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. It’s 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! First, in general, it’s not as bad as the stories would suggest, and second, we can help! While solutions to the root causes of the issues remain utterly elusive, there are remedies that, like modern western medicine, can help alleviate the painful tooth-pulling symptoms experienced when attempting to cross the border.
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. Like 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.
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 is that 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. 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 might need to cross (make sure to check the summary table below).
Do you need a visa? If so, how much does it cost and how long does it last? Often officials will give you the number of days you ask for up to the country’s limit, which is usually one or three months. Ideally, ask for more days than you need to give yourself flexibility. Make sure you have enough pages in your passport.
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 a carnet de passage is required, you will need to organise it 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 suggestion is you should get one for any extended overland trip in Africa.
Is this mandatory in the country you’re 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 to swindle you. In most places, the smallest period you can buy is a quarter (three months), but if you are in the country only a couple weeks, you can negotiate the price on this basis.
In Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) countries, you can buy one third-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.
What other documents or permits do you or your car need to get into where you are going? Common examples of things you will need include is a ZA Sticker, reflective vests, two warning triangles and valid passport with empty pages. You might also need a vehicle police clearance, carbon tax, road user tax and temporary importation permits, affidavit if you do not own the car, yellow fever certificates and an international driving permit.
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 United States dollars 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.
Be nice and patient
Planning aside, there are many other things you should and should not do to increase your chances in having a peaceful crossing. The first important pointis to be friendly. 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.
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.
Sadly, it’s 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.
Don’t repack at the border!
If you need to repack anything, such as 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.
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.
Know the rules
What is and isn’t 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.
Follow the rules
You know the rules … make sure you follow them. Deviations will make your life tougher than desired. That extra 10 km/h is not worth dealing with slippery police.
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. They do work! In general, remember that “attitude is everything”, so bring your smile and enjoy the ride!
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