Ask the neighbours for a visa - 17 November 2009

How difficult is to get a visa extension in South Africa?
Well, it took me two trips to Lesotho and Botswana...

In Lesotho, and Botswana

The story: my 2 years partner visa expired in the middle of October 2009.
Lesotho Certain things happened since I got it, for example in March 2008 I got married to Lindsey, a South African citizen, and I bought a house on our names, making plans to stay in the country for some years.
You would think that this is enough to ask for another 2 years visa (apparently only after 5 years I can ask for a permanent residency), but it's not that easy.

Yes, I submitted my documents through my agent a week later than the advised date (but still perfectly on time), but someone in the government probably took an interest in my case and decided to make my life a little more difficult. So suddenly my application got lost, and then found again, and in the meanwhile the visa expired. The result? I couldn't apply for a new one anymore simply because the law say that I need to be legal in the country to do it. And I wasn't.

So I needed a visa, any visa. A temporary tourist visa (the 3 months one you get at the airport for example) was a good choice.

LesothoI didn't want to fly in some other country just to stay a night and come back the day before, so the choice number one was to pack up, take Lindsey and the dogs, and drive to say Lesotho . Why Lesotho? Well, it was only 5 hours away from Johannesburg; it was cheap and apparently very picturesque. Plus, unlike Swaziland or Botswana, it had cheap accommodation for the dogs.

The plan was easy: leave on Saturday morning, get there, spend a night in the Trading Post in Roma , in one of the valleys, wake up, do a quick tourist drive and then go back home with, hopefully, an extended visa on my passport.

It didn't happen.

Lesotho The drive was long and with no traffic (apart from the usual congestion just outside the city), and we got to Lesotho, on the Maseru (the capital) border, in time. It started to rain as soon as we passed the border, and the lack of passport controls on the Lesotho side was a bit worrying, but hey, nobody stopped us.

In the rain we tried to make sense of the gps instructions. We had some coordinates which, as it turns out, were completely wrong. It tried to convince us to get out of the country and then enter it again from some strange back road on the mountain, were the border wasn't even marked.


So what was supposed to be a simple 15 minutes drive from the border ended up in a stressful 3 hours trip to some random location. Maseru by Saturday night is dirty, drunk and the chaos takes control of the town. We needed some crazy phone calls to find someone to help us, and we arrived at destination only around 9pm, in full darkness. There were no lights on the road, and we couldn't see much.

Luckily the Trading Lodge was very nice and comfortable, and we had a guard with a rifle just outside our little patio. Just in case, you know?

Our dogs, too tired from the long drive, went to bed almost immediately and so did we.

The next day, with a little less rain than Saturday (still, it almost rained the whole time), we finally explored the surrounding and realized how nice this little country was, once outside of the major city. Lot of mountains, lakes, shepherds, goats and donkey.
The local people living on the mountains, the Basotho , had little to live on but enjoyed a much better life than, say, the Swaziland people, by living on the mountains and taking care of the cattle.

Most of the houses were built in the unusual Sesotho shape, but I saw only few people using the funny hats I envisaged (and, like a true tourist, I bought). Everyone mostly dressed with a big towel, very colourful, to protect themselves from the wind and the low temperature at that altitude.


Lindsey and I decided to drive to the big national dam, which provided electricity to the whole country (and exported it to South Africa...), and since the map showed a nice and straight line, we decided to take the dogs there. Unfortunately mapping of Lesotho is terrible, in the gps AND in the local maps. What was supposed to be a gently climb up to 2600 meters for maybe 30 minutes ended up with a 2 hours drive in a very not straight mountain road.
Our Toyota Yaris struggled and we realized that soon we wouldn't have ended petrol to go back, especially with the GPS signalling the next petrol station in 80km. So I free wheeled on the way back, all downhill, and instead of the usual 30km of reserve, I got out of the little car a massive 80km, just in time to feel up and decide to go back home.

Tired, we reached the border on Sunday afternoon but, surprise, the idiots on border the day before FORGOT to stamp the entry to the country.
So, technically, we were illegally visiting Lesotho. We got accused of being potential drug dealers who entered the country from a non marked border (and for some reason decided to exit it from a legal one instead of using the dodgy one), and then we were invited to stay until the next day to pledge our case to the South African High Commission in Maseru. With a phone only working with an arm in the other side of the fence separating the countries, Lindsey and I didn't have much choice. Lindsey crossed the border by keeping my in the Lesotho side and asked help to the South African police.

The matter was somehow solved (after 2 hours of panic) and we were ready to queue in the South African border to get myself a nice visa extension.
We got there, I showed my expired visa, and I got my extension. A full 5 (five) days extension.

All for nothing, but at least we were back in Johannesburg few hours later...

BotswanaBotswanaNext week I decided to fork out some money and try my luck by flying to Gaborone , the capital of Botswana : leave on Saturday, on the last day of my visa, and come back the day before, and hopefully to get that damn visa.

Why did I choose Gaborone? Well, it was simply the cheapest on such a short notice.

And so on Saturday I said goodbye to Lindsey and the dogs, and drove myself to the airport to get on the plane. I arrived in Gaborone 40 minutes later, and I landed in a very small airport that is getting ready for 2010. Since the Kruger park in South Africa will be booked out for the world cup, a lot of people will drive/fly to the nearby Botswana, to enjoy the great parks in that country.

Compared to the rest of the Sub Saharan Africa, Botswana is probably the most peaceful country. The local people, the Tswana ,  have little, but they are way more relaxed in a democratic country where economy has been improving for the past years and there are no civil wars.
If Lesotho was a black and poorer Switzerland, then Botswana was probably like Jamaica, without Bob Marley, dreadlock hairs and big-ass joint. And the ocean.
You get the point.

I stayed in a hotel quite far from the capital, and bored to death, I decided to visit it. The capital was very empty (apparently after 1pm everyone disappears). The market was smallish, the government buildings too new compared to the little construction all around, and after 3 hours of walking around as the only white man in a black town, I decided to go back to the hotel and spend Halloween watching horror films until I was too tired to open my eyes.


I tried to get some local cuisine but all I could get was American stuff in the fancy hotel restaurant (steaks, fries, etc...), or cheap crap and the cheap and crappy casino 5 minutes down the road. I got some cheap Chinese which I soon regretted (Chinese? In Botswana? The shop was so tacky but it was strange to see Chinese in the front and blacks in the kitchen...)..

BotswanaSo after 24 hours of pure boredom (I ended up taking picture of ant's moulds!) I flew back to Johannesburg and, finally, got that 3 months extension which was enough to restart my application.

And now? Well, I submitted the application and within 30 days I will know if I stay or not.
In the meanwhile I visited two countries that probably I would have never visited before, wasted a lot of money, and got myself a funny hat from Lesotho.