Without warning the crowd of 300 locals began stampeding towards a small open door that led into the customs building. We hesitated at first, trying to stick together and maintain order by finding a line to resume waiting, but quickly realised that unless we wanted to spend another 3 hours in line we would have to conform to the chaos.
Linking hands we headed towards the magic door we were so eager to see the inside of. Our group consisted of my older brother, his wife and 2 year old son, my older sister, younger sister and mother. As we funneled towards the door we were being crushed – as is the norm when in a stampeding crowd – maintaining our linked hands, it was like a scene from the titanic or any other movie – arms stretched, hands desperately linked, frightened faces, moving unwillingly in the direction of the mass. Our biggest concern was protecting my nephew – who displayed the least concern of our group, and seemed to enjoy the experience. My brother followed the flow of the crowd and went on ahead. Using all my body weight I tried to reduce the pushing and create some space in which we could breathe. We followed the flow of the crowd fairly anxiously.
Eventually we made it past the door where the building opened up slightly. My brother was a good 10 metres ahead in one of the 3 or 4 lines that had formed. We moved thru the crowd to meet my brother, and enjoyed a sigh of relief as we were reunited.
Prior to my time spent volunteering in the east of Uganda, the most intense African experience I have survived was crossing the boarder from South Africa to Zimbabwe by land via Beit Bridge border crossing – pronounced Bite Bridge.
A notoriously bad border crossing, we joked about people spending 8 hours at the border – we joked because we knew that was an entirely feasible possibility and could not fathem how we might survive such a situation. The worst story we heard was a friend of an aunts living in Zimbabwe who spent a week at the border on a bus with an infant – a situation I cannot begin to understand how her and her child survived.
With 4 hours drive to the border crossing, we loaded up our hired 10 seater van the night before and left Johannesburg at 6.30am. The plus side of the early morning being the opportunity to witness the spectacular African sunrise from the road with the bush silhouetted in the foreground.
The atmosphere on the bus was jovial. It was the first time my immediate family had been together since 2008, and the first time I had seen my family since leaving Australia 9 months earlier. In addition to my immediate family we were accompanied by my aunt and uncle living in Johannesburg and my mother’s cousin and his partner living in the UK. Needless to say the 8 hours of driving time required to reach Bulawayo was not a drag.
We stopped for lunch and to buy water at a petrol station, a heavy drinker, I opted for a 5 liter bottle of water which the entire entourage found hilarious, unable to comprehend why I did not buy the same 500ml bottle of water for the journey. The laughing stopped 6 hours later when the water ran out while we waited to cross the border.
Arriving at the border on the South African side around 11am (at least an hour too late), we parked the car, piled out and began looking for customs. First the drivers lined up and completed some paper work from one side of the building near where we parked. Then we all went around the building to what seemed to be the front – passing some demountable buildings on the way but unsure what or who they were for we continued in search for another entry.
Arriving at the front of the building, thru an entrance that opened up into a courtyard containing a line that zig zagged around and around. Without an obvious end we wondered around the courtyard until a local helped us out. We were a group of 11, and the only white people in sight – a daunting feeling with no visible presence of security. We discovered senior citizens were escorted to the front and promptly processed, leaving 7 of us remaining in the line.
After waiting an hour or 2 a white Afrikaans couple – your typical beer bellied South African male – skipped the line and stood behind us pretending to make friends. Once we told them that seniors could skip the line they were gone, with promises of “I’ll talk to them and see what we can do about the child” – an empty promise of course as there is little they could have done. After 5 minutes they reappeared and made a b-line for the exit, careful to avoid eye contact with us as to not say cherio. Typical.
The line continued to zig zag around and around, people routinely cut the line to which we turned a blind eye as to not cause a fuss. People were carrying everything from car tires to kilos of nick nacks (chip like snack).
When the stampede occurred we were caught off guard, confusion and chaos reigned supreme, and we did our best to stick together. When we finally reached my brother who was ahead in the line, we were more than slightly overwhelmed. We continued in a zig zag line for a couple of hours inside a small unventilated room packed to the brim with people. A ‘big mamma’ official walked by organising lines and kicking people trying to cut in out, utilising more than a few smacks to the back of heads to get the job done.
After 4 hours we were finally thru, we drove into no man’s land. To the left of the parking there was a large dirt clearing with hundreds of cars and buses and what resembled a refugee camp. Perhaps some of those camped out were living there selling water and drinks to those in line, perhaps some were stuck awaiting visas. At one point an old white lady spent a good 15 minutes chasing a donkey trying to feed it bread. A thoughtful gesture but to no avail, other than providing entertainment to hundreds of confused spectators. What she perhaps didn’t realise is that the donkeys are treated terribly by the locals, abused routinely and used to haul loads and thus was suspicious of the ladies actions.
The Zimbabwean side was much more effecient. There was one obvious line which moved at a decent pace. Once inside the building there was an official directing movement. We paid the visa fee, lined up in another line we were directed to and we were out in an hour or so. Then the battle to get the car thru began. Again there were 4 streams of cars all funneling into one line. The slow rate of movement was due to a large number of cars being thoroughly inspected.
After 6 hours start to finish we had made it thru. The sun had set and it was too dangerous to drive the remaining 4 hours to Bulawayo largely due to animals on the road and secondly due to hijackings. We stopped and spent a night at a nearby hotel for $20 per night.
Zimbabwe is not a small country and as in any country, driving gives you freedom both in and around the cities as well as the ability to visit spectacular national parks like Matopos, Hwange, Mana Pools. Flights from Johannesburg to Bulawayo used to be one of the most expensive flights per kilometer in the world, making driving a viable option. However with the introduction of another airline that price has reportedly dropped, decreasing the value in driving.
Our return journey went much smoother. We arrived before 10 am, and were thru in an hour. The majority of our entourage were in agreeance that while it was an interesting mode of transportation, it is not a boarder they will cross by land again. Me, I’m not so sure, if you arrive early bring food and water it is quite a unique experience.
What you need to know if crossing the boarder:
– arrive earlier than 10 am to beat the rush of people crossing over from Zim to SA to go shopping every day.
– on the SA side, park your car and ask people where they are going to ensure you are in the correct area/line – signage is limited and confusing at best. We lined up in a courtyard but there are also de-mountable buildings that probably result in the same outcome
– if you have senior citizens in your company find an official and tell them you are a senior, they should then escort you into the building and process your passport with relative ease.
– ensure your car meets the requirements for travel in Zimbabwe because you will be asked at at least one of the many police road blocks along the highways:
*country sticker, reflectors on rear, 2/3 triangles, reflective vest, fire extinguisher
– if using a hire car, ensure you have the paper work from the dealer authorising you to take the car across the boarder – this should be arranged well in advance of your trip as you may get led in circles trying to get it
– on the Zimbabwe side there are people who will accept payment to get you a visa, lining up and running around while you wait in your car, we did not use such service. If you choose to, proceed with caution, I would hesitate in handing over my passport to someone I just met
– ensure you have the correct amount in US dollars for your Zim visas as change is rarely given.
– After entering into Zimbabwe, do not stop at the rest area with the large bayobab tree, it is notorious for robberies – one occurred the day after we arrived in Bulawayo, in which a man was robbed and beaten with an axe
– avoid stopping at rest areas when ever driving in country Zimbabwe, instead stop at restaurants, near police road blocks, or at a random point along the road
– it is highly unadvisable to drive at night due to animals and hijackings. If crossing the boarder takes longer than expected there is a hotel that used to be called the holiday inn which charges $20 per person per night and is decent quality.