Nothing says you’re travelling abroad more than having to look at your passport and, especially after the Covid-enforced two-year grounding, my excitement was running high a few months ago when I began planning a trip to Zimbabwe.
It’s been decades – well, not really but more of which later – since I last visited our northern neighbour and I was really looking forward to a fortnight sojourn in Victoria Falls, Harare, Hwange and Kariba… especially since I’d be seeing some old nature conservation mates as well.
I was horrified when the travel agent arranging my flights called back and told me my passport was expiring in less than three months. As a result, she said, there was no way the Zimbabwean authorities would allow me to set foot in their country.
The process of acquiring a new passport from the Department of Home Affairs became relatively painless after I submitted an online application and concluded the biometric tests through my bank (although this entailed riding several times to Cape Town from Stellenbosch).
The downside was that I had to hand in my old passport before I could get the new one. I don’t know about you but I look on a passport of something of a travel journal: It doesn’t take long for me to start reliving my journeys when I start paging through and studying the often smudged “chops” from various countries. Just looking at the various visas transports me immediately back to days of anxiety and, ultimately, relief.
There was the time when I was headed to Morocco to do a “recce” for a major television news production; the problem being that Rabat and Pretoria were not on very good speaking terms.
The visa facilitation agent – it’s worth paying the fee, believe me! – met me at the escalators with my appropriately stamped passport at OR Tambo as I was heading to the check-in desk for the first leg of the trip… a flight to Malaga in Spain.
I stepped off the ferry between Europe and Africa in Tangiers at midnight the next night.
Shengen visas (visits to Europe) became a cinch when I learned to apply through the Portuguese consulate in Cape Town – but trips involving Britain were nerve-wracking even if it entailed only touching down in London for a connecting flight.
You had to wait for your passport to come back from whatever consulate or embassy was considering your application to travel before you could submit it to the British Foreign Office for their costly and time-consuming “stamp of approval”.
On another note, I was on my way through Heathrow to catch a flight to Edinburgh where I was due to meet up with friends to watch the Springboks play Scotland at Murrayfield.
The customs official spotted my green-and gold top and said: “Bet you’ve got loads of biltong in your bags.”
I told him I hadn’t since bringing it through customs was illegal and would, at best, simply be confiscated. He dropped a sly wink and waved me through. I hadn’t been lying though… no biltong but about 10kg of boerewors for my homesick pals.
I was covering the Mapungubwe Wild Run between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, and the athletes’ camp was on the northern bank of the Limpopo River.
Every time I and they crossed the river (or the Shashe between Zim and Botswana) we’d be stopped by customs officials sitting behind a metal desk under the tree and be made to present our travel documents.
It was all rather fun and they got into the spirit of things by joining us for dinner and drinks every evening before weaving into the bush in their government Land Rovers.