African border crossings

Corruption, bribes, hassle… hitch-hiking, bus, walking. There are many ways to cross a border in Africa, here is a small guide from my own experiences.

Morocco – Mauritania
You have to organize a visa at the embassy in Rabat, it takes 24 hours and cost 350 dirham, cash only. It is not allowed to walk across this border due to it being an old mine field, if you don’t have a car you need to organise a ride in Dakhla (about 400 dirham) or hitch-hike.

After two days of driving through the Western Sahara my mind was as relaxed as it could be, but still a small sting of nervousness hit me as we stopped by the ghost town (built by the Moroccan government for the Western Saharians who doesn’t want it) closest to the border. I was hitch-hiking with Viktor from Holland and he had done the crossing many times before. But still, my visa wasn’t valid yet.

To get the good bye stamp in Morocco was easy and without any hassle, then we had to drive across no mans land on a non marked out road, avoiding the soft sand which would get us stuck and causing a storm of people rushing to help us in exchange for money. What all those people were doing there between the borders? Viktor said they are luck-seekers and thieves, too lazy to work. One man waived at a car, pointed on some tracks asking the car to choose that way. The driver did. Two minutes later he was stuck in deep sand reaching the doors, and seven people ran up to help them dig after some hard negotiations on the price.

We drove through with no problems. Once on the Mauritanian side of the border the difficulties started. If Viktor wasn’t there with me I would have no clue where to go. He gave a man a bottle of perfume, another one some chocolate and water. He took me with him into a room with two officers, talked and smiled a lot, pointed out that they had nice computers while the Moroccan officers had only pens and paper. The men smiled back, stamped our passports and we were in.
If I had done that crossing myself, I imagine it would have been the worst experience ever. Be prepared if you go there with a car, have all your papers ready and be prepared to go through many doors, talking to lots of people and getting very confused before you can take your car with you. And practice both your French and your Arabic.

Mauritania – Senegal
Europeans don’t need to get a visa before hand and it’s free at the border.
I came with a taxi from Nouakchott, had no idea where to go but a guy from the Gambia took me under his wings and showed the way. It’s pretty close to where the taxis stop, and the exit is clearly marked. Once in the border-area walk to your right and a small office will be discretely marked out on your right hand side. Getting the stamp is without hassle and then all you have to do is wait for the free boat across the channel to pull in. Or pay a small fortune for one of the banana boats to take you across.

Once on the Senegalese side it’s easy to get through, though I had to wait a long time for the immigration officer to get to the office and a lot of people tried to push themselves in front of me in the line. By then my elbows had become pretty sharp though and I’ve learned how to keep my spot in line. Don’t be afraid to push, everyone else does it and so can you.
Just outside the border area some guys are selling sim cards and there is an office where you can buy air time. People with horses and carriages, taxis and bikers are all willing to get you a ride to the bus- and taxi station for a small amount of money.

Europeans don’t have to organize a visa before getting there, but it cost 50 US dollars and is only payable in cash.
Organization is not my strong side. I came by airplane and I did look it up, read that “Swedish citizens do not need a visa” but totally missed the paragraph saying you still had to pay for it before entering. I only had Senegalese CFA and my bank card, they accepted none of it. “You can come back tomorrow.” the one officer told me. “Tomorrow? I should sleep here tonight?” I said, pointed at the floor. The two officers looked at each other, shook their heads. “No, it’s not good.” the other one said. They would actually let me get into the country and come back the next day to pay, but I didn’t want to. I know myself, I wouldn’t come back and pay and I would have problems when getting out of the country.
Solution? My friend waiting outside came in and paid the fine.

Tanzania – Malawi
Free for Europeans, no need to get a visa in advance.
My favorite border crossing. From the taxi I paid a guy with a bike to take me to the border, we went fast down the hill and he pointed at the office where I would get my good bye-stamp. I walked inside the gates, got the stamp, went to the exchange bureau to exchange my money and then walked across the bridge. It was a nice walk, about 100 meters, under the bridge a wide brown river flowed and I felt a strong sense of freedom.
At the Malawian side it was just as easy to get my passport stamped. The only difficulty was to find a ride to Karonga, there was a bus leaving for Lilongwe and thinking about it now the bus probably made a stop in Karonga. Anyway, I paid for hitch-hiking and fell in love with the country and its rice plantations, green hills, bikes, bikes, bikes and lovely people.

Malawi – Zambia
Cost 50 US dollars, only payable in cash. No need to organize the visa in advance.
I was on a bus this time, and although I KNEW that I would need 50 US dollars to cross, did I have them? Of course not. I exchanged my Malawian money at the black market, borrowed some dollars from the friends I traveled with at the moment and eventually I had scraped the 50 dollars together. Yet another example of how I never learn.
This crossing is very easy, the bus stopped just by the offices on both sides of the border, there were people selling fruits and vegetables and drinks. In total it was a very peaceful and pleasant crossing.

Zambia – Zimbabwe
The visa is supposed to be free, but you still have to pay 50 dollars to get through. Only payable in cash.
This one is the easiest. I was with Alex by the Victoria falls and after the sunset we simply walked up to the office, got our stamps out of Zambia and walked towards Zimbabwe. It was about a kilometer to walk I believe, maybe longer, and we were told later on that one should never walk there at night since the monkeys can be pretty aggressive. We had no problems with animals though.
By the immigration office in Zimbabwe we had to pay for our visas, the officers were nice and happy (probably because we were too, although I nearly let a comment about African corruption slip through my mouth as we had to pay). We got our stamps with no fuss and caught a taxi to the hostel in the town of Victoria Falls.

Zimbabwe – South Africa
Free and easy.
In Zimbabwe our CS-host told us this is a Real African border crossing. He had never been to West Africa, obviously. Sure the ques were really long and it did take a very long time to get through, but it was very easy. All we had to do was to stand in line (except for Alex who had to prove that he’s from South Korea and not north) and get our passports stamped.

Conclusion: if you want an exciting border crossing, go to north west Africa. If you prefer it easy and smooth, go to southern Africa.


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