Three Customs officials, came to our car, started asking us where we were from and if we were here on business. We explained that we were on a safari all the way from South Africa. One officer explained South Africa to the others as “Waka Waka”. There was a quick search of our car, a dog sniff and with smiles we were welcomed to Georgia. We are still asking ourselves how did we end up in this small country in the Caucasus when we had never even thought about going this far north.
Our plan to enter Iran was completely different to the way it is turning out. While looking at the map and deciding on countries, we spoke much about going to Turkey but agreed that it was too far out of our planned route. But as our good friend Moulana Junaid Kajee always reminds us: “Things may not be going well in your plan but in Allah’s plan everything is going swimmingly well!”
And things were not going according to plan when we couldn’t drive our car in Saudi Arabia and then had to leave Jordan immediately after receiving it there. In Palestine, after mulling over our route for the next leg of our journey we realised that to go back to Jordan would be a dead end. So we looked at options and the only other country that was not at war and through which we could to get to Iran was Turkey.
A few emails and phone calls later, we had a shipping company that could ship our car, a customs agent to put it on the ship and a 30 day e-visa for Turkey that took all of 5 minutes to get and was free!
On 15 August 2015 we were in Istanbul, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our car to Istanbul.
Arrive it did, but 10 days late. This gave us an opportunity to spend some time exploring Istanbul and applying for our Iran visa. On the 3rd of September with the car in our possession and Iran visas in hand we started a slow drive east-ward along the southern coast line of Turkey towards Iran.
We still had 2 problems.
1. The delay in Istanbul meant that we would run out of our visa before exiting Turkey.
2. The Auto-mobile Association of South Africa (AASA) does not validate the Carnet de Passage for Iran.
After much research and visiting the Police Station and Department of Foreign Affairs we learnt that Turkey does not do visa extensions. We had to apply for a Short-term Residence Permit – called Ikamet. We completed forms and booked the interview in the city of Izmir.
In Izmir we were told that we cannot be given a 15 day residence permit, we should rather overstay our visa and pay the penalty at the border when exiting – problem number 1 resolved!
On the Carnet issue, research showed that it was both possible and impossible to get into Iran without a Carnet. We had no other option but to try entering Iran without a Carnet, hoping that we would be given an alternative option at the border.
Due to the political issues in Turkey only one border crossing out of three with Iran remained open. We were warned by many locals along our route that given the tense political climate, this border crossing was best avoided.
Other overland travellers we spoke to, were adamant that the crossing was far too difficult to get through and suggested we reroute via Georgia. Given that we were in violation of our visa period, as well as the impending end to our driving permit, we proceeded with uncertainty towards the much dreaded Dogubayazit border crossing.
On the 26th of September the alternative option provided by the Iranian customs officials and fixers or “companies” as they are called, was way too expensive for us and they expected us to drive across Iran to Pakistan in 10 days max. This after we had negotiated them up from their initial offer of just 3 days. After much discussion with Iranian customs, we decided to go back to Turkey.
We had previously read about a guy in Iran (www.overlandtoiran.com) used by most overlanders for Carnet services who could provide a Carnet for the period of the visa but only with entry from Armenia. We contacted him and he confirmed this option. Since Turkey and Armenia did not have an open border crossing, we would have to go through Georgia and being South Africans, we did not need visas for Georgia – Bonus!
We reapplied for Iranian visas, flew to Ankara for Pakistani visas, returned to Trabzon and started our journey to Georgia.
On 17 October we exited Turkey for the second time to enter the border control offices of Georgia. The border post looked like an airport terminal for passengers on foot and a high-tech toll plaza styled building for vehicles. The processes were quick and efficient and we were welcomed with smiles by Customs Officials and Police. One official even showed us the score of the latest rugby match between South Africa and Wales, which South Africa had won. More smiles and stamps and we’re in Georgia!