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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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