Ben Winston : Go Untamed Safaris
“Swift” would be a huge overstatement – my passport was even stamped twice (presumably by mistake) as I passed through immigration, but even for the exceptionally efficient, marginally friendly and super-officious Botswana border, it was pain-free and hospitable. We make it out of South Africa without any issues and into new territory. Although crossing over never seems like something to look forward to, I’m quite used to delays, questions, assumptions, searches, strangely interested parties and often (in Africa) unexpected trades people trying to sell you some must-try samosas, alive-but-slightly-damaged chickens or industriously-burned reggae cd’s from the late 90’s.
Penelope – the new four-wheeled birth child of Go Untamed often gets far too much attention for her own good at borders (and anywhere else for that matter). She was checked twice by officials and eyed up strenuously by pausing passers by. Although what strangers are willing to part with for her is a common discussion, we have yet to have been offered enough camels or indeed wives for her to be driven off without us.
Unless you have travelled through any southern african border by road before, you’ll be unaware that there is often some confusion, no matter how diligent anyone has been. My first time through this particular crossing was after sunset – as if finding your way around a relatively empty border stop zone wasn’t hard enough. I followed the lights…I think. As with most borders in the world, there are two stops to make your way through. The first checks you out, the second (after no mans land) checks you in. The issue this time, after checking out, was that I couldn’t see a check in. There was nobody around, it was dark, lights or signs weren’t marking the way and I almost drove straight through without even a nod at a gateman. Although keen to get through the border, we were even keener to find a camp. Pulling over on the roadside to sleep in unknown territory so close to South Africa isn’t ideal. I stopped only to ask the a guy where the nearest possible official campsite was. He looked like he was half asleep; dressed in a blue beanie hat, a jacket and some baggy pants, just waiting for a friend in the shadows. He asked to see my passport, which I thought was a bit odd. Like I said, confusion.
If I hadn’t decided to ask the guy about an accommodation spot, I think I would have driven straight out of the compound and through immigration without knowing where we were. As clueless as I might have been, I doubt we would have gotten far if I had trundled through the open gates. The chap who didn’t know where to camp was an official who directed us back, and into the building to get our immigration stamps!
Photos are not encouraged at most border crossings. In darkness, it’s pretty pointless.
Foreign customs, sometimes cryptic, and often riddling hold-ups might be inevitable at seemingly remote and exotic border crossings to us in the west, but at least they aren’t just comprised of queuing through rude gunmen with a badge and a superiority complex; they normally are synonymous with an entertaining (albeit sometimes frustrating) oddness and regularly end with an acceptable “welcome to this country”. Hard to find in the west! I do find it more enjoyable to have a flummoxing experience and be welcomed with an attempted and often genuine smile, rather than an unwarranted interrogation – both of which take the same amount of time.
After getting all our paperwork in order, as well as paying the compulsory fees, we were on our way into Botswana in the dark. There really is no light beyond the border for a while, so it was handy that we found out there was a Christian “missionary” camp site not far from the crossing. Welcome to Botswana! In the morning we would find out that there really was nothing else for a very, VERY long way.
After stumbling around with our headlights and spots on a dirt track, getting confused at a loosely-hung gate; like an overweight moth in the dark heading towards a tiny light which we could just see beyond a few thorny acacia trees, we came across a group of men wielding a head lamp and some grilled chicken. We headed up another track and found a group of cars parked behind a huge gate where there were half a dozen dogs making some grumpy noises. Eventually, we were graciously shown not only somewhere to pitch tent, but an almost-finished chalet which we could make use of. We made ourselves comfortable and even had a bottle red with dinner. I make it sound like such a bumble for one our fact-finding excursions….but we knew exactly where we were going all along. All part of the adventure!