By Davina Jogi
March 11th, 2015
There are few things Zimbabweans dread more than crossing the road borders into their own country. So how do you, a mere visitor, face the daunting task? Here is a list of 5 pointers to get you across, even better than the locals.
1. Beitbridge. Shmeitbridge. Crossing at this border is sooo last year, try a different one!
If you google ‘Beitbridge Border Post’, as you will most likely do on completion of reading this article, you will be greeted by cheery repertoire of link titles:
- “Crossing Beitbridge” – a whole Facebook page dedicated to the experience
- “Contigency Plan for Beitbridge”
- “Surviving the Dreaded Beitbridge Border Crossing”
- “Situational Analysis at Beitbridge Border”
- “Women Arrested at Beitbridge Border Post with Explosives”
(After actually crossing the border, you may develop a degree of sympathy for the volatile woman in the last link)
If you haven’t gathered it by now, the South Africa-Zimbabwe border post is particularly Berlin Wall-esque in terms of intimidation factor. Described as the busiest border crossing in southern Africa, an estimated 19000 people cross daily during peak periods and the process can take up to 12 hours. It would appear to the frequent crosser that there is no love lost between the two sides – the South Africans are particularly tough on Zimbabweans and vice-versa.
The good news is that since Zimbabwe is entirely land-locked by four other countries, the itinerant traveller has a choice of a whopping 9 legal border crossings (and at least 51 illegal points) to busy themselves with, instead of joining the 1 million Zimbabweans on their return journey to the motherland from the surrogacy of South Africa.
If you have no choice and must pass through the notorious town:
- Make sure it’s the 10 months out of the year that aren’t December/ January
- Declare something on those little blue forms at Customs on the Zimbabwean side. If you’re a Zimbabwean keep your longest Makro receipt to show off (don’t pretend, we all know you went to Makro at least once). If you’re a foreigner declare your camera/laptop. Seriously, it’s amazing how a bit of overzealous pretend confusion staves off a vehicle search.
- Unless you are naturally gifted in the cash flow department don’t support the Zimbabwean touting community, you will find yourself unnecessarily short of a number of Benjamins. That said, if you are feeling flush, and don’t feel like dealing with the hassle yourself, Zimbabwean touters are some of the friendliest in the world and you may come out feeling like you’ve made a wise investment. You haven’t.
- If you see a bus arrive at the same time as you stick out your elbows, brandish a crying baby and run to beat the queue! 120 seater vehicle + extra 60 passengers x average 120kg luggage each = more hours than the duration of your holiday waiting at immigration and customs. Anything you can do to get ahead will be to your advantage.
- On the SA side, be aware that immigration may be located in an unassuming green tent on either side of the South African border post. The Department of Immigration seems to use up a lot of manpower and work hours moving immigration around for their own entertainment.
- Memorise this: Road Toll, Immigration, Customs, Police Check, Customs Inspection, Gate Pass – it’s the order you need to follow on the Zimbabwean side
- If you’re memory isn’t so good, read this blog from a delightful couple who have saved us a heap load of research and regurgitation and who will save you a heap load of confusion and possibly also regurgitation.
2. Inform yourself about these ground rules for all border crossings.
- All foreign cars entering Zimbabwe require a Temporary Import Permit (TIP), which you can purchase at the border. You will also need your vehicle registration documents and any rental agreements for a rented car, including a letter from the owner of the vehicle authorizing you to drive it. Zimbabweans, if you’ve gotten out, you presumably have your registration papers and police clearance for the vehicle. If you don’t have them, consider joining one of the growing vehicle smuggling rings operating out of Joburg.
- Remember immigration, customs, road tolls and gate passes are part and parcel of all border crossings – if you have missed out one of these, you will probably not be able to pass ‘GO’ or collect $200.
- Lock your car, hide your belongings and try park somewhere that your car can be seen. If you can’t, pray hard.
- Everyone, yes that means your incontinent granny in the back seat and your 6-week-old, pruney child, needs to be seen by immigration with their relevant passport. If they are breathing, they must enter the building. If you are worried about your vehicle and the queue isn’t too long, take turns leading your dependent relatives to the official while the less dependent ones stave off sticky-fingered loiterers.
- The good news is that this rule does NOT apply to Customs. Only those declaring something and/or the driver of the car that needs to be cleared need to proceed to this point and see the police. We recommend using the short straw system to decide who the unlucky ‘driver’ will be.
- Finally, implement the Kentucky Fried Chicken Rule. If you are in a border town with a KFC – Kasane and Messina come to mind – consider paying the Colonel a visit before you hit up the border. Time your crossing to coincide with lunch and hey presto! you will find a 2-piecer and chips go a long way towards securing interest in your swift passage through the border. Say it all together now “KFC makes borders as easy as 1,2,3!”
3. If you’re feeling adventurous try the border posts the world forgot.
(between Botswana and Zimbabwe, borders Hwange National Park)
This is the equivalent of Zimbabwe’s get out of jail free card for border posts. Having said that, not even Zimbabweans use this border post – too much bush involved for us civilized types. But if you are an intrepid South African 4x4er or a foreigner aspiring to be one, this is the border post for you. True, the 15 min it takes to cross this tiny border post may be made redundant by the hours of bush trek driving on either side of it, but that’s far more pleasant than standing in a queue defending your incontinent granny from sticky-fingered touts at Beitbridge isn’t it? Best place for info on this border are 4×4 forums. Worst time to cross? Rainy season.
Enter our spectacular country and drive across the world’s largest man made dam? Who wouldn’t sign up? Well anyone coming from South Africa, as this is on Zimbabwe’s northern border with Zambia. But if you’re a northerner descending the continent, keen for a bit of house-boating and game spotting, skip out Chirundu’s 24-hour crossing and tackle the dam wall.
On the down side, smaller border posts mean that you are at the mercy of their officials, something ‘Janmac’ discovered when she visited Zim in April 2011 and was relieved of a $50 by the ingeniously named ‘Sgt Pardon’ who was possibly, but not likely, an Interpol agent. A number of bloggers have noted the pesky persistence of this particular official at securing ‘bribes’ for unobtainable vehicle clearance certificates. So if you decide to risk being caught in his web, keep a spare $50 for a Pardon.
Alternatively the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority Kariba has just posted a notice that it is keen to assist tourists crossing the border, “so that the entry or exit will be flawless.” This particular choice of adjective would have me picking up the phone and dialing them immediately. Wait, did someone say phone numbers?!
(Somewhere on the 1231 km border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe)
Not Espungaberry exciting, but despite its outlandish name or perhaps because of its Willy Wonka-ish sobriquet, this spot has earned itself a reputation as the “golden ticket” of border crossings.
The Zimbabwean, and more sensible name, for this location is Mount Selinda. Even more sensible is to read this lovely review. Judging by the title of her blog entry, the author is clearly an expert at pointer number 3. Yup, anyone “carrying one year’s worth of nappies, bum cream, Christmas gifts and enough medicine to medicate an entire hospital,” and who makes it through the border in a matter of ‘minutes’ should be memorialized in statue form and deified in our opinion.
4. No matter where you cross pay attention to when and how you go about it.
Beitbridge is the only 24-hour border crossing into Zimbabwe, so if you don’t pay attention you can get caught out. And as a general rule, border towns are not really great tourist destinations, you usually want to get that passport stamped and move on by. Check here for a nifty pdf of border opening and closing times and give yourself plenty of leeway – border officials are traditionally unkind to people who arrive 5 minutes before closing.
When timing your trip through the border also keep in mind that you pretty much never want to drive through Zimbabwe at night, especially on the Beitbridge-Harare road. Highways with no verges, trucks with no lights, donkeys with no manners, and police with very little reflective gear are just a few of the reasons driving at night is like playing Grand Theft Auto in the dark with a faulty game controller…it’s just not a winning combination.
To improve your odds of survival on Zimbabwe’s roads, plan your route well in advance and observe the rules of the road. Consular assistance is not able to override local Zimbabwean laws and regulations, even where local laws seem to be extreme or unfounded by your standards. And if the health care system isn’t what it used to be, you should try the Zimbabwe Prison Service.
Fortunately, the Automobile Association of Zimbabwe has compiled a list of what you need to get yourself and your vehicle across a border.
And here’s an even better downloadable list of traffic regulations that includes fines. In fact this site is a wealth of knowledge if you are going to be driving in Zimbabwe and is well worth a leisurely perusal.
Some random bits of information we would like to add:
- Make sure you have all the wheel nuts on your tires, you can be fined per missing nut
- Ensure the light over your license plate is working
- If you are driving a truck/bakkie with a load bin, ensure there is a sticker somewhere at the back of the vehicle that shows its NVM and GVM.
- Watch out for police roadblocks in the shade wherever there is a change is speed limit. Sometimes they sit on the speed limit sign.
- If someone flashes their lights at you, nine times out of ten there is a police block coming up ahead.
- Roads tolls are all $2 for light motor vehicles – ask for the receipt to make sure the cash is going where its supposed to.
- Standard traffic fines range from $5-$20 per misdemeanour and police at road blocks do not have the authority to charge you more than this. Not that it stops them from trying:)
Finally, remember to respect the police no matter how foolish their demands seem, arguing will get you nowhere except driving down the fast lane to frustration. Which brings us nicely to our last point…
5. Patience, patience and more of the same
It’s the name of many a young girl in Zimbabwe for good reason, you will get nowhere without a healthy dose of it up your sleeve. Be polite, agreeable and patient especially to the most impolite, unagreeable, and impatient border officials you meet. Anger will simply incite them to remind you how powerless you are in the anarchy of no man’s land, and what it feels like to be at the end of every queue.
On the flip side, a little good-natured conversation about the weather will usually soften up the hardest official – Zimbabweans are all farmers at heart and can’t resist any debate about the rain (time since last rain, frequency of rain, types of rain drops, effect on crops are all legitimate discussion topics)
If you come from one of those countries that prides itself in its efficiency don’t stand in the line and whine to those around you about how inefficient the border post is in the loudest, nasaliest accent you can muster (apologies for generalisations, but expectations of efficiency and nasally accents have a direct correlation in our experience). First of all you will find very little sympathy from the locals around you who may have been in the same queue for the past 10 years. And secondly, the louder and nasalier you are, the lower your chances of securing a stamp in that well-travelled passport. More likely than not in fact, you will find that you have more in common with the Zimbabweans named ‘Hope’ than those called ‘Patience’ as your chances of crossing the border fade in front of you.