Corruption and thievery: an unfortunate tale of travel in Africa

Posted by Aaron Gekoski on 11 December 2013

I’ve been to some pretty grim places in my 33 years on earth. I’ve spent time in the back alleys of Dhaka in Bangladesh, writing about a festival where up to 100 000 turtles are hacked to pieces on a single day. I’ve been in Playa de las Americas in Tenerife – a revolting strip of bars where Englishmen come to fight and puke. And then there is Hillbrow – not exactly Disneyland either.

But I’ve never been anywhere quite as disgusting as the Komatipoort Border Post, the border crossing that separates South Africa and Mozambique. It’s a loud, manic, litter-strewn cesspit inhabited by con artists and crooks. You get swindled when exchanging money, scowled out by those in charge and hassled by just about everyone.

I’d managed to avoid it for years, until last month. I was making my way back to Tofo – a little oasis where I spent a couple of wonderful years (read: things to do in Tofo and Inhambane) – to catch up with friends, dive and work a few photography jobs. With airfares prohibitively expensive from Johannesburg (up to 60% in airport taxes), I decided to save a few pennies and catch a ride with a mate. What a mistake that turned out to be.

Corruption in Mozambique

After a diversion outside of Nelspruit that took us around half of Southern Africa, we turned up at the border at 23h45 – 15 minutes before closing time. Despite cutting it fine, a surly official assured us we would make it across. Clutching our passports, we got through to the Mozambican side at 00h05. A rotund humourless man glared at me (my friend has residency) from behind the visa desk as if I’d just lobbed poop at his terminally ill mother. He tapped furiously at his watch, ‘Close at 12, close at 12!’ He pointed in the opposite direction as I tried to charm him with my best pigeon Portuguese.

‘Back to South Africa!’

Dejected, we got back in the car to drive the short distance back to South Africa. As we pulled up to the iron gate that separates the two countries, it was promptly slammed in our face: South Africa was closed for the evening. Hmmm … what a dilemma. One man told told us we must sleep in no-mans land, which meant a further six hours in hell and kipping in our bakkie. ‘But be warned – muito banditos,’ he said.

Cue a trip back to the Mozambican side. A couple of cans of Coke later (it’s thirsty work being a border official) and we were in the country with strict instructions ringing in our ears: we were to find a bed for a couple of hours and come back when the post opened again at 06h00.

After 40 kilometres of searching for a place to lay our heads, we pulled into what looked like a hotel. It wasn’t. As we reversed out the drive, we were met by three sets of eyes peering out of a car that had snuck up behind us. It was Maputo’s notorious police. Out stepped the officers, twirling handcuffs. We were in serious trouble.

‘Passports,’ growled one. I explained why mine was temporarily visaless: we were caught between posts and were told not to sleep at the border due to banditos, but to find a bed and come back first thing. ‘You’ll find a bed for the night – a police cell,’ came the response, as the comedian prepared to cuff me, ‘You’ll stay there for the weekend until we deport you on Monday.’

Now call me unadventurous, yellow-bellied, or a chicken, but I didn’t much fancy the weekend in a Mozambican jail. I began longing for the back alleys of Dhaka and the vomit-lined streets of Tenerife.

‘Open your wallet,’ said the tall ugly one, jabbing a finger to my chest. He plucked out R1 500, everything I had. ‘That is not enough, we need $1 000,’ said another (let’s call this one ‘Stubby’). For this amount I decided I’d rather go to jail than visit an ATM – it was R1 500 or nothing. Unsurprisingly they decided to take the money, but not before they’d rifled through the car for any extra goodies and taken a further R300 from my friend. ‘Give me a drink’ and ‘You should be grateful,’ were their parting shots. We looked at each other in disbelief. We were, quite literally, robbed by the police.

By now it was 03h00. Broken and broke we pulled into a dirty alleyway to try and get an hour or two of shut eye, rather than risk the drive to Maputo. Mosquitoes the size of small chickens buzzed in our ears for a very uncomfortable, sweaty couple of hours. Without managing a single second of sleep, we headed back to the border at 05h00. To our great surprise, the next couple of hours went to plan and we sorted out my visa with minimal fuss. An official even managed what looked like a smile (though perhaps it was a grimace, who knows).

That was about as smooth as it got. Halfway back to Tofo the crankshaft fell off the car. We hobbled to a bush mechanic, who managed to patch us up. We eventually crawled in to Tofo 29 hours after leaving Johannesburg.

Tofo to the rescue

Luckily, my trip improved. I had an amazing time catching up with people and sinking Tipo Tinto at Dino’s Beach Bar. My stay at Casa Na Praia, right on the beach, was ideal. Thanks to the awesome guys at Peri Peri Divers I saw my first ever humpbacks – a mother and calf – underwater, and on one dive I swam with dolphins, 25 devil rays, a massive honeycomb moray eel and much, much more (see: diving in Tofo, Mozambique).

Tofo beach, Inhambane Province, Mozambique, Aaron Gekoski

Final destination: Tofo beach

Casa Na Praia, Tofo, Mozambique, Aaron Gekoski

Casa Na Praia: very nice.

Humpback whale and calf, Tofo, Mozambique, Aaron Gekoski

The aforementioned humpback and calf. Not a great pic, but an unforgettable experience.

As my time came in Tofo came to an end, I decided to bypass the police and forked out R2 500 for a one and a half hour flight. This turned out to be my second poor decision of the month.

Thievery at O.R. Tambo International Airport

Johannesburg’s notorious baggage handlers struck again; their thieving fingers were rewarded with hard drives containing years of images and footage, along with a Kindle and other photographic equipment. If there’s one thing I abhor more than Komatipoort, it’s people stealing things you have worked so hard for. How this hasn’t been stamped out in an era of CCTV is, quite frankly, mind-boggling.

It’s a conundrum: just how are we meant to travel around this fine continent? Flying between African countries is hugely expensive. Brave the airfare and you still have to survive those sticky-fingered sods at the airport. But with enormous travel distances between countries, the rising price of petrol and corrupt police to contend with, it’s often our only option.

Finding solace in Zimbabwe

I left Johannesburg for my next destination, Zimbabwe: the perfect place to regroup and ponder such matters. Despite its reputation as an unsafe place to travel, it is peaceful, drop-dead gorgeous, loaded with wildlife and inhabited by some of the most affable people I’ve met on my travels. It remains one of my favourite countries on Earth.

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, Elephants, Aaron Gekoski

Better times - watching Hwange's elephants

As I sat at a waterhole in Hwange National Park, surrounded by huge herds of elephant with the sun setting, I mulled over a topsy turvy few weeks. Good old Africa – humpbacks, dolphins, elephant – it provides the most sensational experiences. But damn can it make you work for them.

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