Importing cars via Durban: Is it worth the hassle?

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HARARE – It's a long way from Harare to Dar-es-Salaam. A cool 2 500 km by road.

Muda mrefu safari is the Swahili expression for such a long journey.

I decided to undertake the trip after a South African port clearing house charged me $1 000 as penalty for getting my papers two days after my car had arrived in Durban.

I had paid $1 500 to have the car shipped to Beitbridge Border Post when I was hit with this new bill.
I tried to negotiate with the clearing house without success.

The extra payment meant that it cost me $2 500 to have the car cleared and transported from Durban to Beitbridge, $300 more than what I had paid to buy the car and have it shipped to Durban.

It also meant the duty payable would go up. Working from a tight budget, I felt heavily let down by the clearing agent which had been highly recommended by the Japanese exporters.

At one point, I had decided to abandon the car, a Nissan Pulsar CJ1, much to my wife’s disdain.

I agonised over whether I should lose both the car and the money I had paid — $3 500 altogether.

Under pressure from friends and relatives, I was forced to take a loan from my bank to tidy me over the problem.

South Africa’s second-hand car sales depend on Zimbabweans, Zambians and Malawians. That country’s motor industry is protected from cheap Japanese imports, and the country does not allow cars to be driven on its roads for fear  they will end up being sold in SA.

The liquidity crunch in Zimbabwe and Malawi (I am not so sure about Zambia) has translated into receding car sales for Japanese grey exports in Durban and Musina. The clearing houses have sometimes leaned heavily on Zimbabwean buyers to get extra money, as happened in my case.

When the opportunity came to buy another car months down the line,  I decided to import it through Dar-es- Salaam, which many Zimbabweans are now doing.

Those importing cars from the UK are increasingly using Walvis Bay in Namibia, where you either drive the car through Botswana, or as I have seen lately, you can have it transported to Plumtree Border Post.

Yet others have imported their cars through Beira,  a few hours drive from the eastern border town of Mutare.

They all work out much cheaper than importing through Durban by between $500 to $800. For cash-strapped Zimbabweans, that’s a huge saving.

Six weeks after paying for my car, I bought a ticket for the trip to the East African port  a couple of days before the travel date and was at Roadport in time for the 8pm  departure.

As usual in Zimbabwe, every trip starts with prayers as many have perished on these long shopping forays to neighbouring countries, especially on the busier Harare to Jo’burg route.

Four hours later, we were at Chirundu Border Post. Passengers found space to sleep inside and outside the bus, deep in lion and elephant territory, waiting for the border to open at 6 am.

Nothing dramatic happened at the border save for the long queues which many Zimbabweans have lived through over the past decade-and-a-half. But the plus side was that the Zimbabwe-Zambia border post is a one-stop shop, the two countries’ immigration and customs offices are located in the same building. You just walk from one queue in one country to the next and you’ve crossed the border.

As we waited for the bus to get going, a few Zambian money-changers were yearning for the return of the Zimbabwe dollar. The US dollar was too strong for the Zambian kwacha, they complained.

I didn’t mind that. I lived through the days of the worthless Zim dollar, which gave us numbers like quintillion which I had never heard of in my life. They didn’t.

On arrival in Lusaka, I tried to get a bath, for a few hundred kwacha, but having paid the amount, I could not summon the courage to wade into the ankle-deep water on the “bathroom” floor.

After struggling to find something to eat, I was soon back in the bus as vendors jostled to get on and off, touting their wares.

I am always careful about what I eat when I travel to avoid an upset tummy. And the toilet facilities always put me off.

Two weeks before departure, I had paid $50 for a yellow fever vaccination required for travel to yellow fever areas.

I had been told at Parirenyatwa Hospital that it would have cost me less had I shared the dose with others.

What was important was that I got the dose.

I was astonished when a man clambered onto the bus in Lusaka selling yellow fever vaccination certificates for $15.

Having feigned interest, I quickly examined the certificate to find it had been duly certified by a “doctor.” I smiled and the vendor mistook the facial muscle exercise for interest.

He was getting ready to negotiate the price with me when I said: “Thanks, but no thanks,” as I handed him back the certificate. He retreated from me visibly disappointed.

I didn’t see the logic of cheating one’s self and exposing one’s life to the dangers of contracting yellow fever  —   an acute systemic haemorrhagic illness whose onset is rapid and affects the whole body.

In severe, cases the disease causes a high fever, bleeding into the skin and the death of cells in the liver and kidney. Liver damage results in severe jaundice — yellowing of the skin; hence the name “yellow fever”.

As I thought about why one would want to buy a fake yellow fever certificate, I fell asleep. Hours later, I was jolted awake as the bus stopped to give people a recess for snacks and to stretch their legs.

Two-thirds of passengers in our bus were female cross-border traders who had been to Dar-es-Salaam on countless occasions.

They buy men’s and women’s clothes, shirts with names for football popular clubs — Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid and other trinkets for sale in Zimbabwe — mostly to teachers and civil servants who pay in instalments.

It was after we had started off again that I noticed an intensified pattern in our prayers.
We would pray in the morning, in the afternoon after lunch and in the evening before retiring for the night.

I later understood why as we approached Morogoro. Like a ribbon, the road clings to the mountain side and those who are faint-hearted dare not look down the mountain slopes as the drivers seem to want to accelerate along the various sharp curves.

The double back wheels squished and screeched as some of us clung on to the seats in front.

When we finally made it to the top of the escarpment, the drivers must have been tired. They went through the humps on the roads in the game park as if they didn’t exist.

Those of us who were at the back got the full wrath of the speeding bus as we were tossed into the air amid protests.

Tanzania must be the only country in the world with humps on its highways. They are meant to protect people along roadside towns and villages and animals in game parks. And the police strictly enforce the 30km per hour speed limit.

We made it to Morogoro the town that gave us Mbaraka Mwishehe and the jazz band that bore the town’s name, as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. 

And finally hit Dar-es-Salaam at about 11pm.

I had befriended two guys who were also collecting their vehicles.  We decided to book into the Dar-es-Salaam Palace Hotel.

A single room with three beds cost $21, including breakfast. I slept with my trousers on to protect a pouch which had my money.

Things have since changed and duty money can now be deposited in a Zimra account, removing the need to carry cash around and sleep with pants on.

The manager was a keen Neria film fan. He asked that we send him a new CD of the film as soon as we got home. I wonder which one of us remembered his request.

Dar is hot and steamy and it doesn’t take much to work out sweat. By the time you think a fly is crawling on your forehead, you discover it’s  actually beads of perspiration trickling down.

And the traffic jams are legendary. Taxis kill their engines while they wait for traffic to move.

My clearing agent in Dar was efficient and I collected my car in the morning with all the necessary documentation. I was soon driving back to Harare.

There’s something about being driven that awakens anxieties in the one who’s not on the wheel.

I hurtled down the mountain road without much anxiety and was soon at the bottom of the mountain range on my way to the Zambian border, six hours away.

I made sure I adhered to the speed limits, but the Tanzanian traffic police would stop me because my car had temporary number plates and occasionally, some would ask for a “monetary incentive”.

I got to the border at about 3am and woke up early to get my papers processed.

Borders always have scroungers and hangers-on who want to take advantage of your not knowing procedures.

These paper pushers thrive on pretending the processes are complicated and that you should not be bothered so that they can suffer for you —  for a fee, of course. But the truth is there’s not much they do.

Having bought my 60 litres of fuel on the Tanzanian side, it took another six hours to get my papers cleared.

Fortunately, Tunduma on the Tanzania side and Nakonde on the Zambian side are almost a one-stop border.

Once I was cleared on the Tanzanian side, it didn’t take long to be get through to the Zambian side and I was soon on my way to Lusaka, 1 009km — or 12 hours of non-stop driving away.

I joined two Zimbabweans who had come from Bulawayo and we struck up a friendship and thereafter drove together.

It was tough for me as I was alone. They let me go ahead, afraid I would decide to rest while they proceeded.

After eight hours of driving, everybody was tired but we decided to push on for another two hours and stopped at around 3am for the night, 200 km from Lusaka at a shopping centre along the highway which we thought was safe enough.

We were up by 6am and back on the road. By 9am, we were in Lusaka where we parted ways.

The two Bulawayo friends were visiting a relative in the Zambian capital before proceeding.

I made a beeline for the border.

I found the Zambian police courteous and professional — if you had the right documents, they let you pass.

At the border, I was supposed to contact someone who was to help me clear the car. He happened to be out of town.

I found the process was simple and straight forward. Having given the customs officials proof of the amount I paid for the car, they calculated the duty owing and I proceeded to have it cleared by Interpol, before I paid the duty. It was that simple.

I was headed for Harare by 5pm.

I wouldn’t mind doing that again. But getting a loan from my bank has become difficult — well, impossible is the word that comes to mind.

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