Are border crossings getting any easier on the African continent? Johan, after extensive travels with his Voetspore team, provides the answer.
When we travelled to Egypt about ten years ago on our first overland visit to this ancient land, we had to pass through Ethiopia, which is known as an “island” on the continent because it is so vastly different from other countries. It has unusual traditions, a different calendar and way of reading the time, a language that is strange to listen to, and impossible for a foreigner to read.
The Ethiopian people, even though they are black, look as though they belong to a different continent. So we were not surprised to find that the border crossing was also different.
We arrived at Moyale after driving on what Paul Theroux described as the “longest road in Africa”, even though it is only 250km from Marsabit in Kenya to the border. The road became notorious because of its very bad condition and the Somalian bandits that hide behind rocks in the desert. They flag down vehicles pretending they need water or have had a breakdown, and then attack and rob unsuspecting travellers.
We were fortunate to arrive at the border late in the afternoon. It is a question of timing that probably has a lot more to do with luck than planning. You need to get to the border at a time when the officials are willing to process the border crossing but are in a hurry to knock off and go home. Arrive five minutes too late and you have to sleep in the no-man’s-land zone. Arrive an hour too early and they make you unpack your vehicle.
At the border we presented our passports with valid visas, our yellow fever certificates, our vehicle registration papers and our proof of third party insurance. We also presented the Carnet de Passage et Douane – the temporary import and export permit for the vehicles. But these documents were not accepted. Ethiopia had its own system.
Everything had to be written down by hand. Every item in the vehicles had to be listed. Name and make of the vehicle, extra spare wheel, fridge, drawer system, roof rack, tents, other camping equipment, cameras, laptops, GPS, cell phones…. The Ethiopians designed their own Carnet de Passage.
The list was checked and stamped with the official stamp. Three weeks later, when we left the country, we had to declare all these items once more at customs. Fortunately we were forewarned that the customs office on the border with Sudan was 30km before the actual crossing at Quallabat. Many a traveller has had to drive back the 30km, just to have the goods officially “exported” from Ethiopia.
Three years ago we travelled through Ethiopia once again. We were surprised to see “the Chinese” were building a new tar road between Marsabit and Moyale. When we arrived at the border, everything was familiar – but only on the Kenyan side. In Ethiopia there were drastic changes.
Our passports were scanned. Entry into the country is made official when you look into a little camera on a computer, manned by an official sitting neatly behind a desk. The Carnet de Passage was accepted, processed and stamped. The border crossing took less than half-an-hour. Getting into Ethiopia was as easy as pie. Border crossings — at least this one – were getting easier.
Last year we travelled from Kenya via Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. On arriving in Kinshasa, we decided not to ship the vehicles back to SA but to drive them back, through Angola and Namibia. For this we needed Angolan visas.
Before proceeding to the Angolan border at Matadi, I had to make sure everything was in order. Christo Human of Vodacom assisted us. He sent his driver, Dominique, to the Angolan embassy in the Congolese capital to ask about the requirements. He came back and said it was not possible to get a visa. I thought Dominique had probably asked the wrong questions to the wrong officials. How was it not possible, at all, to get a visa for a neighbouring country? So Christo and I went to the embassy.
We were confronted by real African time. At first we were given a number — 43 it was. We heard one of the officials call the next client – number 23. We timed the period for each client to be processed. It took approximately 15 minutes each. It was going to be a long day.
Eventually we got to the front of the queue. Explaining our situation was difficult. Neither Christo nor I could speak Portuguese. Fortunately the official was fluent in French, and there was one official who had a working knowledge of English. Between the two of them, some communication was possible. After difficult explanations we finally got the answer – Dominique was right. It was not possible to get an Angolan visa at the embassy. We asked if visas were perhaps issued at other Angolan offices in the DRC. The official was unaware of any.
We were stuck. How do you get back to SA from the middle of the continent if one of the countries you have to pass through refuses to issue a visa?
We decided to take a different approach. Go to the border town. There must be a consulate. Maybe they could help.
At Matadi we at first struggled to find the consulate. They had moved since our last visit, six years before. (The Tracks4Africa indication of the consulate’s location was outdated.) Back then we had obtained a single entry visa, valid for five days, in a couple of hours. Perhaps this could be done again.
After eventually finding the consulate we were informed that it was indeed possible to get a visa, but there was a whole process to be completed. First we needed a photocopy of every page in our passports. We also needed copies of all other travel documents, including the Carnet de Passage and the registration certificate of our vehicles. I think my photocopy bill in Matadi was more than R200.
Then we had to complete the application form. This in itself was difficult, as once more the language barrier complicated matters. Fortunately there was a very efficient lady from the consulate who assisted us. A few hours later all was done. We submitted the application.
“Come back tomorrow at 14:00”. This was on 11 September. We were supposed to have been back home at the end of the previous month. We had no time to waste.
“Not possible to have the application processed today? Then we can leave very early tomorrow morning?”
“Come back tomorrow at 14:00…”
The next day at 14:05 we got our visas and drove back home via Angola and Namibia.
Edward Vorster recently told me that his group had waited at this same consulate for three days for their application to be processed and when it was eventually done, only half the requested visas were issued. Clearly since their visit there had been improvements.
Border crossings are getting easier. Many border posts are now equipped with computers and cameras. The flow of traffic has also improved as people make use of facilities at border posts that in years gone by were only visited by a few tourists a week or even a month.
But one should always be aware that this is Africa. In Africa, as the saying goes, you always succeed. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a little patience and faith. It is what makes travelling on the continent a little more challenging, and a little more rewarding.