Say hello to South Sudan, the world's newest country. Separated de facto for years since a 2005 peace agreement, South Sudan celebrated its official independence on 9 July, 2011. The country consists of 10 states grouped into three regions, which correspond to those under the former Sudan: the Greater Upper Nile to the north-east, Bahr el Ghazal to the west and Equatoria to the south, which houses the capital city, Juba.
Six decades of conflict spanning two civil wars have left both Sudan and South Sudan ravaged, but South Sudan has borne the brunt of the violence. The Sudan People's Liberation Army/ Movement (SPLA/M) is now governing the country. For many years a rebel army rather than a functional government, it faces the massive task of improving infrastructure in this desperately poor area, which has the worst health situation and highest maternal mortality and female illiteracy rates in the world. Considered unsafe for inexperienced travellers for many years, the peace agreement and subsequent independence has seen some ease in political clashes, and dangers to tourists (such as being taken hostage) have lessened. However, the area is still unstable - skirmishes continue to break out along the border, and South Sudan itself is still marred by more localised ethnic violence.
So why go? For one thing, underdeveloped South Sudan has the potential to be one of Africa's best destinations for seeing wildlife and unspoilt natural beauty. Unlike the dry deserts of Sudan, South Sudan has a higher rainfall and is mostly made up of rainforests, wetlands and grasslands, with impressive waterfalls in the mountains. Despite decades of conflict and inadequate conservation infrastructure, wildlife is still there, with 1.3 million-strong herds of antelope recently recorded crossing the grasslands in migration season. The wetlands are also home to thousands of bird species. There are five national parks, including Boma National Park in the Greater Upper Nile region to the north, and at least 14 smaller game reserves. Luxury resorts offer an increasing array of overland safaris and sunset cruises. Head for the grasslands to see impressive herds of antelope such as hartebeest and eland, as well buffalo, hippo, crocodiles, elephants and lions, or to the tropical rainforests to spot chimpanzees, monkeys and wild boar. Adrenalin junkies can even go white-water rafting at Fulla Falls on the White Nile.
Travel in South Sudan is mostly by dirt road, with few tarred roads outside of central Juba. Although there are a couple hundred kilometres of single-track rail in the north, these have yet to be extended down to the capital. The biggest airport in the country is in central Juba, which has weekly flights to and from neighbouring capitals in Kenya, Ethiopia, the DRC and Uganda. There are also three smaller international airports at Wau, Rumbek and Malakal which have regular flights to Khartoum, Sudan, as well as smaller landing strips (often dirt tracks) in rural areas.
Staying in and around the new capital, Juba, is safest and most convenient in terms of facilities, infrastructure and government control, and is probably the best base from which to explore the natural beauty of South Sudan if you won't be staying in a resort. Juba is situated on the banks of the White Nile in southernmost Equatoria, about 11 km from the border and accessible by road from DRC, Uganda and Kenya. The city has poor infrastructure and is largely an informal urban sprawl. But that's changing - the city is a true African boom town, with post-independence foreign aid and business flowing in. Its citizens are proud people and determined to make the new country work. Although small, Juba has plenty to offer the international traveller: luxury hotels, restaurants with cuisine from all over the world, a sports stadium, a number of universities, local attractions like outdoor markets, and several nearby resorts and game parks.