How to make it through a crazy African road border

It only took us about four days to pass through Zambia. What was originally just a transit through ended up being awesome fun. We loved the challenge of the insane potholes, the offroad highways to nowhere, the beers and the zombie antelope. One challenge remained. To exit the country by road.

One last game of football

On the highway was a tiny shop. A swarm of friendly children descended on us, asking for money and empty bottles. All across southern Africa, people collect bottles to trade at bottling plants for a refund. It’s a great system.


We went inside, a hut made of bricks and mud, and it stank inside. It stank like something had died in there, and every nostril-full smelt like we were inhaling some terrible evil. All whilst holding our breath, we bought biscuits and warm Cokes and went back outside. 

Outside, the kids challenged Jeff and I to a game of soccer. The playing field was a a dusty sand patch; the ball a wad of newspapers taped together into a tight ball. I wish I could have brought some toys or sports equipment as gifts; it was all so cheap back in Cape Town.

Running out of fuel (on purpose)

There were two huge jerry cans filled with diesel on the car’s roof racks, and so far they remained unused.

So, an experiment conceptualised. None of us had ever run out of fuel before, and we wanted to give it a try (to liven up the journey). We drove until the car began to shudder, the tank gurgled dry, and we rolled to a gentle stop beside the highway. The whole exercise was fruitless, but at least we used some of our equipment. A few curious locals stood and stared at us as we refilled. We waved at them, but they just kept staring.

A police search

We were stopped by police near the border. It was a routine drug search; the police told us that the drug runners were usually truckers heading from Tanzania into the Congo. All of our bags were opened and searched, while we sat on a pile of dirt, kind of happy to have some time out of the sun.

While we waited, we finally thought of a name for our car. Hammond. We caught ourselves quoting lines from Jurassic Park all the time (at the entrance to a national park – what do they have in there, King Kong? or after using a terrible African bathroom – I hope you wash you’re hands before you eat anything!), and in honour of John Hammond, our car was named. I’d also been watching a lot of Top Gear at the time. It fit perfectly.


The Nakonde border

Nakonde was heaving with people. The border from Zambia into Tanzania was the maddest border i’d ever seen. Worse than an airport with cancelled flights. A strong metal gate separated the two African nations. A nearby car park had collected a few hundred cars, all of them smothered in mountains of thick yellow dust, as if they’d been left for years. Terrified of getting stuck, we drove directly to the gate, and parked.

A man with a reflective vest asked us for our proof of car insurance, and we passed it through the window. He disappeared. Gone. Rookie mistake. Just because he had a reflective vest, why the hell did we think he was an official? We knew better than that.

sketch of trucks parked at the zambia tanzania border crossing
Trucks park, waiting to be inspected at the Zambia/Tanzania border

Several touts attached themselves to us, offering advice on how to proceed with the bureaucracy. We didn’t need their help, and ignored them, even as they continued to hover. When we passed into Tanzania, they disappeared, angry at not getting paid.

In general, the trick with African borders is to ignore absolutely anybody who offers to help, and only speak to somebody behind a desk. Border crossings tend to be a place for locals to hang out, and try to earn a bit of money fleecing tourists (or charging them for ‘help’).

Once we realised this, we just concentrated on the men with the stamps in the hands. With everything ok, we passed through the main gate, and Hammond’s offroad tyres crunched into Tanzania, our fifth African country.