© Pablo Rey. Published on Overland Journal Magazine, Fall 2011.
THE EASY WAY OUT… OR PLAN B FOR A FOILED PLAN B
I have a special ability to get into trouble. This has been routinely verified during the last 11 years of my trip around the world. Anna, my partner during this time of adventures, has suffered through this unique attribute by my side. Let me say something important before going on. This trait is not something learned, it is innate, something you are born with, and one that you carry for the rest of your life. It is also one that lends to finding yourself in situations without provocation.
When someone asks for my overlanding CV (curriculum vitae),I always say, “In two months time on our trip through Africa we survived two breakdowns in the middle of nowhere. One of them in the deep sands of the Sudanese Sahara, the other one beside Lake Turkana, 500 miles from a decent mechanic.” Then I keep silent for a few seconds, as if the story is over, before revealing the cavalry. I continue, “In that two months we also suffered two robberies, one crash, a runaway from the transit police in Addis Ababa, and being accosted by two men on a motorbike, armed with rifles, who wanted us to pay for a cow they said we killed. I also got a little angry with a military man who was pointing his Kalashnikov at me. Then we had to run away from 30 men, who were drugged with khat/qat and dressed in loincloths, that had encircled us on an isolated road near Lalibela -they also wanted money. And there was the time we crossed the border between Ethiopia and Kenya, apparently illegally, and we were detained at the police station of a small town where no one could speak English (we could not speak Amharic, either). Least I forget being detained by police again for sleeping at the gate of a national park without paying the entrance fee.”
Such an array of experiences for only a two-month timeframe –Thus went our introduction to Africa, a bit of unexpected pleasure on the wild side. Consciously or subconsciously, this is what you are looking for when you embark on an overland trip across the Dark Continent. I don’t particularly go looking for these troubles, they just happen to find me. I do know people who glide through their travels without so much as a flat tire. And while these “adventures” must be my fate, I must admit that I may have provoked a few-just slightly though.
Most of the time when you face a problem, finding the solution may be a challenge, but it can almost be fun (ok… maybe more “fun” in hindsight). But there are some moments when you just want to hit your head against a wall.
It was in Kruger, South Africa, while waiting for a lion pride to do something interesting (climb a tree, tell a joke or eat a nearby Jeep driver who could not stop talking), that we realized we’d made a big mistake. I can assure you that during extended hours of lion watching, one has a lot of downtime to think about things.
I leaned over to Anna and said quietly, “Do you realize that our temporary import permit (custom papers) from South Africa says that our vehicle is from Botswana?” Silence … Hmmm, I’ve visited manv countries, but don’t remember buying a 4wd in Botswana. “Dang” she broadcasted loudly (she used a different explicative that means, uh, “dung”). And it was not a small deposit of common cow dung … this was big dung … elephant dung.
The problem was that our trip from Europe through Africa exceeded the allowable time, and the Carnet de Passage of our 1991 Mitsubishi L300 4×4, OUf home for the past several years had expired … again … and I’d not requested a renewal on time. See what I mean about finding trouble.
Departing Zimbabwe to South Africa, we found ourselves on the Limpopo River Bridge, the neutral zone between the two nations. Without the Carnet de Passage, we could not pass beyond the South African Customs parking lot, nor could we return to our beloved Zimbabwe-which was beginning to suffer the significant impacts of a long and forgotten dictatorship. We were in no man’s land with no way out.
A solution presented it elf, a disgustingly simple and tempting one. You see, there were two old Defenders from Botswana also waiting for entry to South Africa, and one of them had the exact same license plate numbers as our Mitsubishi from Spain- and in the exact same order. Hmmm?
Oh no … Oh yes … It would be too easy. The customs employees did not even lift an eyebrow to check the vehicles, to be sure that the information given matched our car.
Four days later, watching the most boring “wild” lions on the planet, we realized that my special ability to get into trouble was alive and well. The genius that drives one to find quick solutions, to take the easy route around unexpected situations, was in motion. The idea worked like a well-oiled machine … temporarily. Our epiphany at that “elephant dung” moment was that we had crossed the line. If we were stopped by the police, we would be in big trouble. There was only one solution. We had to go back.
Anna drove back to the border wearing her best, innocent-good-white-girl-from-Botswana face. She returned our temporary import permit without issue and slipped through South Africa customs. She was again on the bridge, in no man’s land without papers.
She found an out-of-the-way spot to park next to the river while I assessed a new plan that would not lead u to more problems. Basically, I had to figure out a Plan B for our sneaky Plan B, that normally means going back to Plan A.
But, the idea of getting a new earner was discarded. It could not be done. Only our smooth-talking traveling acquaintance Butch could manage such a feat. Butch, an Australian biker, was re-issued a Carnet de Passage from the Automobile Club of Jordan (AC])-not based on a money guarantee or security, but merely on the good faith of people. He rode into the AC] on his Soviet motorbike, said he would bring the bike back (with his best lost soul smile), and received his papers. It was not likely that this approach would work in capitalistic Spain, the country of our vehicle’s origin.
Somehow; I had to convince an official employee from the Real Automóvil Club de España (RACE) who had issued my previous earner, to authorize the Automobile Association of South Africa to issue a new one (my third)-and this needed to be based on a bank guarantee linked to an expired earner which could not be verified.
It was not complicated, but it was complicated. I had to rely on my charismatic personality, on people’s faith that I would do the right thing (I’d not impressed myself in that department so far). I had to call in the cavalry, enlist the help and protection of all saints from all religions, and add some desperate intensitv to my words.
Spending hour on the phone with various offices and officials became my Sport. I started with the patient and humble approach, but I have to admit the intensity in my tone was growing as the days dragged bv, and a cache of emptied telephone cards began accumulating in my pocket. I could no longer take NO for an answer. I had to rescue Anna from no man’s land and I needed to do it soon. Feeling desperate, I needed to make more calls, send more emails, get more people to take notice. I needed to convince government employees whose only notion of adventure would be a luxury seven-day, all-inclusive, organized lodge stay in the Masai Mara. Not likely.
My last card to play was to push the mass media button. It seems that journalists and the mainstream media have an affinity for stories of hapless souls in distress. Innocent Spanish girl abandoned in African no man’s land would make a good headline. I got on the wire, pouring hundreds of press releases into the black hole of the Internet ocean.
I never knew which press release landed in the right hands, but five days later, authorization for a new Carnet de Passage arrived. It is possible they simply got tired of fielding my calls, or deleting my persistent emails. I suppose it is difficult to ignore people who pursue a cause with such passion, determination and intensity- but Anna and our Mitsubishi home on wheels would be set free.
I’ll probably act with slightly more discretion the next time I’m presented with a lion in a gazelle-skinned suit. Maybe sniff for the scent of elephant dung? We’ll see … For the moment we were free to go. And what happened during those five days in no man’s land? I have no idea. You’ll have to ask Anna.