One of the main frustrations when travelling on the African continent is certainly border crossings. These crossings always test the patience and endurance of travellers – often to the extreme. At least, that is how it used to be.
In any touring party there are always one or two individuals who can’t stand customs and immigration offices. Long before you even stop at the normally filthy, dusty, hot offices these travel companions start hyperventilating. They get nervous. They predict the worst. They are upset about the vehicle that they know will be unpacked by the customs officials. They know there is going to be trouble.
Some people are born with near supernatural patience and can handle these situations fairly easily. It is always best if these individuals are entrusted with the task of taking the passports and yellow fever certificates to immigration, and the carnet de passage, third-party insurance and all other relevant documentation to the customs official.
The problem, however, is keeping the irritated ones from causing trouble. After an hour’s careful and courteous negotiations, these individuals normally storm into the office and demand that the papers be signed and stamped immediately, causing the official to get angry and deliberately delay procedures. What could have been done in 90 minutes suddenly take double that!
Border etiquette in Africa is simple. Be prepared, be friendly and have patience. Also try to attain the results of recent soccer matches. It is always good to have something to make small talk about.
On our journeys, each person always has a file with all relevant documentation. The passengers need their passports, yellow fever certificates and a few copies of their passports. They also need some passport photographs, because in some countries it is necessary to register at a foreigner registry, and then photos are needed.
The drivers of vehicles need a few extra documents. Most important is the carnet de passage – the temporary import and export permit. This document, which can be obtained from the AA, is not needed in southern African countries, but by the time you get to east and central Africa, crossing borders without a carnet becomes impossible.
Other documents needed are the registration papers of the vehicles, permission from the owners that the vehicles may be taken across the border, third-party insurance (usually obtained at the border), as well as proof of ownership of all other expensive equipment such as laptops and two-way radios.
I have travelled around 180 000km on the African continent, and in the past 12 years, I have never been asked for these documents, apart from those applicable to the vehicle. But you never know. I’ve heard horror stories from other travellers.
This is the key to a successful border crossing: drown them with your own bureaucracy. Whenever a question is asked, answer it with written proof, preferably a photocopy that the official can keep.
In west Africa, most of the admin is managed the French way. This is a system that was introduced by Napoleon. Napoleon believed that it was important to know a person’s name, date of birth and address, but also the name, address and date of birth of his or her parents. When you travel through west Africa, have this information typed on a piece of paper, and make at least 50 copies of it. Whenever an official asks for a “fisc”, offer this document. It will save you many hours of writing it down in their bureaucratic books. Other information that can be included on the “fisc” is your own marital status, occupation, passport number, visa number, vehicle make and registration, and chassis and engine numbers. If possible, have the whole document translated into French.
Travelling through Africa has changed substantially in recent years. Border crossings will never be the most joyful part of the journey, but it has become less painful. It still takes an hour or two, but officials have become much more approachable.
On our journey from Agulhas to Alexandria we travelled though 11 countries and none posed a real problem. Getting in and out of Lesotho was a mere formality. The same was true of Mozambique. Just be aware of the fact that if you take out a camera to take pictures at the border post, it will be confiscated. The Zambian border controls are a little dilapidated. This is probably because Zambia shares a border with eight different countries. This must place a huge demand on the government’s resources.
Tanzania has never been a difficult country to enter. Neither is Rwanda, although all your plastic bags will be confiscated at the border. Rwanda is the cleanest country in Africa. No litter is allowed. In Uganda, there are the occasional problems with not accepting South African issued carnets, but this seems to be an intermittent problem. Kenya is impossible to enter without a carnet. Ethiopia is impossible to enter without a visa issued in Pretoria.
Sudan is supposedly one of the most difficult countries to enter. Not in our experience. It took close to three hours to get in, but there were absolutely no hassles – just friendly officials taking their time to do the paperwork.
Egypt is a different kettle of fish. Entering the country as a South African (with a visa, issued for free in Pretoria), is not a problem. The problem is that there is only one border post coming from the south, and that is at the High Dam at Aswan. Hundreds of Sudanese and other travellers queue to enter. Everybody screams and shouts. It devolves into utter chaos. The best solution is to hang back until they have all passed, and then you can walk through to customs. Immigration is nowadays done on the ferry during the Lake Nasser crossing.
After travelling from South Africa to Egypt, after crossing ten or eleven borders, one may reasonably believe that the worst is behind you. Not so. Getting there is nothing compared to getting your vehicle into Egypt. This involves a deposit of 200 per cent of the value of your vehicle, getting the chief engineer of the Aswan traffic department to verify the chassis number of your car and getting yourself a set of Egyptian number plates. Once you have managed to do that, you feel good about your ability to cross African borders. That is, until you want to leave the land of the Pharaohs. A whole separate article needs to be devoted to that topic!
Whatever you do, be prepared, have patience, and don’t let one of your irate travel companions mess up all the good diplomatic work you have done by hours of small talk about soccer scores and friendly conversations whilst all your documents are being stamped. All good things come to those who wait!