Twelve Black-Magic African Border Tips

by | Friday, 8 Sep, 2017 | 4x4, Africa, Africa Sky High, Gear & Tips | 2 comments

Words and Photos by Shane Quinnell, Videos by Tarryn Quinnell, Team Tane – Make sure you check out the SUPER useful table below!

Crossing African land borders is a notoriously infamous undertaking. Unfortunately, the truth is the reputation exists for a very good reason; it’s a HUGE pain in the ass. Its time consuming, hot, intense and exceptionally confusing. There are people in your face pushing semi-aggressively to try and ‘help,’ you, intimidating officials who occasionally want bribes and rules and prices which change depending on the colour of your skin.

Don’t despair though, there is good news! Firstly, in general, it’s not as bad as the stories would suggest, and secondly, we can help. While solutions to the root causes of the issues remain utterly elusive, there are remedies which like modern western medicine, can help alleviate the painful tooth-pulling symptoms experienced in attempting to the line. They won’t magically get you from Botswana into Zambia instantaneously but they may help you reduce frustration, limit how often you get swindled and lighten the awaiting agony. Alike all things African, they are inexact and change depending on the situation. They require a touch of finesse and bucket load patience to work, but like black-magic, they work if only you believe.

Some African borders, like the one above where nothing but a tree marks the border between Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Parks, require nothing but a decent 4x4. Lucky we had our baby Suzuki Jimny, Badger!

I have to thank my university engineering education for the first tip. While I recall almost nothing from the time I served there ten years ago, the words of my Project Management lecturer fortunately stuck; “The first rule of Project Management; proper planning prevents piss poor performance.”  As it turns out, the first rule of Project Management is also the first remedy. The day before going to any border we quickly research and write down key information for the coming crossing, it’s the best thing we have done. Knowing what to expect before you reach the border WILL save you time, money and having to listen to the lies peddled by the sharks at the borders. Here’s what you need to find out, make sure you check out the summary table below;

Resupplying and checking up on the regulations before we cruise to yet another African nation.

  1. Visas: Do you need a visa, if so, how much does it cost and how long does it last? Often officials will give you however many days you ask for up to the limit for that country, usually 1 or 3 months. Ideally ask for more days than you need to give yourself flexibility. Make sure you have enough pages in your passport;
  2. Carnet de Passage: Does your car need a carnet de passage, effectively a car passport, to enter the country? You can check if you need this on the table we have prepared for you below, if required you will need to organise before leaving SA. Carnets are not mandatory for most Southern and Eastern African countries though they can be very helpful for reducing waiting times and other costs. We opted to get one and are thankful for it, our humble suggestion is you should get one for any extended overland trip in Africa;
  3. Third Party Insurance: Is this mandatory in the country you visiting and roughly how much should it cost? As a rule almost all countries will require this insurance. Cost varies depending on country and how well you bargain, be sure to do so as the vendors will almost definitely try swindle. In most places the smallest period you can buy is a quarter (3 months) but if you are in the country only a couple weeks, you can negotiate the price on this basis. A very useful tip is that in COMESA countries (http://ycmis.comesa.int/) you can buy one 3rd party policy to cover all in the union. Doing this will save you a lot of money and effort in having to get a new policy in each country you visit;
  4. Other Documents: What other documents or permits do you or your car need to get in to where you are going? Common examples of things you might need include; carbon tax, road user tax and temporary importation permits for your car and yellow fever certificates for yourself;
  5. Money Matters: What is the real exchange rate in the country you are visiting and how does it relate to your home currency, what currency are the various fees due in? Try to find this out before entering any new country. A tip is to carry USD with you as you can convert it almost anywhere in Africa for the local currency. Banks will often give you better rates than guys on the street. If you can get some currency for the country you are entering before hitting the border.

IMPORTANT TABLE NOTES: Visas specific for ZA Citizens, Rec. = Recommended, TIP = Temporary Import Permit, IDP = International Driving Permit, ZA sticker, registration papers and affidavit from owner if vehicle financed assumed compulsory for all countries. Source: https://www.aa.co.za/insights/preparing-for-the-holiday-cross-border-carnet-de-passage.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to deliver you across African land borders completely hassle-free. However, while these tips may seem superfluous, they are far from it… In general, remember that ‘attitude is everything,’ so bring your smile and enjoy the ride.

Shane and Tarryn Quinnell

Team Tane

Planning aside, there are many other things you should and should not do to increase your chances in having a peaceful crossing. Here are seven which we considered the most important.

  1. Be Nice and patient: No matter how rude or slow people are being, don’t lose your cool or drop your manners. Our approach to officials is to make jokes and tell them about “how amazing the police and officials in their country are.” Call it what you like but it works, instead of being aggressive people laugh and smile. With unwanted salesmen, be polite but firm. You are in Africa on African time, expect to wait. Take a book and relax, enjoy it;
  2. Learn the Lingo: Language is the key to breaking barriers and cultural stereotypes. Just today while bargaining with a guy in Zanzibar for Kiting lessons in Kiswhaili the instructor turned to his boss and said in Swahili “he is not a Mzungu, he speaks our language, give him the local rate.” You don’t need to know sentences but at least try learn the basics, it shows respect and in turn breeds respect;
  3. Bribery? Sadly its true, bribery and corruption can get you through Africa quicker. However, and this is a big BUT, there are serious drawbacks. Tarryn and I have a strict ‘no bribe,’ policy as we inherently disagree with the practice. We have seen what corruption has and is doing to our own country and hate it. Even if the morals don’t bother you, be aware many countries are trying to clamp down on this and serious fines and even jail time are possible if you try bribe the many honest officials;
  4. Don’t repack at the border! If you need to repack anything, i.e. meat or fruit, so it doesn’t get taken, make sure you do it well before the border. As we found out when moving things in our Wizerd draw system before entering Rwanda, there are many undercover plain clothed cops around and if you try do anything at the border they will get very suspicious;
  5. Shop around and Bargain; If you want to save money don’t just accept what the first guy offers. We have saved thousands of rand by walking the extra meters to ask others. When you find a trustworthy vendor, bargain like your life depends on it. Your wallet certainly does;
  6. Know the Rules; What is and is not allowed in the country you are entering, what is the speed limit? Certain countries have specific rules for vehicles. For example, lightbars are problematic in some countries, fortunately, Opposite Lock knew of this and provided us Lightforce Spotlights, a great alternative. Zambia and Zimbabwe each require reflective strips of certain dimensions and colours front and back, you can get pre made strips at Outdoor Warehouse. Mozambique and many other countries have rules on reflective vests, fire extinguishers and triangles. You need to know what you need because when you don’t have them you will have issues. Fortunately there is a full list of the requirements on our table and the AA website provided;
  7. Follow the Rules: You know the rules… make sure you follow them. Deviations will make your life tougher than desired. The extra 10kph is not worth dealing with slippery police.

The infamous Kazungula Ferry crossing from Botswana to Zambia. You can see the hundreds of vendors about to launch onto me from behind. Photo; Debbie Stevenson

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to deliver you across African land borders completely hassle-free. However, while these tips may seem superfluous, they are far from it. They are tried and tested by yours truly over many hours of time spent waiting at African land borders and dealing with local police, and they do work. In general remember that ‘attitude is everything,’ so bring your smile and enjoy the ride!

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