Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Back-fire of a life-time, by Thomas George Stanley Denner. (Border crossing Greece to Macedonia)

It was a grey and overcast day as we approached the Macedonian border near the town of Florina. The drive from the previous night's camp site was fairly uneventful, as was the mostly flat, green agricultural land we were now passing through. Around 1:30, the Greek customs/immigration terminal emerged in the distance, and just behind that, a Macedonian flag. Exiting Greece was no problem whatsoever; a cursory glance through our passports and vehicle documents, before stamping us out of the country. This is the type crossing we've come to enjoy in Europe, quick and painless. This one however was about to come to a grinding halt.

We continued on through no-man's land to the Macedonian terminal. The official in the booth asked us for passports and vehicle documentation as per usual, which we obligingly handed over. He sifted through our passports checking names and faces, pausing a moment longer as he tried to reconcile my 16yr old passport photo with the now slightly more mature looking bearded face in front of him. Content with who we were, he then moved on to the vehicle documents, and here we ran into a problem. It is compulsory in Macedonia, as it is in most countries in this part of the world, to have vehicle insurance, usually documented by the infamous “green card”. Greece had allowed us to pass into their country with our original insurance documents from Malaysia, but after much debate the Macedonian officials made it clear that unless we had a green card, we would have to buy insurance from the border.

We had anticipated this might be a problem, and begrudgingly accepted we would just have to pay the 55 Euros to enter the country. There was a slight problem though: none of us had anticipated it enough to bring Euros. We had in fact all deliberately spent our remaining cash on gas, petrol and other assorted non perishables in preparation for the next few countries which were not on the Euro, so as not to have extra money just floating around. Of course they didn't take card so we asked the head official if there was a Bankomat anywhere in the vicinity. He replied that there was nothing on the Macedonian side, but possibly at the service station just before the border on the Greek side. Someone was going to have to run back across the border and get some money, and the logical choice was someone with an EU passport.

I walked back across no-man's land and through the Greek border, asking about the closest Bankomat on the way. The officials on the Greek side were pretty sure the closest one was actually in Florina, 18 km away, and sure enough, the service station attendant said the same thing. This changed things slightly, but the fact remained we still needed the money, so I would have to go to Florina. I considered going back across the border again to tell everyone what I was doing, but I realised it had already taken about 20 minutes just to get to here, and if I did it would mean crossing through Greek immigration a total of five times in one day, which might raise an eyebrow. Alternately, if I go now I'll probably be back in about 45 min-1 hour. A little longer than expected, but cash in hand, and problem solved.

I decided to go for it, and began to head up the road to Florina. The third car which passed me pulled over. It was an elderly Greek couple in a tired looking blue hatch-back. Neither of them spoke a word of English, but “Florina” they understood and beckoned me to take a seat in the back. I began thinking how well everything was going; five minutes and I've already got a lift. Then we turned off the main road to Florina, and I started to worry again. I said Florina again a few more times to the driver, and indicated to myself to ensure I was getting the point across. He seemed to understand well enough so I hoped it was just an alternate route. If it wasn't I was going to end up in a village somewhere far away from Florina or the border, and that would make things very very difficult.

The fact that I knew no Greek, and this couple knew no English was only a very mild dampener on conversation. The co-pilot in particular sat herself half swivelled in the passenger seat to face me, providing a continuous verbal stream, regardless of my mostly non-committal “sorry, I don't understand”answers. We did however manage to establish that I was Australian (which judging by the response was pretty exciting), and that they had some family in Melbourne. I also managed to establish that this couple (or rather this man) had been driving for about 12hours or so already. Not an unimpressive achievement for an 80something year old, if slightly worrying.

The “conversation” continued, as the car swerved from one side of the road to the other, using its entire width to try to avoid the potholes in one of Greece's less well maintained roads. We sped through farmland and country villages, until finally a great sense of relief washed over me. We had just passed a sign telling us we were entering Florina, and as we rounded the corner at top speed, the town appeared before us. The couple drove through the centre of town, and I asked them to stop and let me out. At this point they started asking me quite excitedly if I'd like to continue to Thessaloniki. I had to decline several times as politely as possible before I could exit the car. The disappointment printed on their faces made me feel guilty enough to momentarily consider getting back in the car, but common sense quickly gave me a slap in the back of the head. I thanked them for the lift, and waved them on their way. Conveniently I happened to be standing right next to a bankomat, so withdrew sufficient funds to cover the insurance. So far so good, now I just needed a lift back to the border, and we could be on our way.

I walked to the main road out of town heading to the Macedonian border, and started trying to hail cars. Initially I had quite a few people stop for me, but unfortunately they were all headed to a football match which also happened to be about a km down this road. I continued on, thinking it might be easier to get a lift once I was past the football stadium, but once I was out of the football traffic no one was stopping for me at all. After being picked up so quickly the first time, I really thought it wouldn't take me more than 20-30 minutes to get a lift, but it was getting on for an hour now. To make things worse I had no way of contacting any of my fellow travellers at the border, who were still under the impression that I was just popping over to the service station, and to top it off it was beginning to rain.

I continued walking for what was starting to seem like ages. Traffic was regularly passing, but still no one was stopping. It began to dawn on me that I might actually be walking the whole 18km back., and maybe this wasn't the fantastic idea that I had thought it was. I stopped at a garage in the middle of seemingly nowhere to see if there was anyone who could help in any way, shape or form, but the door was firmly locked, and there was no one there. Back to the road then.

I remember at some point being told the average walking speed of a person on flat ground is about 3km/h, so I started doing the maths in my head. It was going to take me about 6 hours to walk back, by which time the border will probably have closed, which meant that we will be stuck here tonight, which meant that this would be hands down the longest crossing so far, and I will be dealing with some some very unhappy travellers. Then coming toward me from the distance I noticed a car. Just a silhouette in the fading light at this distance,but by now an all too familiar shape. The box-like front profile perched on its wheelbase high above the road. Two square, slightly yellowing headlights, shining over a slightly lopsided front bumper, care of a scooter in Thailand. Finally the unmistakable roof box & spare tyre combination, perched like a tactical tiara over the roof of the vehicle. After two hours of waiting, Ben and Eils had finally given up and taken Trev to come and look for me, while Tom and Courtney were waiting in no-man's land, just in case I managed to make it back undetected.

After waiting for so long they'd finally gone and asked the border guards themselves and discovering that the closest bankomat was 18 km away, had decided to begin the rescue mission. As we headed back to the border I explained how it had gone so well, and then so wrong. We exited Greece (again), collected Tom and Courtney, bought the insurance and entered Macedonia. A ten minute border crossing had taken three hours, but we had finally made it through.  


  1. If you are still uncertain about this process then its probably a better idea to go down to your local mechanic or car body shop and offer one of the lads 20 pounds to fit the Number platesfor you. It should only take him half an hour and you will probably find that he will supply any new plastic caps or screws that may be required..

  2. Love the stories, keep them coming. Glad you guys got through in the end! sounds like a bit of a repair work job.