Border crossings are a big part of the adventure/misadventure of international travel.
After almost 40 years of leading expeditions in by truck, foot and ferry across Africa’s myriad checkpoints, Tusker founder Eddie Frank has never failed to cross a border. That’s not to say there hasn’t been lengthy delays and brief stints in jails back in the early days, but Tusker’s travelers have crossed the line led by Eddie’s diplomatic skills and border smarts that have persuaded gatekeepers to stamp visas and lift barriers.
Travel in Africa is easier today than it was in the early days. It’s not a game anymore, but one should always plan for the worst,” Eddie says. “Tourism today is a large revenue source, so the border guards have lightened up. In the old days they would grill you because they were afraid you were part of a plot to overthrow the government. Today you’re seen as a cash cow, so there is less hassle. Nowadays you’re WELCOME in the countries.”
Hassles along the border have been part of Tusker’s DNA since Eddie started running trans-Africa expeditions in the late 1970s. On those early expeditions one of Eddie’s groups was jailed in Benin and needed the U.S. consul to escort some of them through to the border with Nigeria. In 1983, all the Nigerian borders were shut after a New Year’s Eve coup and Tusker was denied entry for 3 weeks before the country was reopened. The longest Frank has been stuck at a border was a month when Sudan closed its borders and he and his group had to set up camp in Bangui in the Central African Republic. Eddie relied on close Frank Family savvy to reach U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who made things happen.
Eddie, however, has never been tempted to enter a country illegally or without proper documentation. “Never cross a border illegally, because your papers will always get checked once you’re in the country by the cops and they will most likely consider you a spy. This will not bode well for you. I’ve been jailed as a spy once. I don’t recommend it. On one of the early trips we got stuck in Niger because some in the group didn’t have their visas. We couldn’t go back through Algeria because of all the sand and we didn’t have enough gasoline. We camped at the border for a few days and we buddied up with the border guards and invited them over for a few beers. It took a few days but they finally softened, and let us in.”
Rules of the Road
Border travel in today’s high tech jet age world has changed over the last 40 years. Most travelers enter countries through air conditioned terminals and never give a second thought about dealing with an immigration agent. But they should. In an age of terrorism and drug smuggling, border agents from Lusaka to L.A. will squeeze you if they don’t like the way you look or react to their questions. If you don’t have proper documents away from home, be prepared to spend a lot of time and money to get through.
“You can’t cop a bad or arrogant attitude. Take off your hat, act friendly and fill in the forms correctly – and never in red ink; that’s for the officials. I always used to keep a wad of singles in my front pocket and a twenty in the back. And have plenty of empty pages in your passport,” Eddie said with an ironic smile. “In the distant pass, in distant lands, I’ve had to pay a “spot tax” to border guards, but that was a last resort.”
Most border officials today in busy modern border crossings are not susceptible to a little extra pay, but in remote crossings bribery is common and expected. “On the ferry crossing the Congo River between what was Zaire and the Central African Republic, border guards made us wait hours pointing out mistakes in our paperwork until they eventually levied a $1 surcharge that the government never saw,” Eddie said.
Boorish in Botswana, Zambian Efficiency
When Eddie was based in Zambia in the 1990s he entered the country 20 times a year, but on his 21st visit the alert border official checked all 96 pages in his 96-page passport, adding up all the days he was in the country that year and came up with 91. “I was allowed 90 days and he denied me entry. After a two hour discussion and $100, he recounted and found that he had made a mistake,” Eddie quipped.
In Moslem Algeria alcohol was banned in the late 1970s, but Eddie saw it as a business opportunity and prohibition helped his bottom line. “I would always bring in a few bottles of whisky, which I would sell for $100 a bottle. It helped pay for diesel. I didn’t smuggle it in; I just gave a bottle to the border guards.”
Eddie adds that Botswana has Africa’s toughest, most arrogant border officials. They have all the power and like to wield it. “They are corruption free, but they like to make you bow and scrape. A friend of mine wore his cap in front of a picture of their president, hanging on the wall in the immigration office. They acted pissed off and made him wait 4 hours, until the next shift.”
Speaking of presidents, when Dr. Hastings Banda was the despotic president of Malawi he was super sensitive about bad press. When a guide book told the truth about his human rights abuses he told his border guards to seize all guide books. Eddie’s solution? “On entering the country they went through every single bag to find guide books to confiscate. They found none as I had hidden the few we had in the spare tire.”
Perhaps the easiest way to cross a hostile border is to make friends with the guys with the guns and the visa stamps. Eddie has made it a point to befriend as many officials as he can and he knows several on a first name basis. “When I first met Raymond Gwanyalla he was the head of customs at a small village outpost in northwest Cameroon. I knew he liked photography and I brought him the entire series of the Time Life books of photography. He went on to become the head of customs in Cameroon and over the years we became close friends and he helped me a lot during my truck-selling days. But that’s another story.”
In 1994, Eddie and I were getting ready to leave Zambia for Zimbabwe and South Africa respectfully and needed to exchange money. Border towns are rich in money changers, but their devious ways can make you poor fast. We got caught in a classic money changer scam. He quoted us an amazing rate but flimflammed us with bogus currency. It was a masterful scam and I was out about $100 as was Eddie and we were both furious when we found out we’d been duped. Eddie knew immigration officials on both sides of the Zambia-Zimbabwe border and he told them of the scam. Within hours the officials found the money changer and we got our money back. Moral of the story: if there’s an ATM machine nearby, use it, or know the local immigration officials.
While border crossings have gotten easier in Africa they have gotten harder in the U.S. and Canada. So hard in fact that Eddie considers it less pleasant to enter Toronto than Timbuktu (in the old days). “Their M.O. is to find the ‘bad guys,’ so they use intimidation as a tactic. I hated it, so I signed up for Global Entry. For $50 I got pre-screened by the US Government, with a full background check and now I travel through without having to talk to a soul. When you enter the U.S. or Canada, you walk up to a machine that recognizes your finger prints and your iris, from an initial scan by the Feds, and it lets you into the country. It saves me time on the long lines and I don’t have to be hassled.”
But global entry won’t get help you with borders in rural Africa. It’s best to travel smart, by the seat of your pants, especially if you have a few twenties in them.