The semi-dry riverbed shown in this snapshot gives a feel for the rigors of ground travel in Sudan, which is at its best challenging and at its worst downright life-threatening. Yes, we crossed this riverbed in a Land Rover while on our way from Narus to Kuron, easing down the mucky bank on the right, splashing through the water, and then hanging on for the near-vertical climb up the left bank. For a moment I worried that our vehicle was literally going to topple over backwards in an Olympic-style backflip! Our intrepid Sudanese driver, however, didn't even blink; I couldn't tell whether his furrowed brow and maniacal grin signaled intense concentration or a sudden death wish.
Most of Southern Sudan lacks roads of any kind. Paved roads remain only a distant future dream (except in Juba, the provisional capital, which now has exactly 2 paved streets). Most rivers have no bridges. Travelers are often stranded for hours (or days) on one bank of a river, waiting for the water level to drop so that they can slog across to the other bank. Even bone-dry riverbeds are deceptively dangerous: Bishop Paride Taban nearly drowned once while crossing a dry wadi when a flash flood suddenly engulfed his vehicle. He escaped only because he was able to squeeze out through an open window and somehow swim to safety amid the muddied water and uprooted trees. The vehicle was never found.
Bush planes are actually the safest form of travel in S. Sudan, but chartering them is prohibitively expensive. For now, Mercy Beyond Borders travels by vehicle. The lack of rest stops or roadside eateries (hard to have a roadside restaurant when there are no roads!) doesn't worry me, but the likelihood of mechanical breakdown, armed ambush, or flash floods is enough to keep anyone awake. I'm always a bit surprised--and more than a bit grateful-- to arrive safely at any Sudanese destination. And I have tremendous respect for all who live and work there, day in and day out.