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South Sudan: A Warn-Torn Nation Transforms To Tourist Destination


Come July, the newest country in the world celebrates its second birthday. South Sudan separated from Sudan after a long war. In the April issue of Outside magazine, Patrick Symmes describes it as a country blessed with oil and water but defined by the many, many things it lacks which include an electrical grid, roads, schools, mail service, health care and a functioning government. South Sudan hopes to build a tourist industry but no one will come to see the scenery and the wildlife until they think it's safe. Patrick Symmes joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

PATRICK SYMMES: It's good to be here.

CONAN: And you wrote that during your visit in December, you saw exactly one tourist?

SYMMES: That's right. A single woman who had a list of African countries she wanted to check off apparently with no information about any of them. And one of the ministers told me even the backpackers aren't here. So it is just on - there is nothing to do, there's nothing to see, there's no access to anything, there's no roads, there's no infrastructure. They have a park system which exists in theory. You can imagine a fantastic future for going and seeing things in Sudan because they also have, along with oil and water, they also have animals. They have a huge migration, probably the second biggest in the world.

So there's vast grasslands, a swirling long river section of the Nile through the country, enormous herds, large numbers of elephants, many of the things that people care very deeply about but it's in South Sudan so you can't get to it except with an airplane. And they're hoping that in the future of the country there's room for that to become an asset rather than just a leftover of isolation and war-torn times.

CONAN: You describe a three-day jaunt to go see what might be too...

SYMMES: Jaunt.

CONAN: ...pleasant a word for the forced march you took up to see one of the...

SYMMES: I'm still hurting.


CONAN: Describe this mountain and this climate if you will.

SYMMES: I made a mistake of joining this EU ambassador who is a diplomat and he's also a fitness freak, and we basically tried to run about 30 miles through the jungle, some in the mountain and out in two days and I just couldn't do it. I wasn't the only one who couldn't do it, but we had a fantastic sort of introduction of the wild lands in Sudan. It's such a new country - the newest in the world. Just a year and a half old - two years coming up.

So (unintelligible) placed and you go - as soon as you get off-road, which is very easy in a country with no roads, you find this incredible scenes of traditional African life, you know? Young boys are herders sort of stick-fighting and coming out of the bushes ready for wrestling, you know, with nothing on at all except oil and a shield made out of cowhide and sticks that are elaborately carved for fighting and they want to kind of show off their dances and songs. So you, right away, get into - if you can get to South Sudan, you don't have to go very far to get into this very remote and ancient Africa and that trail into the mountains goes to amazing green forest, much of the country surprisingly is green and wet.

CONAN: And there is an amazing waterfall as well.

SYMMES: Yeah. The Niagara of Africa in a way or so they claim. That may be overstating it a bit.

CONAN: Well, Victoria Falls is over there.

SYMMES: Yeah. It's not Victoria Falls but a long set of rapids bring the Nile down into South Sudan. It's flowing northward through this grasslands and gradually goes into regular northern Sudan or Egypt, and it's just that water that feeds this river of grass that keeps the animals moving back and forth all year following the spread and retreat of seasonal wetlands and creating this incredible tribal culture of people who have hunted for centuries and are still very isolated and somewhat traditional in their way of life.

CONAN: And these are not people who we would consider poor in our sense. These are people who are just on zero dollars a day, but as they have for thousands of years.

SYMMES: Yes. The standard currency of a country, sort as a cow. Money is not in circulation from - once you get off a road. Cow's milk, it's a bank account. It can even be blood. During hard times, they may drink the blood of a cow, beautiful Watusi cows, extremely gentle. They're very proud of them. When I walked among the herders, they always wanted me to take a picture of their cow. They were interested in themselves and their beautiful clothes and their immense stature. And these guys put ashes on their faces and they have tribal scar. No, no, no. Take a picture of my cow. That's what they thought was beautiful and they have a sort of queen of the heard, who was decorated and dressed up with bells and things. So cows are status in the way you get married, and that is the only barter and way of life for them.

CONAN: For so long, we heard descriptions of the conflict in Sudan. Now when South Sudan was trying to separate to get it rights and we kept hearing the description of the southerners as largely Christian and Animist and boy, that seems to be a pretty simple description of what, three score tribes?

SYMMES: Yeah. Forty-five tribes who, you know, they often have - you meet guys -everyone has a biblical name, so there's a degree of Christianity to it. There's also a traditional African base of faith. And it is completely mixed up, even as a country most tribes exist on both sides of the border between South Sudan and it's former master, Sudan. So everybody's all mixed up. There's no clarity to it. But on average, it's true. These are some of the tallest people in the world. You have tribes there like the Nuba, famous giants, great wrestlers and they tow - I'm tall, I'm 6'2" and they towered over me. I get picked up by a couple of police officers and it's like I was a rag doll because they're so big and easily stand out from the Arab North from the traditional Islamic rulers coming from the North.

CONAN: And it's in a tough neighborhood, South Sudan. Not only Sudan to the North, but, well, you got the very troubled places of Congo right to the west.

SYMMES: Yes. Sudan is vulnerable to everything that goes on around it, including health emergencies, epidemics of Ebola, or frankly, expected someday. Crowded refugee camps. They have problems like the poaching of animals that are often satisfying markets elsewhere. So Ivory, you know, the poaching of elephants. Horsemen, they come down from the North in Sudan and kill elephants and ride all the way back on with tusks on their horses to make that trade profitable. And Sudan pays the price for these conflicts.

CONAN: And when you think a strong government would be able to police all of these, of course, that is a pipedream, it seems.

SYMMES: Yeah. The government is brand new. They are trying but, you know, there had been some signs of difficulties. The president, Salva Kiir himself, sent out a letter suggesting that there was $4 billion missing from government accounts. So he was asking his ministers to give it back. And I think that the corruption issue is still in the future, generally, because they have not - they have oil, but it's still in the ground. There's no oil flowing yet, so most of Sudan's oil was in the South. Now it belongs to South Sudan. They had to make a deal.

CONAN: But the only way to export it is through pipelines that run through its former masters in Sudan and not through, what, Port Sudan the future survival of South Sudan and getting that oil and developing depends on striking a deal with your worst enemy who's also an indicted war criminal.

Now this is the president of Sudan, President Bashir.

SYMMES: President Bashir of Sudan.

CONAN: Is there any possibility of building a pipeline that might run through the south through Kenya?

SYMMES: There's talk about it. They are supposedly beginning a process of surveying routes, but it's difficult for all sorts of reasons, and the existing pipeline has the advantage so that you can just turn it on. And so coming through a deal, you know, they keep announcing that they shook hands on a deal and then oil hasn't started flowing yet for various reasons.

CONAN: You describe also a country where all kinds of outside investment coming in, so far, not build hotels or anything like that, investment by the United States in terms of foreign aid and by European Union as well.

SYMMES: Yes. Hillary Clinton has been very active and promoting large donations from the U.S. to fund and get the government up and running. It's tremendously expensive. You know, the European Union is spending about $300 million in the next two years, or this year and next year. So it's the only thing that would be more expensive, would be not doing it, I think, if the country collapsed and refugees spilled out in all directions. I think if South Sudan fails, it'll be much more costly than any program anyone can build.

CONAN: One of the people you interviewed spoke about a five-year window in which South Sudan has to get its act together or its going to be too late.

SYMMES: In terms of the natural ecosystems, rapid changes coming, suddenly roads are getting built. People having the first time in nearly 22 years of warfare that they're able to get up and still moving around and finding markets and exploiting resources. Animals are resourced. They will be facing severe problems if poaching becomes more common that it already is, which is somewhat routine, and these things could be wiped out very badly in a few years, especially vulnerable species like elephants which are in so much danger elsewhere and even species that are quite rare and it's just only in South Sudan like certain kinds of antelope that were thought extinct and now have been found in South Sudan.

CONAN: And there are - the ivory route is that these poachers come down and kill the animals for their ivory. It's taken then to Sudan, carved and sent to China.

SYMMES: Yeah. There's a city called Onderon(ph) - if I'm pronouncing it correctly - which has a traditional center of artisanal carving of ivory and export. So some elephant tusks do flow into Onderon and get shipped out from there to markets in the Middle East and China.

CONAN: Yet, there are still large herds of elephants left in South Sudan. You saw one from an airplane.

SYMMES: Yeah. It is pretty impressive when you start seeing, you know, the first one you think, OK, doesn't that look cool? It's elephant. And then there's 10 and then there's 20 and then there's 100 and then there's 400, and you just - you're looking at a true mass of life. I mean, they're so big that when you see them from the air, you know, they don't look that small. They're still really big, and they have great grace and power. And it's wonderful know that there's a corner of Africa where things are still little hidden and secret.

CONAN: Patrick Symmes is a contributing editor for Outside magazine. His piece "A Wild Country Grows in South Sudan" is in the April issue of that magazine. He's with us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wonder if plans for development do go ahead. And there was talk of resort hotel up by that great waterfall - kayaking operations on the white water of the White Nile and all sorts of things. Might you, in a few years, say, gee, you know, it's all been spoiled?

SYMMES: I think that the question here is how South Sudan encounters the world in modernity, in its new version of itself. There has to be development. It's a question of what kind and how do they manage, for example, the traditional tribal people starting to engage with a commercial economy and have money.

How do they preserve culture? The minister of culture told me it is going to be affected, there is going to be a dilution of the strength of their culture. But you still have to do it the right way and give them choices, set up, for example, eco-tourism that it's first project is taking care of local people, giving them basic things like modern schools, villages, letting them see that they're direct in immediate efforts from tourism. A lot of the right kind of development good for South Sudan.

CONAN: Has anybody done it the right way? Because we've seen so many indigenous cultures changed enough for the better.

SYMMES: I've seen examples in the Amazon, of places with very light footprint where the tourism is something that's seasonal, and it comes one component in the economy that's sustainable, and it's helps people because it tends to be the bringer of cash, unlike local agriculture or something. So I think it can be done well, you know?

The European ambassador was musing about a possible project used as old British plantation - very impressive - deep in the mountains of Central Africa. You know, in Southern Sudan, you get up at these pretty big mountains, 7 - 10,000 feet and, oh, beautiful plantation of perfectly straight trees that have been growing for 60 years, untouched. So the investors say, well, we've helped them, you know, get a project going to make timber out of a few of these and open a road and then they can use the money to get more tools, and then they'll use that to get a little cottage system going for eco-tourists. And it could happen.

CONAN: It could happen, but you also point out the same roads can be use by the poachers?

SYMMES: Yes. There is that threat. Most people in South Sudan really don't know what poaching is. This is how they've lived for centuries. It's a rural society so they rightly view it as their way of their way of survival, but does sweep the forest clean of animals. I'll say the only animals I saw in the forest were dead.

CONAN: Though you did ran into a wild boar.

SYMMES: Yeah. It was soon dead. They had trapped it with a snare just to - we saw deer that had been killed by snares. So, that's a very efficient way of taking out the animals in a forest. So, even small economic changes here will ripple through South Sudan and affect the economy, the animals, the future of, you know, the future earning potential of tourism could all be change significantly in next five years.

CONAN: And those people who killed the boar, you later found out were poachers.

SYMMES: Yeah. They don't, you know, nobody can quite say where the rules are and which rules apply, but I have to admit having snacked on that animals, the minister of animal told me, oh, they're poachers. Yes, I've been down there and told them. They must not poach. So it's really theoretical. They know national, you know, the national parks in South Sudan, large one Boma, which has the great animal migration is 8,800 square miles. The second one that's full of a lot of animals, 3,700 square miles. They have no roads, no buildings, no trained wardens, they have untrained. People have been assigned like army conscripts, but there's no effective park system or rules about anything.

CONAN: You went by airplane to find that herd of elephants you described but you refused to tell us where it is.

SYMMES: Yeah. I swore that I would keep some secrets, and I think that's a good one because nobody wants to point poachers in the right direction.

CONAN: The poachers subscribe to Outside magazine?

SYMMES: Probably not, but one of the biologists, Paul Elkan of Wildlife Conservation Society - so you'd be surprised all - our magazine articles can sit around for years and somebody pulls out the picture and hands it to somebody in somebody's pocket. So let's not take the chance.

CONAN: It's also interesting, the security situation is still not settled. There was a guy who ran into who wanted to set up a whitewater rafting operation or kayaking operation and, well, nobody's allowed outside the capital on weekends.

SYMMES: Yeah. And I should point out, he's actually had a little bit of success. This is a typical area, like in the neighboring countries like Uganda, places that have a lot of rivers and whitewater, they've succeeded in doing this sort of business. So, I think it will - many things in South Sudan will be possible if there's security, if the occasional skirmishes between north and south stop, if the permit is able to sort of breathe itself to life and begin law enforcement and train it's police and army to like civilian - like them responsible to civilian government. Then with security all these things are possible. Without security it's not going to happen.

CONAN: One last question. We just have a few second left. How was the boar?

SYMMES: It's actually pretty tasty. I'm glad I only had a little bit because those who ate more got very sick.


CONAN: Well, Patrick Symmes, we're glad you just had a bite or two.

SYMMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Patrick Symmes is a contributing editor for Outside magazine. His piece - he's the author of "The Boys from Dolores" and "Chasing Che." His latest piece "A Wild Country Grows in South Sudan" appears in the April issue, and he joined us from bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, Jennifer Ludden will be here with the look at volunteer fire departments after that explosion and fire in West, Texas. Join us for that. I'll see again on Wednesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.