How Does It Feel Like to Cross African Borders by Car?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Before starting my epic road trip, I was afraid of African borders. There were many rumors about bribing the police and customs officers. Having all documents sorted out correctly was my main concern. After driving across many East and Southern African borders, I can honestly say that it’s no big deal.

1. Border Crossing from Kenya into Uganda in Malaba

As it was my very first overland border crossing by car, I was especially nervous. With a staple of documents and multiple copies, I was well prepared and more than ready. It turned out to be a fairly straightforward process. Accepting the aid of an independent agent was anything but necessary, he just basically led me through all the steps and sort of talked to the officials. I could not really avoid it, because when I arrived at the border, many agents suddenly surrounded my car and even the officials encouraged me to collaborate with one of them. Nevertheless, both, the Kenyan and Ugandan customs officer, filled out the Carnet de Passage erroneously. After all, it was a rather chaotic African border crossing.

2. Border Crossing from Uganda into Rwanda in Cyanika

Welcome to Rwanda

This small East African border crossing does not even have a real no-man’s-land in between the two countries. The side of Uganda is a bit more elaborated and ordinary customs are separated from the immigration department. After the first confusion and uncomfortable atmosphere, the customs officer clarified the mistake in the Carnet de Passage from the previous border. In Rwanda, things were way more relaxed. One small shed straddled houses of all the departments and even hosted two tourist offices. Everybody was welcoming and we had some nice conversations during the short but heavy rainfall under the tin roof.

3. Border Crossing from Rwanda into Tanzania in Rusumo

Welcome to Tanzania

Emerging in the middle of nowhere, a new and fancy border crossing comes with a surprise. This modern one-stop-border in the middle of the no-man’s-land feels more like a small airport. All departments are well described, but despite the empty halls, all officers took a fairly long time to process any documents. Nobody seriously read the documents or asked any questions. The old man at the customs even needed phone support to correctly fill out my Carnet. The Rwandan immigration officer was busy with his smartphone and let me wait for a few minutes.

4. Border Crossing from Tanzania into Malawi in Songwe

Welcome to Malawi

This was by far my most annoying and sad border crossing, as the Malawian officers tried everything to get a tip. As usual, leaving Tanzania was a fast process. On the Malawian side, things were quite different. Every single officer delayed the procedure and was uncooperative, though very friendly. To be honest, I did not understand that they were waiting for a bribe - until my fellow travel buddy explained that to me. How would I know, that “waiting for the boss” in fact meant “could you please help me out”? First, I was a bit frustrated, but then I felt really sorry for them.

5. Border Crossing from Malawi into Zambia in Mgabi

Welcome to Zambia

Leaving Malawi, again, was no problem at all and the short no-man’s-land was passed quickly. Entering Zambia was not as nice as anticipated, though. Coming from Eastern Africa, the first road taxes came with a surprise. Even more annoying was fact that they were asking for three separate taxes (CO2, national and municipality roads) in three different buildings. As the officers and an internet research did not release clear information, I am still not sure about their justification. For the first time, I made an official really angry by condemning the setup of these taxes. A power outage affecting the ATM and digital tax system made things even worse. After all, it became one of my longest African border crossings.

6. Border Crossing from Zambia into Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls

Welcome to Zimbabwe

With a bridge as no-man’s-land crossing the Victoria Falls Canyon, this is the most spectacular border crossing in Africa. Zambia annoyed me again with an additional municipal road tax. And changing all my currency beforehand, turned out to be a totally unnecessary step. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, surprised with the friendliest customs officers. Importing the car took a bit long, but it was a pleasure to observe how the senior officer was instructing the younger trainee. Again, not the shortest border crossing, but it took an hour roughly, so it was pretty average.

7. Border Crossing from Zimbabwe into Botswana in Plumtree

Welcome to Botswana

For two different reasons, this was yet another long border crossing process. At first, I had to queue and wait for the immigration department to get my free African visa. Maybe it was just because of bad timing, as I arrived after a big bus. Secondly,  the customs officer in Botswana was not very clear about the combination of insurance and road taxes associated with the car. He could not properly explain how much and what for I have to pay. As the first country, they did not accept US Dollars, so after the previous confusion, I also had to go exchange some money. After all, one single small fee for road taxes and basic insurance is a good solution.

8. Border Crossing from Botswana into Namibia in Mohembo

Welcome to Namibia

Having blue sky, nicely painted buildings, and palm trees, this border crossing feels like a holiday at the Mediterranean! When leaving Botswana, the officers were not really interested, but still friendly. On the Namibian side, I was happy about another free visa. However, despite my Carnet, the officer urged me to fill out a TIP (Temporary Importation Permit) for his record. No extra charges applied, but usually, the Carnet substitutes this document madness. On this specific African border crossing, all fees and taxes were transparently communicated. A very professionally equipped border.

I hope these stories give some insight into the life of African border crossings. Maybe they can help to make the experience smoother and simpler in the future.

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of aSabbatical.com
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!