‚Surely we won’t be bothering anybody if we set up camp for the night in this deserted area?‘ we think, settling down in an enchanted forest. Turns out we’re in for quite a night.
It’s early afternoon. The sun is blazing mercilessly down on us as we sit in a queue of vehicles that in Germany would probably fail their MOTs. We’re at the Bosnian–Croatian border. This is undoubtedly the most impressive border we’ve come across so far. Beside the four-lane checkpoint are various buildings which, taken together, are at least the area of two football pitches.
The attentive reader will note that we are trying to enter the EU.
Unfortunately, at this particular moment we haven’t quite cottoned on to that yet, so it hasn’t occurred to us that this crossing might be a bit more complicated than the others. Oblivious, we get together our passports and vehicle documentation in the usual manner. Three quarters of an hour later we reach the first checkpoint. A somewhat stout, pallid woman is just visible behind a gap in the window. You can see from the slouching way she carries herself how much she loves her job: chewing gum, staring through the glass, she reaches out a listless arm and whispers in an almost reverent tone: ‘passports and vehicle documents please.’ Plastering a smile on his face, Robin cheerfully hands her the passports through the gap. ‘Yes, ma’am. We are four people. You’ll find the trailer documents in …’ ‘Okay … guys, please park your car here to the right.’
We need to check your car – custom control.
This is nothing new. Up to now we’ve pretty much always had to remove the tarp from the trailer and open the hatch. No problem, we thought. Big mistake …
So we drive the jeep a few metres further, up to the actual border, parking by a small building with the sign ‘Police 01 Custom Control’. We’re quickly surrounded by about ten uniformed officers. A young, dark-haired, bearded man with a broad chest approaches us and asks us to get out. He asks whether we’re carrying any drugs or weapons – a question we can, in all good conscience, answer in the negative. Or so we thought.
In an admonishing tone, the officer explains: ‘Do you see those lights there right before the little cabin where you showed your passports? This machine scans your car for drugs and other liquids. After you passed, it showed a red light, meaning that it found drugs.’
In that moment, when the guy claimed that our vehicle had been scanned, it dawned on us what game they were playing.
Painstakingly, they proceed to take the entire vehicle apart. Every tiny object is removed. Every floor mat and every piece of interior trim is searched. Every pair of underpants and every worn T-shirt is examined, and every crack in the car scanned. This process takes several hours, and in the end they have a list as long as your arm of infractions we’d apparently committed by trying to enter the EU.
Espionage, because we have camera equipment and a drone.
Importing weapons, because we have cutlery and pocket knives.
Importing weapons, because we have two cans of pepper spray.
Planning a bank robbery, because we have animal masks.
Threateningly, they inform us that the mere number of offences would be enough to ensure a custodial sentence in Croatia, explaining that Croatian law is somewhat stricter than the European guidelines when it comes to weapons legislation. They show us a variety of legal documents in Croatian, occasionally mentioning how we might mitigate things but threatening us throughout with fines in the tens of thousands and eventually announcing that they have to withdraw to determine our sentence. Would we be so kind as to wait a moment? They are intimidating us. And it works. Not because we think we’ve done anything wrong. We are especially sure of that as we know, for instance, that you’re not allowed to bring more than twenty litres of diesel in external cans into the EU, yet our two full ten-litre tanks are the only containers they didn’t open during the search. So we don’t seriously believe we are going to get a custodial sentence or a high fine. But we also know that we are absolutely at the mercy of their whims, and in the end we’ll have to submit to that.
Hardly an hour has passed before the officials emerge from the building with a small, white piece of paper to run through our ‘offences’. Without having to do too much convincing, we are ‘acquitted’ of most of the ‘crimes’ after a brief discussion and various counterclaims. On one point, however, the gentlemen are immovable:
We have to surrender our kitchen knives and pay a 150-euro fine for each can of pepper spray.
It is clear that we weren’t going to dodge this one, so we pay up. Gritting his teeth, Lucas hands over the money, having to take cash out from the ATM at the checkpoint, evidently installed for that exact purpose.
We weren’t paying for the pepper spray or the knives. All the other camper vans would have had more knives than we did, and our pepper spray wasn’t even real, but the harmless, five-euro kind you can order off Amazon, which is freely available in Germany.
We chalked up those three hundred euros to learning the hard way, deciding to view the money as an investment in a story we’d never forget. When you put it like that, it seems cheap at the price. Hi, Croatia! Thanks for making us feel welcome!
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