Why (and How) I Crossed Three African Borders in Two Hours

Namibia border

If you travel internationally, border crossings are by definition a necessary (and necessarily unpleasant) part of the experience.  While I personally find the process of declaring my travel intentions to a bored, low level civil servant to be pointless and time consuming, there’s not much I can do about it. But I experienced this odd combination of needless officiousness and formality in the extreme while traveling to a luxury cruise boat in Namibia.

Our objective was the Zambezi Queen, a high-end boat moored not on the Zambezi River, but the Chobe in Namibia. On the map it looked easy enough; we were going through the crossroads where four nations converge: Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. To reach the boat though quickly became an epic battle of good versus bureaucracy.

We flew into Livingstone airport in Zambia, where I had to pay $80 for a double entry visa to a country where I would spend less than an hour. Luckily that was the highest amount we had to pay on the trip, but it didn’t curb the annoyance at the attempt to fleece some cash from visitors. But I didn’t care, I was in Africa and excited to reach the boat and see some big animals. First though, we had to get there.

Our first method of conveyance was a comfortable enough minibus, with a courteous driver who helped with our bags, even my heavy, “do you have gold bullion in here” suitcase. We pulled out of the airport and the bus stopped. And it wouldn’t start. Yes, we had arrived. Within five minutes though we were in a newly functioning bus, ready to start the adventure for real.

 Four borders

After forty-five minutes or so of driving through not-so-notable countryside, we stopped near a river with scores of people and semi-trucks teeming about, everyone on a different but doubtlessly important mission. We stopped, and the driver led us to a small building. It looked official, but there were also a lot of people just hanging out so I wasn’t sure. Turns out it was the Zambian border, and we had to officially leave the country. We signed a register before approaching the window for “Tourists” where the agent stamped our passports and that was it. Never before had I signed a guest book in order to officially leave a nation, but it was definitely easy. Within a few minutes, and shockingly little formality, we were in a state of diplomatic flux. No longer official visitors of Zambia or any country, we walked through the mud puddles back to the bus as people without status.

 

The driver took us a few meters ahead to a boat dock where, without notice, he started to unload our bags into a small runabout. Our next handoff had commenced, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a waterborne transport. The boat driver shook our hands and as we ferried across the mighty river he pointed out the four countries that converge on opposite shores. It was remarkable to sit in the middle of the river and be enveloped by so many nations, so many different peoples and cultures simultaneously.

Our time with him was short, as he beached the small boat on the shore another man, more gruff, approached and bid us a good afternoon. We were being handed off yet again in a sort of tourist relay race across Africa. Before we boarded minibus #3, Mr. Gruff handed us a series of immigration forms. Actually, they were two identical forms, both for Botswana. As I soon learned, one was to enter the country and the other was to leave it, just a few minutes after entering.

 

Botswana decontamination mat
Botswana border – decontamination mat dance

Needless to say we all became very proficient at entering our passport numbers and expiration dates. The entry into Botswana was more formal, in that the building didn’t look like it was about to collapse and there were forms to fill out and lines in which to queue. Our passports received their third stamp for the day, and after walking across a filthy ‘decontamination mat’ we settled into the bus for the ride to the next border.

The Botswana immigration office we arrived at was next to a river, the Chobe as it would turn out, and for what I hoped was the end of our immigration activities for the day. Mr. Gruff said goodbye in a, well, gruff way and we met our next, and final handler for the day. His shirt was emblazoned with the words ‘Zambezi Queen’ our final stop for the day. Our weary passports received yet another thorough examination, and we were soon skimming along the surface of the river towards rest, and I hoped a glass of wine.

 Chobe river

THIS is what I expected Africa to look like. Reeds and grasses sprouted up from the murky depths of the river, exotic birds soared overhead and in the distance I could see the sun starting its slow descent. I expected the next stop to be our boat, our luxurious boat, our luxurious boat with hot showers and champagne. What I failed to remember was that we had LEFT Botswana, which meant we had to ENTER someplace else. That someplace else was Namibia in what can only be called the most laid back and rustic immigration office in the world.

 Namibia border

Once again, the boat pulled up on shore, beaching itself so that we could hop off. People were milling about, waiting for other boats to whisk them away to destinations unknown. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I walked up the beach towards a serious of informal buildings. They weren’t shacks, but they also didn’t carry the weighty importance I usually associate with government buildings. I cautiously entered through one of the doors to find a gentleman sitting at a desk in an otherwise plain room. The picture of an older, dignified man whom the caption labeled as the President of Namibia told me that I was indeed in the right spot. I presented my filled out form (my fifth of the day) along with my passport for inspection. With little more than a glance, the now very familiar “Clunk! Clunk!” of the stamps rung through the cabin and I was done. I had made it through three countries in little over two hours with the help of a plane, three minibuses and two boats. The adventure could finally begin.

 Botswana border

I got to know the immigration officials in Namibia and Botswana fairly well. The quiet Namibian officer never looked at us, simply took our passports and stamped them. In Botswana the affable Mma Magazine was my favorite authority, taciturn at first but by the end of our stay she was smiling and quietly joking with me, even giving me the classic Batswana moniker Rra Long. You see, because the boat was in Namibia but the game drives were mostly in Botswana, we had to cross the borders several times in only a couple short days. I collected more stamps in a week than I had in the last six months. But for all the paper work and all the commotion, it was worth it for one of the most remarkable travel experiences I’ve ever had aboard the Zambezi Queen. But that my friends, is a story I have yet to share.

Do you have any border crossing stories to share?

Namibia sunset

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

6 Responses

  1. Mark Wiens

    That’s a great story. Somehow, no matter what land border in the world you are crossing, nothing is as simply laid out or as organized as it could be. I’ve crossed from Kenay to Tanzania a few times and while it’s pretty easy if you have done it before, last time I was there the buildings weren’t labeled at all – so when the bus drops you off, you just have to run around no-mans land for a while, asking random vendors where the official office is – all the while hoping your bus doesn’t ditch you!

    Reply
  2. Jenni

    I had that same experience a few years ago (minus Namibia). At that time one of the ferries that carries the big trucks was broken so trucks lined both sides of the road on the Zambia side and people were hanging out for days just to cross. I have a picture of me enthusiastically stamping my feet at the foot cleaning station.

    Anything to prevent foot and mouth disease!

    Definitely a unique travel experience. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Sophie Leech

    I entered Canada via Rainbow Bridge from America on July 4th 2012. As we crossed over we got our passports stamped (I hold a British passport) and was asked a lot of questions. We entered Canada only to be stopped by officials who searched our van to find fire wood. They sent us back to America back over the bridge to dispose of our firewood and told us to re join the passport queue afterwards. We arrived back at the passport desk and they wanted to stamp our passports a second time, having only stamped them a mere 15 minutes earlier. We explained what we had to do and after a load more questions we crossed the border and made 4th July celebrations at niagara falls Canada side! :D

    Reply
  4. The Runaway Guide

    This looks like an awesome cruise. Definitely want to try it one day. I’m really not too surprised at how oddly planned out the border crossing are. TIA right? The most difficult border for me, time and time again is Taba to Eilat. I always get detained and interrogated for hours. Even when I use my Yiddish on them they still think I’m suspicious lol.

    Reply
  5. Roxanne

    I love this story. It brings back memories of my own Namibia, Botswana and Zambia crossings and the feeling of wonder at the differences between the people, from surly to smiling. I hate border crossings – a waste of precious time! In Africa they may be annoying but at least you can never say they’re boring!

    Reply
  6. Katie B

    I was on a tour crossing from Kenya to Tanzania, everything was going fine until our tour guide was held up in immigration for not holding an official passport! He was waiting on a replacement passport and there followed a tense wait before we knew if he’d continue the tour with us or be left behind in Tanzania… Luckily he made it along with us for the rest of the ride :)

    Reply

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