Border crossings in Africa can, at the best of times, be long drawn out tedious affairs. Hours spent waiting in the heat, seemingly endless forms to fill in, numerous questions to answer, your luggage turned inside out and the occasional bribe to hand over. In some places the bureaucracy knows no bounds.
However, we found that Africa has a wonderful habit of providing little respites from the monotony of the border queue: whether it’s a couple of baboons going at it as we waited on the Zambia side of the Victoria Falls border, then skipping across to the Zimbabwean side to continue their assignation, or the cost of a bus ticket from Cote d’Ivoire to Accra, Ghana, which included – and I quote – a “CFA1000 border bribe”.
After a perilous drive through Western Sahara we hit the Mauritania customs post (not literally). Everyone got out and our truck was searched. A sign proclaimed that alcohol was prohibited. Fortunately they didn’t find my vodka, but a couple of fellow travellers, Kev and Martin, were less fortunate – their gin and rum was confiscated. To compound their trauma, the customs officer marked them down as alcohol smugglers, writing ‘LAMBS’ in Martin’s passport for the rum, and ‘DR’ in Kev’s for his dry gin. He then returned their contraband, advising them to destroy it or risk a night in jail if they were caught with it. Naturally we followed his instruction… by drinking them.
Crossing into Mali from Mauritania also proved tricky. At the border town we needed to get a stamp in our passports to allow us to proceed to the border itself. But the office was shut. We eventually located the ‘stamp man’ some one-and-a-half hours later, only for him to inform us: “I don’t work on Saturdays. Come back tomorrow morning.”
A more unusual request came at the Cameroon-Central African Republic border. At the first of a succession of road blocks a policeman went through the passenger list, and, on discovering we had a nurse on board, demanded: “Give me some Aspirin for my headache.” Luckily she had some and, relieved of a couple of paracetamol, we were on our way.
However, these were all trumped by my experience of getting into Nigeria from Cameroon. As we neared the border we had to negotiate a police stop, where we were held up for three hours as protracted discussions about whether our Nigerian visas were out of date or not were interrupted while the chief guard had a manicure and a pedicure. You couldn’t make it up.
Phil Clisby is Travel Africa‘s Publications Manager, responsible for getting our magazines to the printers on time. His finely honed appreciation for ‘Africa time’ was developed over extensive independent travels through more than 20 countries.