toyota pick up trucks.

The homes and living conditions along the highway through the desert were extremely poor. Probably the worst we've ever seen. Most homes were only eight feet square and cobbled together with anything they could find. Other homes seemed to be more for the nomadic goat and camel herders. These were tents, five feet off of the ground, patched together from dozens of miscellaneous scraps of fabric, and held in the air by sticks.

Roadside Homes

In Port Sudan the first thing that struck us was how few women there were. Thousands of men roamed the streets but hardly a woman could be seen. We didn't have anything important to do, so we just started wandering aimlessly around town checking things out.

We noticed that the town was divided into distinct districts. There was the garment district where dozens of shop fronts were lined with men sewing robes using antique sewing machines. There was a market full of fruits and vegetables with some of the first English speaking locals we've come across trying to sell us their stock. Another street was nothing but telecommunications and cell phone outlets. It seems that no matter how poor and run down a place is, you can always count on there being plenty of cell phones and satellite dishes. By eleven it was so hot we could hardly move. That's when we stumbled across an internet café. Air conditioning and high speed internet, what more could we ask for?

Port Sudan Commerce

Sud Port Sudan2

Sud Port Sudan3

After internet we walked next door to a small restaurant. It was at a hotel, about a two star hotel, anything above a one star and we figure we can manage to find something familiar on the menu. Yet we were still surprised to find locals sitting around eating pizza, hamburgers, fries, and ice cream. We ordered up our pizza and sat talking for a couple minutes to our waiter who was from Massawa and was happy to hear that we had enjoyed our visit there. He said Sudan was nice but he seemed disappointed that you can't get beer and liquor here.

After internet and lunch we started making our way back to the bus station. Along the way we noticed some teenage kids sitting on a mat having coffee. The coffee pots were boiling over a fire made inside a broken chunk of road, with the mat in the shade of a garbage bin. It was a coffee shop, though not exactly Starbucks. As we walked by they all smiled and asked us to join them.

They were all pretty excited when we sat down with them, and were full of giggles and hellos. The young guy who was running the show quickly served us each a tiny pot of coffee and miniature cup filled to the rim with sugar. We poured ourselves cup after cup and whenever our sugar went under halfway, he would top us off again. We had begun to draw a crowd, and soon there were dozens of people slowing down to watch us, or stopping to say hello and practice a few words of English.

We asked if we could take a picture and they eagerly said yes. After each photo they all clamored around to have a look at themselves. We're always surprised by this since almost all of them have top of the line cell phones with cameras built in. Yet picture taking still remains a novelty. After the pictures a young boy came up to me, and while pointing at Ali asked, "Your wife?" I said, "Yes, my wife." And with a big smile on his face he said, "My wife very nice."

Eventually one guy stopped by who was clearly on drugs. Our new friends had a good time making fun of him, but he wouldn't go away. He seemed harmless to us, but the kid who ran the place told us that maybe we should go. "This guy is no good," he told us. I asked him what we owed him for the coffee, but he wouldn't hear of it and wouldn't accept a penny. We said our goodbyes and continued down the road.

Sud Port Sudan Coffee4

Port Sudan Coffee Shop

Ali and Coffee Shop Patrons

Port Sudan Locals

Walking down the road we couldn't seem to find the buses to Suakin. There was a huge parking lot full of buses but they were all for other destinations and we kept getting pointed farther down the road. We finally flagged down a bus and asked the driver if he was going to Suakin. He wasn't, but he told us to get in anyway. He took us down the road to another group of buses, dropped off his passengers and then got out and led us to the right place. He told the driver where we needed to go and said goodbye. This was more of a local bus but it took us to yet another group of buses, one of which was going to Suakin. After waiting to make sure we got on okay they drove off. All in all a pretty fun day in Port Sudan. It's got all those things that we love about cities; the vibrant colors, that certain stink, and a whole lot of hustle and bustle.

april 18 2006 : suakin, sudan, africa
After a day of doing nothing on the boat we spent another day in Port Sudan roaming around. Every trip in to a city becomes sort of like a scavenger hunt for us. The list yesterday seemed pretty simple, we needed butter and postcards. The butter was easy enough, there were plenty of tiny little supermarkets and we were even able to find one of our staple foods, Snickers. With those important things checked off the list we started searching for the postcards.

Our niece and nephew have gotten a postcard from every country we've visited, except for Colombia, and we didn't want to break the streak now, but after walking all over town and even having a local bring us to a promising looking shop, we walked away empty handed. Later on it dawned on us that a quick trip to the Port Sudan Hilton would have solved the issue for us, but we were out of dinars by then.

Today we had set aside for exploring Suakin. First up, wander around the coral ruins of Old Suakin. We walked up to the main entrance and found three guards sitting there bored out of their minds. They produced a book of tickets with a cost to us tourists of five dollars each. Seeing as that was all the money we had on us, we decided to give it a miss. We can see most of the buildings from our dinghy anyway.

Instead we walked to the bus station and caught a pickup taxi for the two mile trip up the road to the main market district of Suakin, which is located closer to the main highway than the rest of town. The locals in the back of the truck with us were very friendly, and we were laughing and taking pictures the whole ride in.

Suakin Taxi Ride1

Suakin Taxi Ride2


The main road through town is lined with one-story buildings selling sandals, cell phones, miscellaneous groceries, and goat heads. Ali was dying to cook a goat head for dinner but we couldn't agree on a fair price, so we walked away empty handed, with an eye out for a restaurant instead. After walking the length of town, we circled back to a little roadside restaurant for some ful; a slow-cooked stew scooped up with flatbread.

There were nearly a dozen pots warming, all with different ingredients. The owner was happy to let us have a peak inside each to pick one out. We found our favorite, a simple bean stew with onions and a couple of other miscellaneous vegetables in it. Two bowls of ful, bread, a couple of Pepsis, and a cup of tea for dessert, all for two bucks. Down the road we stocked up on a couple weeks worth of bread and vegetables, and we still hadn't spent the 2000 dinars we'd exchanged.

Suakin Street1

Sud Suakin Street2

Suakin Street3

Suakin Restaurant

Ali at Lunch

april 19 2006 : coast of sudan, africa (the red sea)
Up with the sun this morning we snaked our way out of the bay, past the ruins of Old Suakin, and in to the open ocean again. We knew from the forecast that it might not be a perfect day but decided to give it a try. Once outside we realized pretty quickly that we weren't going to make much progress on a day like this. The wind wasn't too strong, just enough to produce waves that were big enough to slow us down and it was right on our nose, so we cruised up the coast for about ten miles and pulled in to a little bay that is nothing more than a bit of deep water with a reef protecting us from the open ocean. We then proceeded to do quite a bit of nothing for the rest of the day. I went snorkeling and found that the coral looked okay but again the water was a bit milky and I couldn't see beyond about ten feet. Not too amazing.

Up With The Sun

There is lots more to read on our website, but this gives a taste of the amazing experiences that await in the Red Sea. I hope to be able to sail that far again someday and the next time to not worry about the Red Sea weather so much and instead spend more time just enjoying where I am. It's a place to be absorbed.


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