Saturday, 25 June 2011

African border crossings

I have fallen in love with crossing borders by road rather than arriving into airports.  It feels far more like “travel”.  Let’s face it; airports have had their day for providing glamour and romance to the traveller.  To date, I have crossed fourteen African land borders and if I make it into Swaziland and Lesotho via South Africa each time, then that will make it eighteen in total.  Including the three pages for Turkey, Syria and Jordan, only 16 pages of my new 48 page passport have been used but there are 9 full page visas and some 40 unique stamps.  I have very much appreciated the efficiency with which the various border control agents have treated my passport!

The hype about African border crossing has proven to be far worse than the reality.  Before leaving London I had run around to the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian consulates to make my life simpler.  In reality, the visas could all have been acquired at the borders without any fuss (obviously I can only speak for the borders we used and on the days we travelled!).  Unlike in an airport, there is not necessarily an obvious sign to point you in the right direction.  If you don’t know what you are doing, these land crossing can be intimidating but really this is just an opportunity for someone to help you.  It’s pretty cool to get stamped out of one country and then stroll over the border to get stamped into the new country.

Up in East Africa, the borders seemed a lot busier – both in terms of people crossing and also the amount of vendors (often young boys) wanting to provide you with currency, fruit or fizzy drinks.  At these crossings, the border guards categorically don’t want to see you if you are travelling as part of a group.  Even when visas are required, they just want one person to hand over the passports and all the money.  The East African Community has understandings about movement between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and if you enter and return once within a specified time period, they won’t require a new visa fee.  However, Rwanda is not yet quite part of that and I was annoyed that I had to pay for two Ugandan visas when I had only gone into Rwanda for 4 days.  I tried smiling sweetly at the border control guard but he just smiled nicely back and insisted on a new visa ($50).  I gave up gracefully and handed my passport in with the rest of the group.  It wasn’t worth causing a fuss and potential problems for the whole group.

As we reached Southern Africa, the borders became much quieter.  Our introduction to bureaucracy came when we entered Mozambique for the day to travel from Malawi to Zimbabwe.  Extra time had been scheduled into our day for this notoriously slow crossing.  Arriving before 8am we were given our entry forms instantly but told that we would need to wait for the visa forms themselves.  Time ticked on and there was no sign of the forms and none of the officials looked too interested.  Make the foreigners wait.  The last time an Intrepid truck had done this route, they had all been given $30 “transit” visas.  After an hour and a half, the officials decided that they had no forms as the system had changed two days previously!  Transit visas no longer existed (the government didn’t consider that this was bringing in sufficient money for the country – just driving through doesn’t use any services) and so full visas were now required ($75).  They would enter us all into the computer one by one.  We all trotted into a special room/cupboard at the back of the building where we gave our details and they had fun working out how best to position the new camera they had been given for this new system.  As we’d got up at 5am that morning to get to the border early, with no expectation of having photos taken, we all looked pretty rough.  Frankly, I wouldn’t have let me in. 

At the Zimbabwean border later that afternoon, we were processed quickly, handing over our $50 bills.  As the Zimbabweans will take any US dollar bill they can, I was unable to get the group to get rid of all my accidentally acquired 1996 $50 bills which has been unusable elsewhere in Africa.  Result.  As was often the case, the Canadians had to pay more than the rest of us J  As we moved down to Botswana and Namibia, border crossing became far more sophisticated.  Many of these borders had been upgraded for the World Cup in 2010 as they needed Interpol information on football hooligans.  The agents were friendly and unfailingly polite.  They were also the most efficient with the pages of my passport.  As in the Middle East, being a Rooney from Liverpool came in useful on many occasions and provided some nice banter.  One day, I even found myself discussing Kenny’s recent permanent appointment.

The most fascinating border in many ways was between South Africa and Mozambique.  No longer with the truck and a group but travelling by overnight coach as just two from Johannesburg to Maputo, we had to navigate this one with only the nudges of the locals to point us in the right direction.  “Follow that queue!”  “I think he is on our coach – follow him!”.  Arriving by coach, we were able to use the short queue to get stamped out of South Africa.  At the other side of the room, we could see the big queue which stretched back for miles – these were people crossing over on foot.  For many Mozambicans, South Africa is their only chance of making a reasonable living.  We later met a young man who worked in SA for 5 ½ months at a time before returning to see his wife and children for a couple of weeks.

A situation on our coach had been fascinating us.  There was a lady sat opposite us with a young baby.  When the controller came to inspect the tickets (strangely quite a while after we had left Jo’burg), she did not have one.  We had suspected this as we had seen her arguing at the ticket desk in the station but she had then appeared on the coach anyway.  She refused to speak to the ticket controller and we wondered whether she would be thrown off when we made a stop.   He kept returning and asking for money (an inflated fare from the one we had paid) but she refused to engage.  I also understood that she also had no papers.

When we arrived at the border, we wondered what would happen to her and whether we would see her again on the other side.  After having our passports stamped out of SA, we were walking across the border when we spotted her.  There were many soldiers with guns randomly spot checking passports.  She was striding ahead and a soldier was running behind her shouting “Senhora”.  She simply ignored him.  Although intrigued, we put our heads down and carried on.  Surely this soldier would not give up and then there was still the Mozambique side with yet more soldiers and more guns.  We joined the next queue convinced that her seat would be empty on the coach for the remainder of the journey.

You can therefore imagine our surprise when we re-boarded the coach shortly afterwards to find her sitting in her seat and grinning widely.  I can only imagine that she was a desperate woman with nerves of steel who was going to do whatever it took that day to get herself and her child safely into Mozambique that day.  The relief on her face was dramatic and she finally removed some of the heavy layers of clothing she had been wearing.  Every so often she would laughingly exclaim, “Mozambique!”  Her clothes were old but clean and her bonny baby was beautiful and obviously well cared for.  I wonder where she had been and what her story was.  She was a very brave and determined woman.

We may use borders for fun travel but for others, they are a source of income or a lifeline to safety.

My border crossings and comments:
·         Friday 1st April: enter Kenya at Nairobi airport
o   I had acquired my visa in London as I would be landing at 3.45am from Cairo and had read that they could be difficult if you were arriving from a non-European destination and did not have an onward ticket.  In the end it was a complete non-event, I did not need an onward ticket and the visa would have been cheaper purchased at the airport.
·         Tuesday 5th April: Kenya into Uganda (Malaba)
o   We passed through pretty quickly but there was an enormous queue of trucks.  This is the main goods route in East Africa and it is not unusual for trucks to wait two weeks to pass through customs.  There are plenty of “hotels” along the road to keep the truckers entertained.
o   On the Ugandan side, we chatted to some young boys who were mad about football.  Apparently Liverpool are now referred to as “Loserpool” – unfair…
·         Sunday 10th April: Uganda into Rwanda (exit Kamuganguzi, enter Gatuna)
o   Rwandan visa is free for UK citizens
·         Wednesday 13th April: Rwanda back into Uganda (Cyanika)
o   Had to purchase a new Ugandan visa for $50
·         Saturday 16th April: Uganda back into Kenya (Malaba)
o   Helen had bought a football for our friends from our earlier crossing.  However, after asking around, we discovered that they were away that day.  A young boy who amused us with his requests for any magazines on the truck became the proud owner of our football
·         Monday 18th April: Kenya into Tanzania (Namanga)
o   First use of Yellow Fever Certificate
·         Friday 29th April: Tanzania into Malawi (Kaporo)
o   No more visas required as we head into Southern Africa
·         Tuesday 3rd May: Malawi into Mozambique (Zobue)
o   $75 to transit for the day!
·         Tuesday 3rd May: Mozambique into Zimbabwe (Nyamapanda)
o   Easy border control.  Joked about Rooney.  Offloaded all my 1996 $50 notes via the rest of the group
·         Thursday 12th May: Zimbabwe into Botswana (Kazangula)
o   Had to take all our shoes to be washed – protection against foot and mouth
·         Saturday 14th May: Botswana into Namibia (Ngoma)
o   Easy crossing – discussed Kenny Dalglish appointment
·         Sunday 15th May: Namibia into Botswana (Muhembo)
·         Tuesday 17th May: Botswana into Namibia (Muhembo)
·         Monday 30th May: Namibia into South Africa (Nordoewer)
o   South African border guards failed to raise a smile for anyone, not even Jésus
·         Saturday 11th June: South Africa into Mozambique (Lebombo-Ressano Garcia)
o   No Intrepid crew to guide us, locals point us in the right direction, easy peasy
o   Visas acquired in Cape Town otherwise the coach company would not have let us board!
·         Monday 27th June: Mozambique into Swaziland
·         Swaziland into South Africa
·         South Africa into Lesotho
·         Lesotho into South Africa
·         Leave South Africa at Johannesburg airport

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