The Jonglei Canal, Lucy & the Shambe Flying Boat Base in South Sudan

Tuesday, 28 May 2024

◄ ‘Lucy,’ the giant Jonglei Canal excavator

My recent travels in South Sudan were principally in the Boma and Bandingilo National Parks – more on that in my next blog post – although my travels started and finished in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. I visited Khartoum and travelled around north Sudan in 2016, when Sudan was safe and an extremely interesting country for travellers. South Sudan at that time had recently become independent from Sudan and tumbled into an exceptionally violent civil war. It was definitely a no go zone.

Today it’s Sudan which is suffering the furious civil war and in comparison Sudan is relatively (but only relatively) peaceful. Unbelievably refugees are making their way into South Sudan from Sudan.



After my travels in South Sudan I continued to Nigeria (my report coming soon) and travel advisories from Australia, the UK and the USA all insist that you should not go to either country and, pretty much, if you are there then get out as quickly as you can. The UK Foreign Office site also suggests that since they don’t recommend going there your travel insurance may be invalid. The US State Department warning sums it up: ‘Reconsider travel to Nigeria due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed gangs.’ The story is the same for South Sudan, despite which I went to both South Sudan and Nigeria in April 2024 and had a very interesting time in both of them.

◄ Crossing the country took me to the Jonglei Canal, an arrow-straight abandoned canal which was intended to be 360km long and would have diverted water from the Sudd Swamp to the Nile River. On this stretch the settlement huddles along the bank of the canal.








◄ Construction of the canal started in 1978 using Lucy, which had previously been used to dig a canal in Pakistan. Built in Germany and operated by a French company, at the time this was the largest excavator of its type in the world. It was transported across south Sudan in pieces by camel. The project was enormously unpopular in south Sudan and as part of the civil war in Sudan attacks on the excavator disabled it in 1983 and the project was abandoned, 240km of the canal had been completed and it remains a very visible line across South Sudan.

▲ ‘Lucy’ is also known in some sources as ‘Sarah,’ it’s ‘Lucy’ according to Wikipedia. Diverting water from the enormous sweep of the Sudd Swamp would have been useful for north Sudan and for Egypt, but potentially disastrous for south Sudan. If it had been completed this would have been an environmental disaster up there with the draining of the Aral Sea. Unfortunately there is talk about resurrecting the project.

▲ Wow is certainly the right word to describe Lucy and we were able to climb up on it and clamber all over it. Disturbing bats as we made our way into some of the excavator’s closed off areas.

▲ The nuts and bolts hint at what a huge construction it is.

◄ Shambe is 80km due west of Lucy and in 1931 this was a landing place for Imperial Airways flying boats on the 10 day trip from London (well from Croydon) to Mwanza on Lake Victoria in today’s Tanzania. You had already travelled on three different aircraft and made a train ride from Alexandria in Egypt to Cairo before you boarded a Short Calcutta in Khartoum to fly Kosti, Malakal, Shambe, Juba (the capital of South Sudan today), Port Bell (near Kampala in Uganda), Kisumu (Kenya) and finally Mwanza. What a trip! Unfortunately I only saw Shambe from the air, the old flying boat pier is still there and off to one side a circular fuel tank for the flying boats.

▲ The Short Calcutta was a three-engined biplane flying boat which carried 15 passengers, plus the two pilots sitting out in the open. (Royal Air Force image)