Crossing borders/general overlanding tips





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  1. #1
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    Default Crossing borders/general overlanding tips


    Hi all,

    There has been some lively discussion on the Zambian forum section regarding border crossings/friendliness towards South Africans. I thought it might be useful to post this article that I wrote for Out There magazine in 1997 about border crossings, bureaucracy, coups, wars etc based on two years of living in our Land Rover, and years of covering wars, coups etc as a foreign correspondent.


    WAR AND PEACE: NEGOTIATING THE FRONTIERS OF AFRICA


    WE HAVE all heard apocryphal horror stories about African bureaucracy. Border posts induce panic attacks, road blocks are a source of terror, visa offices a paper jungle.

    More often than not, bureaucracy problems are caused by travellers with an attitude problem. With some spectacular exceptions, bureaucrats and law and order officials in most African countries are polite, friendly people. In many cases where travellers fall foul of the law, it's their own damn fault.

    BORDER CROSSINGS:
    A typical incident at a Botswanan border post: We had just finished completing all the formalities, and were having an amiable chat with the polite and helpful customs officials. A South African 4X4 pulled up in a cloud of dust and two men in grubby bush shorts and t-shirts, and two women in shorts and bikini tops, all wearing hats and sunglasses, walked in.

    They slapped down their passports. The immigration official politely asked them to remove their sunglasses and hats as they were standing beneath a photograph of the president of Botswana. The travellers burst out laughing and one muttered "banana republic".

    As we drove off, the customs officials were doing a very, very leisurely strip search of the 4X4, huge piles of luggage lying in the dirt. The travellers were in for a long, hot wait.

    In two years of African travel, we were never searched or had a moment's trouble at a border post. Only once was a bribe solicited, by a Kenyan official who asked "have you brought me a present from Uganda?" We fobbed him off.

    Maybe we were lucky, but prefer to believe it was because we followed a few basic rules:

    * To the average traveller, a border post official is a lowly civil servant -- in that man or woman's community, they are very important government officials and must be treated with respect. Call them "sir" or "madam".

    * Without going over the top, always keep a set of neat, clean clothes for border crossings. The more respectable you look, the less hassles you will encounter. Men should shave before crossing a border.

    * Walk into a border post wearing a hat and sunglasses, and remove them as you make eye contact with the officials, indicating respect for the ubiquitous portrait of the president -- and the officials.

    * Have all your documents ready for inspection, and never get impatient if you are kept waiting. You are at the mercy of the border officials who have the power to stamp "prohibited immigrant" in your passport. Bye bye overland trip.

    * Even though most border posts only require one member of a large party to enter the post, everyone should get out and offer themselves for inspection.

    * When customs officials approach your vehicle, immediately open the back -- don't wait to be asked. Tidy the back as much as possible before getting to the border post. Make sure one of you stands by during the search to avoid pilfering.

    * Learn the greetings of the next country before getting to the border post: A great ice-breaker is to get involved in an impromptu language lesson. Remember that, especially at isolated border posts, officials are bored and love practicing English, and enjoy news from other parts of the world.

    * Keep your cool, no matter how tedious and obstructionist the officials are being. We have heard of travellers forced to camp for three days at a border post because one of them lost their temper and insulted a customs official.

    * Unless there is a compelling reason for being there, like your visitor's permit is about to expire, never cross borders on weekends, public holidays or close to closing time. You are liable to be hit with an overtime fee, or the customs officials will keep you hanging about until the overtime rates come into effect. Most borders are incredibly hectic at weekends and on holidays, and you will have a long wait. The Beit Bridge crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe is a nightmare on long weekends.

    BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION:

    If a bribe is solicited, pretend you don't understand: Ask the person requesting the bribe to accompany you to another office to clarify the request. This should be enough to scare off the supplicant, unless the whole office is in on the game.

    But don't be too naive: Walk into an office with a couple of click Bics in an outside pocket. If an officer asks to borrow a pen and then admires it, offer it as a token of friendship. Postcards of your home town also make good gifts and help to break the ice. Chutzpah is often the name of the game.

    The rule of thumb is to play it by ear without putting your foot in your mouth. If there is a payment which seems outrageous, ask for a receipt -- if no receipt is offered, then assume you are being asked for a bribe. If a receipt is forthcoming, the item will usually be legitimate.

    There are travellers who routinely bribe their way around Africa. This is an outdated view of Africa no longer valid in most parts of the continent. In the majority of countries, the authorities are committed to cracking down on bribery and corruption, yet many travellers don't realize this -- by offering bribes you are supporting a system which is rapidly fading.

    Two countries which have cracked down heavily on corruption and which previously had nasty reputations are Uganda and Tanzania. The Ugandans have had more success than the Tanzanians, and the threat of reporting a corrupt official to central government will make them turn tail.

    THE BRIBERY HIT LIST:

    KENYA: Corruption stretches from the pettiest of officials into the highest echelons of government. Here there is a fine line in knowing how long to hold out before offering a bribe. The point at which to offer a bribe is when you are about to be arrested, and no sooner.

    Officials on the Kenyan side of the intermittently operating Sand River border post near Keekorok, linking the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya have a nasty reputation for extracting bribes. In East Africa, a bribe is known as "chai", the Swahili word for tea. So "taking tea" is taking a bribe.

    CONGO DRC: Expect to pay bribes for almost every single official service. Bribery is a way of life: The central government seldom gets it together to pay civil servants outside of the capital, Kinshasa, so border guards, policemen, soldiers, even bank clerks and nurses, demand a "cadeau" (gift) before doing what they are supposed to do. That is simply how they get paid.

    NIGERIA: Exceptionally corrupt. Expect to pay bribes. Don't fall foul of the military or police: It could be fatal.


    POLICE AND MILITARY ROAD BLOCKS:

    A feature of life. In Kenya, expect to be stopped as many as ten times a day. Always slow down when you see a roadblock, and meticulously obey any signals. Remove your sunglasses when an officer approaches, and greet them in the local language. Be as polite as possible. You will occasionally be asked for a bribe at a road block. Play it by ear.

    In East Africa, road blocks are often badly marked, and the barriers consist of two rows of fearsome, tyre-shredding metal spikes. All the more reason to slow down well in advance of a block, and to NEVER drive at night -- sometimes the police forget to move the spikes, or don't pull them fully off the road.

    Always keep vehicle papers, passports, carnet and insurance documents in a secure place which is easily accessible, so you don't subject yourself to unnecessary scrutiny at roadblocks. If you are issued with a vehicle disc at customs, display it on the windshield.

    In most cases, you will be waved through as soon as the officer sees a foreign-registered vehicle -- except on Kenya's Mombasa to Malindi road, where foreign vehicles are a target for bribe extraction.

    If there is something wrong with your vehicle, work out a convincing story in advance. Say something like "but we have just had that fixed" and pull out a tool kit and start repairing the fault. This usually gets you off the hook.

    In Mombasa, we were stopped while on our way to fit four new tyres to our vehicle, the old set were bald and tread-less. The officer politely pointed this out and said he would have to fine us. In a moment of divine inspiration, we said these were a new design from the United States, especially made for mud driving:

    "You see, officer," we explained, "there are no holes for the mud to get stuck in, so you drive right over the top. They are called Super Slicks." He grinned and said "that is a very good story, you may go."

    WARS AND COUP D 'ETATS:

    Eina. happens. When the Rwandan civil war erupted, several groups of overlanders were trapped inside. Coups are unpredictable things, all the more reason to tune into the BBC's African Service every evening and listen to regional developments.

    If trapped, head for your consulate, or a friendly consulate if you are not represented (the Brits are pretty good) and hole up there. If you cannot get there because of fighting, get to the nearest solid hotel with all your available food, money and backpacking gear (including stoves), book a room, close the curtains and prop blankets, mattresses and tables against the windows to slow down bullets, flying glass and shrapnel, fill the bath and every available container with water in case supplies are cut off, and -- prepare to be very bored, because chances are nothing will happen. The folks back home will be more worried than you.

    If you are trapped in the countryside, head for the nearest friendly border. You will probably come across a road block where the soldiers are drunk. Nasty, and you will have to keep very calm. Don't get out, keep the engine running, the vehicle in gear and a foot on the clutch.

    Single out one soldier with more authority than the others, or who is less drunk. Make sure you know the president's name and invoke his authority -- this may be enough to bring the drunkest of soldiers to his wits, if they are loyalists and not rebels. Play it by ear. Invoke the names of Nelson Mandela and Bafana Bafana -- they carry a lot of power.

    If things get out of hand, crash the roadblock if it is crasheable, and hope like hell the guns don't work. Drunk soldiers are notoriously bad shots. If you are hauled out of the vehicle, don't resist, however tempting it may be.

    LAST WORD:

    We had been gone from South Africa for two years when we returned through the Beit Bridge border post. On the Zimbabwean side, the immigration official paged back through our passports and said "you have been gone two years, you must be very glad to be going home, viva Mandela, congratulations," and shook our hands.

    On the South African side, the grim-faced woman demanded to know: "Why have you been gone two years? Where have you been? How much money are you carrying? Does your vehicle got a licence?" Is you carrying firearms?"

    There are some border posts where the tricks just don't work.
    Tony Weaver

    1991 Land Rover 110 Hi-Line S/W 3.5l V8 carburettor
    Cooper Discoverer STT tyres, four sleeper Echo rooftop tent
    2012 Mitsubishi Outlander.

    Previously Land Rover 1968 SII, 1969 SIIA, 1973 SIII, 1983 Toyota HiLux 2litre, 2006 Land Rover Freelander TD4 HSE.

  2. #2
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    Tony,

    thanks for posting.......a useful thread, and a good reminder of etiquette. When are you going to collate these musings into that book that you know you are destined to write?

    I'll bore you later with border crossing tales from Northern Africa (the 4 day border crossing from Morocco [Western Sahara] to Mauritania was our record!), but a strategy we found that worked really well was the jolly smile, cheery "Can't wait to see your beautiful country" and respectful pleases and thank yous. Best of all, though, was carrying a photo of your young kids, prominently displayed..........and trying if possible to get to a female official who would inevitably melt into huge smiles at the sight of a couple of cute girls. It didn't take long to have everyone gathered around looking at the photos......chatting.........which always meant that the inevitable everything-out-of-the-car searches progressed a whole lot more smoothly.

    Funniest border incident?................Probably the policeman on the Nigeria Cameroon border who told us the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car....."Well, officer, we've got the tools in the back and we were planning to swap it over to the other side when we camp this evening". "OK, that is fine. Where have you driven from?" "From London".........". What..........today?" !!!!!!

    There are some horrendous border crossings up in Northern Africa, but Southern Africa is wonderful in comparison. It always tickles me to see people (generally South African, I'm sorry to say) strut in with a superior and angry attitude, moan, thump the desk, shout........and then take a few hours to get through a border that would otherwise have taken a few minutes!!

    As I've said elsewhere, Africa is an attitude as well as a place. Borders reveal this beautifully!

    Mike
    "A poxy, feral, Brit architect who drinks bad beer and supports the wrong rugby team." Tony Weaver

    "Mike for President" Freeflyd

  3. #3
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    I have to agree with Mike. Some of the rudest people i've seen at border posts were South African, and they made everthing difficult for themselves as well as everybody behind them.

    Best method to attack a border post is with lots and lots of entusiasm and friendliness. And remeber : TIA!
    Everything is a hammer.
    Unless it is a screw driver.

    Then it it a chisel.

  4. #4
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    Thanks Mike - yes, kids are great border crossing assets. My nine-year-old daughter is border crossing weapon number one, while my 13-year-old son gets enlisted to do the running from office to office. They get served twice as fast as I do.

    Another good piece of advice is to carry as many local newspapers as possible - at remote crossings, the officials are starved for news, and will be overjoyed at getting the papers, even if they are a week or more old. But without doubt the best thing to do is to learn the basic greetings in the local lingo. Ask as you go along. My basic albeit reasonably fluent KiSwahili is a godsend, even in Zambia where it isn't widely spoken.

    If you speak a bit of Xhosa or Zulu or Shangaan, chuck it into the mix - variants of their vocabulary are used in most of the Bantu as opposed to Nilotic or KhoiSan languages spoken south of the equator.
    Tony Weaver

    1991 Land Rover 110 Hi-Line S/W 3.5l V8 carburettor
    Cooper Discoverer STT tyres, four sleeper Echo rooftop tent
    2012 Mitsubishi Outlander.

    Previously Land Rover 1968 SII, 1969 SIIA, 1973 SIII, 1983 Toyota HiLux 2litre, 2006 Land Rover Freelander TD4 HSE.

  5. #5
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    Memories of those border crossings. Mostly they proved to be quite painless. Sand River for me was a treat. They wanted $100, and all I could do to not pay with extensive time consuming negotiation, finally settled on $20. I hated it. But it would of cost a fortune in fuel alone to go around.

    I once got the runaround at the Malawi border. They had some extra charges which I knew from previous crossings did not exist. So I refused. The officialdom in their infinite wisdom suggested I move the vehicle aside and they would take care of others behind me and in the other lane. So, out came the beach chairs and my traveling mate and I parked ourselves in both lanes. It took all of 5 minutes to process us.
    Last edited by luangwablondes; 2009/05/04 at 11:55 AM.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by luangwablondes View Post
    I once got the runaround at the Malawi border. They had some extra charges which I knew from previous crossings did not exist. So I refused. The officialdom in their infinite wisdom suggested I move the vehicle aside and they would take care of others behind me and in the other lane. So, out came the beach chairs and my traveling mate and I parked ourselves in both lanes. It took all of 5 minutes to process us.
    Yep! nice story!!

    I remember a roadblock somewhere up in west Africa where we refused to pay a fine for not wearing seatbelts, because we were all wearing seatbelts...........so ended up getting the table and chairs out, and a pack of cards. Ten minutes later we were on our way.

    We put the rooftent up at one road-block and had a kip until the next shift arrived.....then on we went.

    Going back to Tony's thread........and his mention of drunken soldiers and their guns........we had just had 2 days in Likati in Zaire whilst the local secret policeman trumped up a "travelling without photographic permit" charge against us, and so were not in the best of moods when a couple of guys with guns tried to extract a toll from us for crossing a stick bridge (think Third Bridge, but 50 feet up in the air). We got chatting, asked about their guns, and asked to see the bullets. "Ah......no bullets". Ok, then no toll either! We crashed the barrier and crossed the bridge, hoping fervently that there wasn't a damn great bog hole 50 yards down the track!

    Tony....you mention languages, and that is a great tip. But the one we found easier (although it may not apply down in Southern Africa so much) were the handshakes.

    Each country in western and central Africa seemed to have its own special handshake. Some of them were extraordinary, ending up with a sort-of mutual finger click......and showing an interest, asking them to show you how to do it...........getting it wrong deliberately so they had to show you again.......and then finally getting it right with huge laughs all round, was a great ice breaker.

    You had to be a bit canny, though, because most borders comprise 3 or 4 different huts, and you couldn't try all the same tricks at each hut because that would look too obvious.

    Mike
    Last edited by MikeAG; 2009/05/04 at 02:04 PM.
    "A poxy, feral, Brit architect who drinks bad beer and supports the wrong rugby team." Tony Weaver

    "Mike for President" Freeflyd

  7. #7
    Gazonknuts Guest

    Cool Speed up a vehicle search

    I travel extensively around Southern Africa and concur with most advice given on this forum.
    One trick I always use to speed up any vehicle search is quite simple.I carry a pair of light beige underpants which I have doctored with a bit of light coloured chocolate in the crotch area and leave them on visible displayed inside the back door of my 4x4. Usually having opened the door it only takes a max 3 seconds before eye contact is made of said item looking very offensive and potentially smelly . This is enough to deter even the most dedicated inspector.
    I have done this on about 5 trips now and not once has even my cooler box in the back been checked.

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    Gazonknuts...

    Very funny indeed..... Maybe the reason for you name as well?
    Regards
    Dave
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    Default Beit Bridge Border

    Hi do you have any tips for me, as I am going fishing in July at Mteri Lodge Zimbabwe- Is there anything I should be aware of at the Border piost- Any Tips you maybe can help me with - I will be entering the border at +/- 2h00 in the morning- what can I do to speed the process? Is it save to leave the vehicle & boat alone while completing the papers etc? any hints on Zimbabwe Beit Bridge will help

  10. #10
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    My main tip would be to forget going through at 2.00 am. Your plan breaks the cardinal rule..........don't drive at night. Apparently, on the first section of road north of Beit Bridge it is not safe to stop........and travelling through there is the dark in just asking for trouble. Find a place to stay in Musina, and head through the border first thing in the morning.

    Mike
    Last edited by MikeAG; 2010/06/22 at 03:15 PM.
    "A poxy, feral, Brit architect who drinks bad beer and supports the wrong rugby team." Tony Weaver

    "Mike for President" Freeflyd

  11. #11
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    Agree with Mike.

    I'm passing through there next week and I have used that same tactic to great effect.

    1. Sleep at Musina caravan park.
    2. Get up at 4am
    3. Get out of border post at about 6:30am (best case scenario so far)

    Mid-week works better than weekends/public holidays so try schedule your trip around that.
    Piers



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