I have never been so happy to leave somewhere. The waiting area at the airport in Malakal was a storm of flies, buzzing through the heat that hung heavy in the air. I was on the “standby” list to fly to Bentiu in a UN helicopter, and the prospect of being stuck here, missing the story I was aiming for in South Sudan’s Unity State, was not a pleasant one.
As the chopper rose into the air, the White Nile stretched out below, cutting through this fly-infested town. As we flew west, the small round porthole windows—open at our altitude of 1000 feet—gave onto a sea of green below. The vast swamplands of The Sudd, which swallow up the Nile as it moves north towards Khartoum, stretched into the hazy mist of the day’s deathly heat.
It was the swamps of The Sudd that caused so many problems for the early explorers in the 19th century, trying to trace the Nile to its source. For months they would drag themselves through, meeting unknown tribes, battling the flies, the mosquitos, and the impenetrable sodden land. And now, as South Sudan is on the verge of its independence, it is this same swampland that renders many of the routes impassable during the rainy season, cutting off towns like Malakal from Juba, except by boat.
But from the air, this ocean of green betrayed none of its dangers. Cattle herders moved their livestock across the fields as carrion birds flew over them. A man stood repairing the thatched roof of a lone tokul, the traditional Sudanese mud huts. Isolated isles dotted small, unknown lakes, and a serpentine river slithered to the horizon.
An hour later, the helicopter landed in Bentiu, and I was back amongst the realities of South Sudan, leaving behind the romanticised version from the air.