We’ve had our fair share of customs and immigrations stories, as you might imagine, living and working in Africa.  In most cases, what seems to be most critical is how nicely you write when filling in the immigration form on arrival and departure.  I’ve seen many a weary traveller sent to the back of the immigration queue with a new form to fill in, because the original one “didn’t look nice enough”.  The queues are long.  This is no laughing matter for the scrawling scribbler.

We’ve had our bags checked in many an airport.  It’s part of the travelling experience.  But I’ve never had my heart in my throat like I did on this trip.

This being our first trip to Australia, we never realised just how thoroughly you and your baggage are checked for any undesirables.  It would seem that there is an awful long list of things that you are not supposed to take in with you.  Some are obvious – like plant and animal products, but others not so obvious like sports shoes (that are still muddy).  The fact that we were travelling from Africa puts us firmly on the “persons of interest” list.

Everyone must declare whether or not you have been to any other African country, outside South Africa, in the previous 6 days.  You will also be quizzed on whether or not you have not been to a game farm – or any farm for that matter. Oh, alright, make that outside then!

Just before landing, everyone is handed an Incoming Passenger Card (IPC) where you tick all the relevant boxes regarding the contents of your suitcase and hand luggage.

If you answer “Yes” to having anything on you that might cause concern, there are disposal bins, literally littering the place, in which to place your unwanted products.

Your IPC is checked several times as you pass through immigration and customs.  Once you have collected your baggage, you then wait in line for your baggage to be screened.

If, after scanning, something in your baggage is deemed to be suspicious – the baggage inspector exclaims in a mildly delighted tone that “he’s got something here!!

I know this because… yup, my suitcase was apparently harbouring something potentially illegal. Woops!

Firstly – the barrage of questions:

Baggage Inspector: “Is this your signature on the IPC?”

Me: “Yes

BI: “Do you understand the checklist of undesirables?”

Me:  “I believe so

BI: “Is this your bag?

Me:  “Yes

BI: “Did you pack it?

Me:  “Yes

BI: “Does your suitcase contain anything you didn’t pack?

Me: “It ought not to have

BI: “Good proviso… Could anybody have tampered with your bag?

Me: “Well I did travel out of Johannesburg International Airport”*

BI: “Ah hah!

Me (in my head): “Uh oh, what’s that supposed to mean?

My suitcase is promptly opened up and rifled through – with some measure of respect, I’ll admit.  I am not disgraced by any random knickers that might have been unearthed.  My husband is silently standing, with his bags already in hand, behind me.  I wonder if he thinks he can make a run for it…

My vitamins, apparently, were enough to set the scanner off.  They are in gelatine capsule form, but NOT illegal. Phew!  Suitcase is closed – and we beat a hasty exit (3 hours later than expected).

The next trip we make, I’ll make sure that I buy my vitamins at an Australian pharmacy instead!

* This newspaper article does make for some alarming reading.  I have, in the past, fallen foul of these pilfering-types.  My advice to anyone travelling in and out of Johannesburg by air is to invest in a hard-shell suitcase with clip locks as opposed to zips that are barely held together by light-weight padlocks.  Also, travel with your prized valuables in your hand luggage.

Happy Travels!