The Insider’s Guide to Border Crossings

As a veteran of more than 50 border crossings by motorcycle, Dan Skeates reveals the challenges of travelling between countries on two wheels.

I was mad and I had no control of my behaviour. I’m not proud of myself but I’d lost my composure and I refused to pay.

I shouted and I was in a rage. I was being told I had to leave my bike at a customs warehouse when all I wanted to do was ride away. I broke the single most important rule of border crossings: Smile and remember, they’re right and you’re wrong. It’s their country and their rules.

This experience in Egypt was stressful but by no means typical of the 50 or so border crossings I’ve made on my motorcycle. True, some have dragged on for hours and tested my resolve to its limits, but others have been so easy that I passed through without noticing. Nepal was a good example of this. I was travelling north from India towards the border with an English guy I’d met in Delhi. We made it 10 miles into Nepal before we realised that we’d crossed the border without noticing. We quickly turned around and went back to complete immigration and to get our carnets stamped. There was no barrier, no gate, just a very small office with a small sign. It was easily missed.

At the vast majority of borders crossings, the guards you’ll meet are just following a process which takes as long as it takes. Most smile and even joke. It’s their day job after all and they don’t want hassle any more than you do. However, there are exceptions. I’ve taken my bike in and out of Russia twice and each time the guards refused to smile or engage with anything other than the process.

Borders are part of the adventure

Despite this, I love border crossings, and rather than viewing them as a necessary evil, I like to think of them as part of a motorcycle adventure. They can even be relaxed and fun, and the more remote the border, the more enjoyable it can be. In 2015, I crossed into East Timor and rather than interrogating me about my travels, most of the military guards simply wanted to have their picture taken with my bike. When I crossed from Laos into Cambodia, I even had to wake the immigration official up. It was all very relaxed and I didn’t need to worry about queues.

But as well as being a formality, borders can also be a source of good information. When I passed from Iran into Pakistan, an Iranian guard slammed the rusty gates of Iran behind me and helpfully said: “Be careful, there’s a war between the Shias and Sunnis over there.” I was happy to then be put up in a local prison for the night for my own safety.

A similar situation occurred in 2014 when I rode into Iraq from Eastern Turkey. The border guards told me I was the first tourist to arrive at the border in a long while. After I got my visa, I was taken to the man in charge of the crossing who sat me down, gave me tea and sweet cake, and talked to me about the war that was raging. Helpfully, he told me where was safe to ride and where I must avoid.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

So, border crossings aren’t necessarily bureaucratic, time-consuming, and expensive, but sometimes they can be. For me, crossing into Egypt was such an experience and here’s why.

There are two entry points for any travellers going to Egypt from the east, which is the direction I was travelling from when I made my last crossing. One border point takes you from Eilat, in Israel, to the Egyptian border town of Taba. The other is from Aqaba, in Jordan, to Nuweiba, in Egypt, which entails an overnight ferry journey down the Red Sea. There has been much spoken and written about people’s individual experiences of crossing these borders. Having read many of them, it is clear that different people have had vastly different experiences.

However, my decision was easy. I planned on travelling to Sudan later on my trip, but an entry stamp into Egypt from the Israeli border would have put this in jeopardy because of the political situation between the two countries. So, the ferry crossing it was.

The boat leaves every night at 11 pm. I arrived at the port at 7 pm and, after an hour of being shunted from office to office, I had completed immigration and had my carnet stamped out of Jordan. I boarded the ferry and settled down on the top deck for the two-hour trip down the Red Sea. Over the next few hours, I was consumed with thoughts about entry into Egypt. Plenty of people had told me how unhelpful Egyptian border guards can be, and how you have to pay or bribe many people.

The ferry docked at 1am and all the passengers rushed at once to disembark. Then a man saying he was an Egyptian tourist policeman came onto the ferry and I was ushered off first, along with four other tourists. I rode off the ship onto Egyptian soil. My smile was a mile wide, even though I had now been up for 19 hours, including a 100-mile ride through the desert to get to Aqaba. I was dirty and must have smelled awful.

Half an hour later, Hatem, the tourist policeman assigned to us, was guiding us through immigration. The long and possibly expensive process had begun. I passed through immigration easily and said goodbye to my fellow travellers who, without a vehicle to get through customs, were free to leave the port. The process of getting my motorbike into Egypt began. Over the next few hours, I took all the luggage off the bike so it could be X-rayed and I did a lot of waiting around.

All around me was the hustle and bustle of a busy crossing. There were hundreds of men importing massive bundles of what I assumed were textiles. Every one of these was taken inside to be X-rayed and inspected. It was a huge operation requiring a massive amount of effort, especially at 3 am in the morning.

I was still waiting patiently at 4 am, maintaining my default position of ‘whatever happens, they’re right and I’m wrong, it’s their country with their rules’. I kept smiling and talked to some of the people around me. I was in no rush and I passed the time by watching the crazy activity. As I waited, I also wondered if the many stories of officials making it hard for travellers like me were just a myth, or would I soon need to start handing over money. Eventually, a traffic policeman and a bomb squad member came over to me. They made me unload everything off the bike again while asking plenty of questions.

Hatem returned and said we had to get the motorbike inspected. By now it was the very early hours of the morning and I was exhausted. He said I needed cash to pay many people. I only had US dollars so he took me to the money changing office. I wanted to change $100 (£73) but he said I should change $200 (£146). It didn’t take a genius to know the next few hours were going to be expensive. Around sunrise, a man dealing with my insurance and carnet said there may be a problem.

I was sent to wait in a café and the sweet tea revived me temporarily. I spent some time reflecting on the other borders I’d previously crossed on my motorbike. Iraq and Iran were OK. Travelling from Pakistan into India was a bit of a hassle, and so was Russia. The South-East Asian countries were a breeze, and Australia was OK. Nothing compared to this. I’d been warned this border crossing could be tough and I thought I was prepared. I grabbed two hours of sleep on a floor, and when I awoke, the predicament I was in hit me. Would I be riding away on my bike that morning, or would I be another overlander with a tale of woe at the Egyptian border?

At 9am, Hatem returned and offered me falafel and flatbread. Over the next few hours, things went from bad to worse. I was eventually told that Eid, an important Muslim festival, started that day and everyone was now on holiday until Tuesday. This meant I couldn’t enter the country on my bike. I’d now been waiting for 12 hours and I had slept very little over the past 31 hours.

All I could hear was Hatem explain how unlucky I was to arrive during Eid. I was escorted to a warehouse where I was told to leave my bike, I wasn’t happy about my predicament but I had no choice. I was then told the warehouse manager wanted 2,000 Egyptian pounds (£93) to store my bike. In that instant, my calm, measured self disappeared. I lost it and I refused to pay. I was in a rage and shouted. It was their decision that I had to leave my bike. I wanted to ride away so why should I pay. I stormed away.

I rode my bike back to the immigration building. The hundreds of people that had been there the previous night were gone. I was alone. I was so physically and mentally exhausted, my brain wasn’t functioning rationally. I was becoming desperate. Occasionally a guard wandered by and I tried to talk to them, but they just walked by. I couldn’t cope. I started asking the guards for help but nobody would.

Then Mahamoud, the man who had exchanged my cash many hours earlier, came by. I asked him to help me. He stopped and said yes. It was at that moment I broke down. He was looking at me, waiting for me to say something but I couldn’t talk. I was a wreck. I knew Mahmoud understood my emotions as he stood in silence giving me time to compose myself. He told someone was talking to the second in command of the border to ask if an exception could be made for me as I was so unlucky arriving at the start of Eid.

Eventually, I was told I could leave my bike for free after I complained yet again. I rode back to the storage warehouse and locked my bike up. I walked outside and sat in the shade. I was told I could leave the port on foot but I was so exhausted I simply wasn’t capable of walking in the heat, so A motorbike arrived and took me to the gates. The previous day, the port and small town outside these gates was a hive of activity, with hundreds of people coming and going. It was so vibrant. But as I sat in the searing mid-afternoon heat, everyone was inside sheltering from the sun. The only movement came from tumbleweeds being blown down the dry, dusty, desolate road.

I was angry, exhausted, and I felt completely abandoned. I got into a passing taxi and told the driver to take me to a cheap hotel by the beach. I had now been up for about 34 hours during which time I’d hiked for five hours around Petra, ridden 100 miles through the blistering heat of the Jordanian desert, taken a ferry on the Red Sea, and spent 14 frustrating and fruitless hours at the Egyptian border. I had never felt more exhausted and weak. I fell straight to sleep in the taxi.

After Eid had finished a few days later, I returned to Nuweiba Port and finally rode out of the gates with Egyptian number plates on my motorcycle. My wallet was £363 lighter, which was the total cost of leaving Jordan, taking the ferry, and entering Egypt. It had been the toughest crossing I’d experienced to date, but good or bad, easy or difficult, borders are part of an overland adventure travel, so try to enjoy them, if you can.