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South Africa – Here We Come?

What happens when you don’t do your research:

I swear I read the US State Department’s travel document requirements for South Africa carefully but somehow I missed a critical item. Looking back at the website I see that the “Travel Requirements for Minors Traveling to and from South Africa” linked to a nonexistent page.

Looking at their “quick facts” and passport/visa, requirements, I didn’t see anything about birth certificates. I looked on other websites for travel documentation requirements but I don’t remember which websites. But now, when I specifically google “traveling with minors to South Africa,” I see several websites talking about the birth certificate requirement. So not enough research on my part.

Anyway, here is what happened.

After spending part of our layover at the Zurich Transit Hotel (highly recommended) we tried to board our 10:40 pm flight to Joburg. The passport control people gave us the awful news that we wouldn’t be allowed on board without copies of our children’s (up to age 18) birth certificates. And if our documentation wasn’t accepted by the authorities in Joburg, we would be sent back and charged (by the Zurich airport) 8000 euro a piece – that’s $32,000 dollars!!

“WHAT? WHAT??”  About 6 months of planning and anticipation down the tubes? No way!

My husband called our next door neighbor who had a key to our house, she photographed the birth certificates and emailed them to us. We had the photos printed at what seemed like the only existing printer in the airport – at the Transit Hotel. In the meantime of course, we couldn’t make our flight, but luckily there was room at the Transit Hotel for us to stay the night. Otherwise we would have been trying to sleep on open chairs or on the floor of the Zurich Airport which closes and empties out at 11pm. God bless the Transit Hotel!

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We still weren’t sure if our printed, unofficial copies of the birth certificates would suffice. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink that night despite only getting a one hour nap that day and no sleep at all on the first flight.

The next morning we went to the transfer desk and spoke to a supervisor who said we needed notarized copies! But she called “the experts” and discovered that as long as we had our children’ s passports along with the birth certificate copies, we would be okay. I asked her to write a note to that affect, which she also stamped, in case we were turned back at the Joburg airport. I wanted documentation to fight the possible $32,000 fine!

There was only one flight to Joburg, leaving again at 10:40pm, so we took the 15 minute train to Zurich, had lunch and hung out at the lake before coming back to the Transit Hotel (our 3rd visit). This time I was able to nap for two hours (I don’t remember how long the kids slept).

A Beautiful View of Zurich, photo by Bill Gough
Zoning Out in the Shade, photo by Kate Gough

We successfully boarded our flight to Joburg (I napped one hour this time) landed and . . got through passport control in South Africa no problem! We would have jumped for joy if we hadn’t been so incredibly exhausted.

I had a thought later: like the hero’s epic journey, there is always one or more “gate keepers” that make it really difficult for the hero to continue his journey. The hero has to prove himself determined  and worthy to make it past the gate-keepers. In this case, our family were the “heroes” and our gate-keepers were the passport control personnel preventing us from boarding the plane to Joburg. But we proved ourselves worthy and went on to have the “trip of a lifetime” in South Africa.

By the way, we had to eat the cost of our hotel room near the Joburg airport because of the extra night spent in Zurich. This also meant we had to drive to Kruger on the morning of our arrival instead of getting to rest up from our flight(s). Luckily, my husband had slept well everywhere (transit hotel and airplanes), which was a good thing because our “4 – 5 hour” drive to Kruger did not go as planned!

Lesson Learned – You MUST have copies of your children’s birth certificates along with their passports!

Two Days without Sleep, photo by Kate Gough

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