Lesotho visa-run

With my visa expiring in just over a week and hopes of staying in South Africa for a few more months, I began to worry about how I would remain legal in the country. Apparently the process of extending a pre-existing visa takes anywhere between 30-60 days. In other words, little Max Seigal would be walking around South Africa as an illegal alien for nearly two months, and if the visa application was not accepted it would be nearly impossible to leave the country without some kind of major penalty trying to exit on a visa that expired several months prior. So I did my research and scanned the internet for any information people could offer.

Apparently it used to be common practice for someone with an expiring visa to cross the border into a neighboring country, thus being stamped out on their existing visa, and simply cross back into the country and receive yet another 90 day visa from border control – a sneaky technique known as a visa run. My eyes lit up as I read the numerous accounts of people successfully renewing their visas this way, but then I began looking at the date of their internet postings and realized that most of these were written over five years ago. As I continued to read, it looked like border regulations were now more stringent and people were no longer given new visas when they re-entered the country.

Well, with six days remaining on my own visa I was ready to try anything. Even my scheduled flight out of the country left after my visa expired, so if anything I still had to find a way to extend my visa until then.

The next few days became a painstaking struggle of trying to figure out the best way to exit the country, considering I was carless and had some serious luggage to haul around with me. Looking back at all the people I had met in the last three months, I hoped that someone was close enough to call for help in some way, but it turned out the farm I was at was completely isolated from all the friends I had made. Next I called rental car companies, and for $50 a day I figured it might be the cheapest and best option to simply rent a car and drive myself. Then I read the fine print and that option quickly flew out the window. Cross border fee: $200, under the age of 23 fee: $100, Millage allowed: 200km – every km thereafter costs 50 cents (I would travel about 700km to the nearest border which would have added another $250). Well, I wasn’t about to blow $700 on a one day car rental simply to attempt a visa-run that I didn’t have confidence in working, so I would have to figure something else out. I looked at busses, trains, anything and everything, but there just wasn’t much in this part of the country. The next bus that went even remotely close to the border was in five days, and the return bus another five days later, so public transportation wasn’t even an option.

The only real option left was hitchhiking, at least for a good portion of the trip. Because I didn’t want to bring all my stuff with me (hitchhiking with two big suitcases doesn’t exactly say ‘low profile’) I would have to make it there and back – nearly 750km. I think I wrote in an earlier post about how hitchhiking is common practice in South Africa, playing a major role in how the majority of the population gets around cheaply. Usually someone will hitch 10-15km for a fee of about $2, so it’s not only a good way to get where you’re going, but it helps out the driver as well. Despite nearly every white person in South Africa claiming hitchhiking is dangerous and they would never be found doing it, I would actually argue that, if done correctly, it can be a quick and somewhat safe way to get around. That being said, there are obviously some ground rules to follow: don’t get into a sketchy looking car, always carry some sort of protection on you (knife, pepper spray…), and preferably try to go with a friend so that you are not alone. Unfortunately for me, I was thinking I would have to make this long journey by myself.

There was one other student with me on the research farm, and I was trying to explain the stress of the situation and how I had no way to get to the border and my soon-to-be illegal status. Despite his pity (he was on a student visa – they are good for two stinkin’ years!), there wasn’t really much he could do to help – so that afternoon I gathered up my courage and packed a sleeping back into my backpack and waved goodbye to Josh as I headed out the door. He said he wished he could come with me, that the journey might actually be kind of fun and interesting. Without really giving him time to think about what he just said, I jumped on his remark and told him that it would be extremely helpful if he did come along. I considered the possibility for a second, and thought it might actually be possible. His truck had a flat tire so he wasn’t able to go out and track the animals that night anyways, and because it happened to be a national holiday he wasn’t able to get a new tire until tomorrow. I told him that, if all worked to plan, we would be back by tomorrow evening and I would be his slave for the next few days (the work he does is much much easier with two people, in fact it’s hardly even possible with just one, so I knew that if I offered myself as a slave for a few days I might temp him even further into joining me). He thought for a second, then told me he didn’t have his passport with him; it was at his uncles house nearly 600km away. I quickly rebutted his remark by telling him that I would quickly walk across the border then cross back in while he waited for me on the South African side – trying to work any angle that I could to get him to come. I wasn’t comfortable hitchhiking 750km on my own and the thought of having him with me made the whole situation sound like a much better idea. Offering to pay for his entire way, including the night I was expecting we would spend at some backpackers along the way, I somehow talked him into grabbing his sleeping bag and running out to join me. A huge wave of relief ran though me now, and I felt much safer knowing there would be two of us in this journey. And what a journey it would be!

It started out with a 3km walk to the main road from the research house. The farm entrance, however, was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so it spat us out about 20km out of town on some random stretch of highway. Thinking this might actually benefit us because people would feel sorry for us when they saw how far away from any kind of civilization we were, we figured it wouldn’t take long before someone stopped to pick us up. We started to walk, thumbs up, and waited for our fate. Lucky for us, the next car that drove by was a ‘taxi’ minivan that drove the stretch between Kimberley and Bloemfontein – 160km and halfway to our destination. For $8 each, we eagerly hopped on. My first observation on the van: holy freaking moly it was hot, it must have been at least 110 degrees in that thing. Packed with people, there was not the slightest bit of wiggle room either, and everybody was sitting there swimming in their own sweat and rubbing up against each other. Miserable. For nearly two hours we would have to cook, probably stepping out medium rare when we got to Bloem. Second thing I noticed: this car had some serious steering issue. As we drove the completely straight highway, the van seemed to swerve all over the road. I sat in my seat wide-eyed in fear as I stared at the straight road ahead as we weaved left and right along it, praying that no oncoming traffic would sandwich us as we flew 130km/hr down the one lane freeway loaded with cars and trucks.

Halfway to Bloem, about 90km down the road from the farm, the van stopped by a nearby parked car on the side of the highway. Our driver got out and collected all the fares from us passengers, then handed a big wad of cash over to the driver of the car. Wondering if I was witnessing some kind of drug deal taking place in the middle of my cab ride, I stared intently at the interaction between the two men, but just then our driver jumped in the car and drove off. The other man must have been a replacement driver because he hopped into the van and drove us the remainder of the way.

When we arrived in Bloem the driver asked us where we wanted to be dropped off. I knew a bus departed at 6am every day going to the border and had originally planned on sleeping at some backpacker and heading out early in the morning, but Josh suggested that we just continue with the taxi van route we started and head to Lesotho that night. While I agreed it would be quicker and easier, I was not comforted by the fact that it was already 2:30pm. A little worried that we would be hit with nightfall somewhere where we didn’t want to be – like in the ghetto taxi ring area in Bloem or along the border of Lesotho – I thought twice about his suggestion, but then figured what the heck, might as well give it a shot. We bought our tickets from the taxi-man pimp – a guy behind a glass counter with hundreds of bills in his hand and what looked like no form of organization – and jumped on the ride that would take us all the way to the border. We were the last two people on the bus as it was already [over] full. People were crammed into seats like sardines in a can – literally 25 of us were smashed into a van made to fit 18, along with each person’s suitcase piled up along the aisle, the stack nearly touching the ceiling.

Let me start off by saying you would never ever find a white South African using these taxi vans as a form of transport. After speaking with many people who visited the farm previously, none of them would ever have taken one of these taxis, claiming they are too dangerous, sketchy, black, etc… so it goes without saying that Josh and I were the only white people within a thousand meter radius at the taxi ring, and of course we were the only whites on the van. This didn’t bother me though, and I like to think of myself as an exception to the typical white person these blacks are used to meeting; coming from the states I am accepting and don’t hold a racist stigma. I started to chat with the old man next to me, and what an interesting story he could tell. Not only does he speak something like five languages (including this really cool language spoken by bush-men where they make clicking sounds with their mouth mid-speech), but he was also very friendly and we had a wonderful talk along the ride.

Despite being hot and stuffy on the bus, I think it was one of the most amazing rides I’ve taken. Having been stuck in one area for the last two months, a relatively flat place without much scenery, this bus ride was absolutely stunning. The landscape changed from Kalahari flatland savannah to rocky, mountainous hills covered with trees and boulders. And spectacular it was; the view was amazing and the land was absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me – one more thing to lose if I got mugged on this crazy adventure.

When we were rounding the final mountainous corner, about 2km from the border, we were pulled over by the police for a random vehicle check. The officers came in and started checking everybody’s passports, at which point my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. Josh didn’t have a passport on him, and I couldn’t even fathom what the police might do when they found out. With nothing but the border ahead, there was no reason anybody would be traveling this road other than to cross the border. Not only that, but if he tried to explain the truth of our story – how he is just accompanying me as I try to pull off a visa-run by crossing the border for five minutes – I thought we would get in even more trouble! My head was nearly spinning as the officer checked each and every persons passport, and I saw that Josh had gotten off the van and was standing outside. I thought he had been caught, and had no idea what they were going to do with him. Even the driver receive a fine for breaking safety codes – first for shoving way more people into the van and also for clogging the aisle with endless amounts of luggage, immobilizing everybody inside. He handed the driver a piece of paper, then walked away. Half expecting him to cuff Josh and throw him in the back of the police car, I was shocked when Josh simply slid back onto the van and we drove off.

Clueless as to what just happened, I had to wait until we got to the border before I could ask Josh, who was at the front of the bus, how he managed to sneak by the passport check. When we finally arrived at the border, I ran up to Josh and asked him what had just happened. He told me that he simply got off the van when they were pulled over, and for some reason he was completely overlooked when they were searching passports. Sheesh I thought, that was a one in a million shot - what a lucky boy this one was.

Next I told him to wait just outside the tunnel as I headed into the entrance to the Lesotho border control. The last thing I wanted was to lose each other in the mass of people that surrounded the border. It was chaos – people selling food and gifts, people trying to exit the country, taxi vans everywhere, swarms of people entering the country – so I made sure we had a meeting point when I returned.

I walked through the long corridor to exit South Africa, got my passport stamped as I left, then walked out on the Lesotho side. I turned around, walked back up to a different counter (hmm it might be a bit conspicuous if some guy you just stamped out one minute ago shows up to be stamped back in…), crossed my fingers, then handed over my passport. Being the only white person for miles, it didn’t help with the whole blending into the crowd plan. The lady glanced at my passport, and I asked her for a 90 day visa (as I was told to do by home affairs in Kimberley). She looked shocked when I asked her this, then told me she would have to speak with her supervisor. He came over and had a look at my passport, then gazed at my skeptically while I tried to explain my situation. I told him how I was helping with research, how the office of home affairs in Kimberley told me that I should try this, and even showed him a note from a professor at Rhodes University describing how they needed my help on a project for the next few months, but he didn’t seem to care. Without giving me the slightest pity, he told the border lady to stamp me for six days – exactly what I had left on my visa before I even crossed the border. Arguing was futile, this guy wouldn’t budge.
Shucks… my only real plan hadn’t worked. My visa would expire in a few days, and now I couldn’t even fly out on my original ticket because I had purchased it for the week after my visa expired. Now I thought I was really screwed, and would have to find my way to Namibia or Batswana for the next week. Ugh, and after all that traveling and stress and hoping, all of it for ten seconds of rejection at the border. Well, at least I got to go to a new country eh?

We took the first taxi-van we could find to Bloem, but it was already 4:30pm. That meant it would be dark when we arrived, and I wasn’t sure if there would be another taxi headed towards Kimberley at that hour. Not only that, but I didn’t know where we could sleep for the night or how dangerous the sketchy taxi neighborhood got once darkness fell. Oh well, we figured that we could deal with the situation once we got there. Anything beat staying there at the chaotic border.

We arrived in Bloem at 6:30, an hour after sunset. The taxi dropped us off at some random street corner, so we ran the couple of blocks to the taxi rink in hope of catching a late ride to our final destination. Turns out we were in luck! There was one last taxi, almost full at this point, and it’s destination was Kimberley! I paid the taxi pimp for the two of us, crammed inside the over-packed vehicle, and we were off! The plan was to ask the driver to stop when we drove past the farm, which was about 20km outside of Kimberley city and on the road we were supposed to take to Bloem. This, of course, would be all too easy. Turns out the driver took some back road to drop off one of the passengers along the way, so we never ended up driving past the farm.

The two of us were left at the bus station in the center of Kimberley, about 25km from where we were staying. ‘It could be worse’ I told Josh…I mean, we had already made it this far in one day, and we hadn’t even been mugged yet! So we started walking, and after about thirty minutes we made it to the edge of town. At this point, we had a twenty kilometer stretch of highway between us and the entrance of the farm, so we figured we might as well try hitching one last time and really try our luck. This time, however, it would be much more frightening as it was about 10pm and there were no taxi vans to rely on. Of course, we would still try to be as safe as possible by avoiding any sketchy looking vehicles and keeping a hand on our dinky little pocket knives, but this hardly eased the fear.

The second car that drove past us pulled over just ahead, two black guys in their thirties with a nice-ish looking SUV. Hmmm we thought, but after we told them where we were headed, they assured us that it wouldn’t be a problem dropping us off there. We nervously stepped in the car, and we were off. I tried to make small talk with the guys to make it seem like we were nice guys and not worthy of being mugged, and they came off as being quite friendly as well. A bit of relief, but I still had no idea what to expect down the road. Well, after about 15 minutes we pulled up to the farm entrance and they let us out. Still a little surprised with how easy that was, and by the fact that we were still alive, we paid them a couple bucks and thanked them for their generosity. We marched our way down the dirt road back to the safety of our little research house, and ranted about the sketchiness of that last car and how lucky we were that the guys who picked us up were actually decent people. What a day, what a day… and I couldn’t believe we had done it all in just that! I expected this whole process to take at least a week, especially after looking at bus schedules, but it turns out we made the entire 750km trek to the Lesotho border and back in a little over 10 hours. Not bad for a couple of Americans wandering around in Africa. Not sure I’d want to do it again, but nevertheless it was quite an experience!

Long story short, I thought that after my visa-run had failed I would somehow have to leave the country for the next week until my plane flew out, but after speaking with somebody at home affairs I learned of yet another way to extend my visa. This time, not only was it legal, but it was almost guaranteed to work. So I took a bus down to Cape Town where I would apply for a student visa extension with paperwork from that professor at Rhodes University asking that my visa be extended so I can help them work on research projects. This didn’t mean that things would go 100% smoothly however, as my 12 hour bus ride ended up taking about 18 hours after it broke down for five hours. Besides that though, I was surprised by how easy the process was. I went to home affairs and filled out the stack of paperwork, and after a few hours I was stamped back in the country for another few months! No more worries about being an illegal alien, woohoo! And best of all, the scenery changed from the somewhat boring flatlands to absolutely stunning mountains hugging the coastline. It’s amazing what I’ve been missing out on down here! The south is gorgeous, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.