Namibia to South Africa Road Trip – Day #11 – Fish River Canyon to Springbok, South Africa
We weren’t airborne for more than a fraction of a second, but it seemed an eternity. When we landed with a tremendous mechanical bang, I was sure the dashboard was going to break off into our laps. It didn’t. I pulled over and gave our bakkie a once-over. Everything was fine. I assumed the plates we had in the back of the truck were broken. They weren’t.
A storm had ripped through the area around Fish River Canyon two days previous. The torrential rains had taken a chunk of the road with it downstream, replacing it with soft sand. The only way across the four meter gap was to cross it with sufficient speed, else we’d risk getting stuck in the sand. The alternative was to backtrack 80 miles. That wasn’t gonna happen.
I guess I was little overzealous taking the truck to 45 miles per hour, but teh truck was fine. And jumping the wash meant we were on track to get to the border by lunchtime, and arrive in Springbok, South Africa by early afternoon. We were also good for fuel, (I’d already learned my lessons regarding money, gas, and water.) Things seemed to be going our way for once!
It made me nervous. Clearly, the other shoe was gonna drop when we got to the border crossing.
Whether it’s a couple of grumpy Albanians with AKs or even grumpier U.S. Customs officials with attitudes – I’ve had so many bad experiences at border checkpoints, I drop to the floor in spasms at the thought of going through another one…
Border crossings, airport arrivals, bus and train stations, they’re all disorienting environments, and they’re potentially packed with predators, and incompetent or petty officials that will make your life miserable to line their pockets, compensate for personal inadequacies, or just kill time. I went mentally went through the endless list of things that could go wrong at the border crossing, and distilled it down to my top ten biggest fears of what awaited us:
10. The “Official” Helper – This is either a well-dressed guy, or a real idiot who claims to be “from the tourism board” and he’s there to help you. These “Helpers”are usually easy to spot,;I heard a laughable story of a “Helper” at Jo’burg airport who had a piss-poor laminated ID tied around his neck with a shoelace. But I got suckered once recently in Istanbul airport. The guy wore a jacket and had a fantastically huge laminated ID. Instead of taking me to a taxi stand, he took me to one of the many shuttle bus services that charge just as much as a taxi – if not more.
9. Pickpockets – Self-explanatory really. Bastards.
8. Paperwork not in Order – Everyone’s worst nightmare. Of course, you never really know if you’re paperworks in order, do you? It all depends on the uniformed mofo in front of you. Ultimately, they’re the ones that decide if you have the correct papers or not. Will he or won’t he stamp your passport? Is your car really allowed in their country or not? Play the waiting game and find out. The good news is everything’s negotiable, even if your paperwork really isn’t in order. The bad news: Maybe you have to pay for an additional “entry visa” (see Number 3 below).
7. Gypsy Cab Drivers – the lowest of the low, and a global plague. Whether it’s Kennedy Airport or a bus depot in rural Bulgaria, they will gouge the hell out of you on price, and literally take you for a ride. And, you’ll never get the smell of Eastern European tobacco out of your clothing, or that annoying song with the sitar that was on the radio out of your head – ever again.
6. Hotel Touts – irritating scum that they are, they’ll will harass you, aggravate you, and lie to you in order to get you to follow them to their hotel. When my wife was just another annoying backpacker in Asia, one tout looked her right in the eye and told her the hotel she’d booked had burned down, and his hotel was better. The hotel she’d booked was right behind him. Naturally, the “great hotel” they bring you to is usually on the far side of the island or miles from the city center, wedged in between the slaughterhouse and a safe house for Chinese Triads. And they’ll want a tip for bringing you there.
5. The Search for Luggage – The frantic attempt to reunite yourself with your belongings after a long trip. I don’t care if your flying Coconut Airways or British Airways, it’s a real act of faith giving your luggage away and believing you’ll see it again. (As I wrote earlier, I’d sooner trust my luggage to Coconut Airways than BA anyway.) The search is even more stressful if it’s a bus station and you’re busy fighting off touts, cab drivers, (see above), or the “Bum Rush” (see below).
4. The Luggage Search – a uniformed customs official (usualy really fat, and sometimes in mirror shades) rips open your luggage in hopes of finding a brick of hash, guns, the Beatles’ White Album, or perhaps your underwear. You can only grin and bear it … and be glad the condom of uncut Afghan Horse is tucked safely in your rectum.
3. The special fee for the “Entry Visa” – this is the unexpected fee that gringos and other clueless tourists have to pay that wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook and nobody ever told you about before you left. Usually never more than a few dollars (although it’s $20 in Turkey!), you usually receive a useless scrap of paper as evidence (although in Costa Rica and Turkey I got cool colorful paper stamps put into my passport).
2. The “Exit Visa” – see “Entry Visa” above. What’s that? Don’t want to pay? Then you can hang out in the seedy airport/bus terminal/ train station until you to, beyotch!
1. The “Bum Rush” – Hundreds of years before Public Enemy coined the term, small-time hoods used this technique of rushing the dumb-ass traveler who’s just stepped off the train/bus/aircraft/ship into a completely alien environment. At that magic moment you step onto the train platform, or walk through the bus terminal, you are so damn vulnerable. At a border crossing from Guatemala into El Salvador once, I dropped a $5 bill after having to pay an “Entry Visa” (see above) – it was gone before it even hit the ground. The worst incident I ever heard was a friend of mine in Gare du Nord in Paris: a gypsy women threw her baby at him ,forcing him to catch it, then she and her three other children expertly rifled his pockets, snatched the baby back, and were gone before he even knew what had happened.
Seeing this was a remote border crossing, my biggest fears were #1 through #3. Of course, #9 was a legitimate worry as well. Due to my wife’s Passport Problems (her passport was only valid for another 90 days, when the Namibians required six months), I wondered if we wouldn’t have to play a very long waiting game in order to be allowed to leave Namibia. Additionally, the gal at the car rental office said we’d have to pay an additional $400 to enter South Africa with a rental car. So I approached the border post fearing the worst.
The Namibian border official barely looked up from his football magazine as we lined up with the other drivers and dutifully filled out the important looking scraps of paper, signed the clipboard, and received the exit stamp.
The South African side of the border was nearly a mile down the road, and far better organized than most countries. A friendly official greeted us in our language of choice at the border, and gave us a processing documenting with room for three stamps. At station one (immigration), we received our first stamp on the processing document, and an exit stamp in our passport.
No one asked for the $400 for the rental truck.
At station two (customs) we had nothing to declare, so we quickly got another stamp on our processing document.
No one asked for the $400.
Station three was the South African Police Service. We chatted for a good ten minutes after they’d entered my driver’s license information into the computer. We got a friendly “welcome to South Africa” from them and a stern “please drive carefully”.
They didn’t ask for the $400 rental car free either.
We walked back to the truck, and handed our completed process document to the border officer that originally greeted us. She dutifully made notes on her clipboard whilst eyeballing the license plate and the registration sticker.
“Okay, you can go. Have a nice day.” She smiled.
As we slowly cruised through the border station to freedom, my wife turned and ask me, “shouldn’t we have asked to pay?”
“Uhm, not so much.”
I’ll never know if we really had to pay that $400. Maybe the girls at the rental office were wrong. Ultimately, it always comes down to number #8 above.
And remember: Everything’s negotiable