Prior to my latest crossing, I’d only been through the Beit Bridge border post on one other occasion, about three years back. But I remember it as though it happened yesterday. We waited around for five hours; eventually I started up the gas braai, hoping that the smell of boerewors would drive the customs officials nuts and they’d wave us on. It had the opposite effect and put them to sleep. So we just sat in the air-conditioned cocoon of our Discovery 3, playing cards, listening to Jack Johnson and drinking ice-cold beer (I was the driver back then so it was only Coke for me). I vowed then and there never to use the Beit Bridge border post again.
We 11, vows a re impermanent it seems, because I’m back again, forced by circumstances. I’m on my way to visit the Zimbabwean side of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, which lies on the northern banks of the Limpopo River, not far upstream from Beit Bridge. There are plans to open a new border post within the park, but until then, Beit’s pretty much all there is. Sure, I could go via the Plum Tree border post, but that’s a massive detour considering where I’m headed. While in Zimbabwe I chatted to several locals who told me that they’d rather use Plum Tree than travel through the mess that is Beit Bridge.
The place is as messy as a school dining hall after a food fight. The preparation for my Beit Bridge crossing began long before my arrival there on a Saturday morning in March this year. With me I had a letter from the South African Department of Trade and Tourism, endorsing my visit. This was because I’d be taking about 100 kg of books to a school near Hwange. But this letter was my trump card – only to be used if things got ugly.
The obligatory docs were as follows: the original vehicle registration document, a letter of permission from Honeydew Toyota (the vehicle belonged to them) and lastly a police clearance for the vehicle. Now I know some smartypants is going to write in and say that he’s been through Beit a billion times without this police clearance. Well, I’m a lessons-learnt kinda guy. During a previous visit to Zimbabwe I exited via the Nyamapanda border post. The officials there demanded a police clearance certificate which I didn’t have as it wasn’t necessary. They demanded a large bribe and so I sat, watching other Saffers paying the bribe before passing through. Eventually the police relented and let me pass.
So that’s why I had a police clearance with me – just in case. The only other southern African country where you definitely need one is Angola. The trick to quickly getting through to the Zimbabwean side of the Beit Bridge crossing is to remain cool. In fact, that’s SOP (standard operating procedure) for any border post, but here you really need to keep it together. From the moment you stop your vehicle, brace yourself for the harassment. The “runners” will surround your vehicle, desperately vying for your attention. I’ve been told that they’re off-duty government officials making an extra buck on the side. I don’t care who they are, the fact is you need them. Sure, you can get by without their services, but it’ll add hours to your crossing time.
So here’s the best plan: keep your head down and look for the guy with the best-looking shoes. Don’t laugh, I’m serious. This is how I found my runner who got me through the border post in less than 30 minutes. A man with good shoes is the one to be trusted, according to a friend who often passes through Beit Bridge. Not everybody is comfortable with this kind of assistance and might prefer to do things themselves. Like I said before, you’re welcome to do that, but be aware that it could take you quite a while longer. The first rule of using a runner is to never ever give him your passport.
My guy filled in all the forms for me, told me where to go and what to do. Some of the major role players in Zimbabwean tourism have urged the Minister of Tourism to put up information signs for tourists at the Beit Bridge offices. These signs would tell you where to go first and which line to stand in, as currently confusion reigns supreme with regard to this. They also suggested that there should be some tourism representatives assisting the tourists, but as far as I can see, this hasn’t happened.
The first thing you have to do is get your passport stamped by an immigration officer. They’ll give you a gate pass with an immigration stamp on it. Then it’s time to pay up. There are three things to pay and the great thing is you can do it all at one teller. You’ll pay insurance (the government collects this on behalf of a private insurer), road access fee and carbon tax (calculated according to your vehicle’s engine capacity).
I paid R550 in all, but they take US dollars too, so ask for the price in both currencies and pay whichever is cheaper (depending on what you paid for your dollars). Make sure you get your Temporary Import Permit for your vehicle; this is the most commonly requested document at police checkpoints. Without it you’re not going to get very far.
The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority also has a little blue form that needs to be completed. It wants to know how much cash you’re carrying with you and how much food and drink you’re bringing into the country. It might be a good idea to keep your shopping slips and bring them with you as supporting evidence. You may only bring in five litres of “soft” alcoholic beverages (beers / ciders) and two litres of spirits. Then there’s the police office to contend with.
One officer was wearing a Manchester United football jersey so I chatted to him about an earlier game while he gave me the stamp I needed. There was one more thing to do: convince the customs official to give me the final signature. At this point my runner pulled a move on me. He said that I’d have to pay him US$200 to facilitate negotiations with the customs officials. I think he probably saw on my blue form how much cash I was carrying… Now this is where experience comes in. If I was a Dutch tourist on my way to the World Cup I might’ve given him the money. But I’m not so I didn’t. Out came angry Pat and I hauled out my trump card. “They can search my car, I have nothing to hide – I’m on official business in Zimbabwe.” He backed down.
Now that my trump card was out I showed it to the customs official who gave a massive smile while signing my gate pass. I was free to go. I was reluctant to give the runner his pre-negotiated fee after his attempt to extort cash from me but I kept my word and gave him the R100 we’d previously agreed upon. It had taken us less than 30 minutes. Who knows, maybe after another crossing or two, I’ll be willing to do it without enlisting the help of a runner.