Day 303: 16/01/2020
Miles Driven: 170
Crossing the border from Malaysia into Singapore was an unexpected fiasco. Getting non-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) vehicles into Singapore requires preemptive research and money. We had done the research and paid the money, so we thought we were prepared enough to warrant a straightforward crossing. We were wrong.
The Woodlands Checkpoint border crossing is extremely busy with over 350,000 people crossing every single day. We followed the signs and joined the long queue in the narrow lane for cars. We crawled around the corner to see a 2.4 metre height restriction sign. Natalie is 2.4 metres. With hundreds of cars behind us and no space for turning around, we had no choice but to drive under the sign and hope that they had accounted for a few centimetres leeway.
We drove to the passport control booth and the border guards noticed our height. “You cannot drive through here, you are too tall, didn’t you see the sign”. Mentally rolling our eyes, we explained how the sign is positioned after the point of no return rather than before, so by the time we knew that we were too tall, we couldn’t go back. We asked where we should go instead. “You cannot drive through here, you are too tall, you will damage the overhead cameras. You shouldn’t have come this way, you should have followed the signs”.
Five minutes later we hadn’t moved and had not been directed to a taller lane. The border guards had only been able to come up with the not so helpful suggestion that we remove our 120kg roof tent and roof rack and carry it across to the other side of the border so that the car would fit. At this point, we didn’t actually know whether or not we would fit under the cameras, as we weren’t close enough to them to know for sure. Chris asked if we could drive closer to see whether we’d fit. “No you are too tall, you will damage the overhead cameras. You will have to pay for any damage you cause”. Another ten or so minutes later, after telling multiple different staff that taking off our roof rack/tent would take several hours and many people, and promising that we would stop the car before driving into any of the cameras, we convinced them to let us try and drive under the cameras. Low and behold, we fitted, with at least 10 centimetres to spare – all that fuss for nothing!
Now through passport control, we arrived at customs and Chris was taken into a room to hand over the insurance paperwork. He explained that we had organised (but did not have in our hands) the required documents, and that we needed to collect them from AA Singapore’s office. We had been hoping that this would either be sufficient to let us and the car into the country so that we could collect them, or that we could leave the car parked up at customs, go and collect the paperwork and then come back for the car.
The customs officers were happy for us to go and collect the paperwork, however they did not own the land that our car was parked on, and had a 20 minute time limit to process each vehicle that came through. They spent over two hours on numerous phone calls trying to negotiate whether we could leave the car parked whilst we collected the paperwork from AA Singapore. Throughout this whole time, the car was parked in the place with the “20 minute limit”. Had we just been able to go to AA Singapore straight away, we would have already been there, back and have left by now.
Finally we got an answer. We were not allowed to leave Natalie at the customs office whilst we collected the insurance paperwork. It had now been more than three hours since we first arrived at the border. My parents and I were allowed to walk into Singapore, however Chris had to drive back into Malaysia. I then had to go and collect the paperwork from the AA Singapore office, cross back into Malaysia, meet Chris, and then we could both drive back out of Malaysia and into Singapore.
Chris was directed back to the Malaysian side of the border. Once again filtered into the car lane, with no alternatives, he was faced with a height restriction. This time 2.1 metres. Knowing that if he hesitated the border guards would start the same charade that we had already been through on the Singapore side earlier, Chris drove on. Passport checked, Chris reached the 2.1 metre high barrier. To get through the barrier you had to pay a fee using the road toll card. We had the card, but as we hadn’t known about this fee, we’d not put any cash on it before leaving Malaysia and we didn’t have enough money on the card to pay the 3 ringgit (£0.59 GBP) toll fee. Chris tried the card, which obviously didn’t work, and then pressed the help button and explained the situation. “Sir you must top up your road toll card” “OK, where can I top it up?” “You can top up your card in Malaysia”. He could not get through the barrier without topping up the card, but the only place he could top up the card was the other side of the barrier.
Chris walked down the long row of cars behind him, asking if he could use their road toll card to pay the fee. Even though none of them could move forwards until Chris had gone through the barrier, person after person claimed that they did not have enough money on their card to pay Chris’ £0.59 fee. The driver of the sixth car in the queue took pity on him (or maybe was just fed up of waiting) and paid it, refusing to accept Chris’ offer of the cash because the amount was so insignificant it wasn’t worth taking. The barrier opened. Chris, with skills only previously witnessed during the Knight Bus scenes in Harry Potter, somehow managed to drive Natalie at an angle that meant she did not hit the extremely low hanging cameras. He made it through and now back in Malaysia, all he could do was wait for my return.
Meanwhile, my parents and I entered Singapore and got a taxi to the AA Singapore office. My parents, having had quite enough of the “overlanding experience” for one day, left to check into the hotel and to make sure that when we did eventually get there we would have somewhere to park. Collecting the paperwork was simple, and within 20 minutes I was getting into another taxi heading back to the border. Leaving the taxi, I followed the numerous signs for the pedestrian border crossing, all the way across the mile long causeway until I reached the Malaysian side of the border and a large sign that said no entry to pedestrians. I turned around and it started to rain.
I walked about a third of the way back and then amazingly, a wonderful, brilliant and extremely kind couple rolled down their window and shouted over to me, asking if I wanted a lift across the border. I jumped in, so grateful to them that I did not have to walk all the way back and try and find another way to get across. Chris was waiting for me at the other side of the border, and we got back into Natalie ready to make a second attempt.
This time we drove through the van/lorry lane, which led to another set of problems that could fill up another lengthy blog post. It was now six hours since we had initially arrived at the Malaysia/Singapore border and our patience had run thin. Another hour or so and several strongly worded conversations later, we were permitted entry into Singapore.
Despite our tiring day, and our longest border crossing yet, when we finally were able to drive out of the border area into Singapore, it is hard to describe how happy, relieved, and overwhelmed we felt. We had done it. We had driven our 18 year old Land Rover Discovery II 18,165 miles across 20 countries from England to Singapore. A lifetime of planning, two years of saving money, ten months of driving, and here we finally were.
63 years earlier, six men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities were the first ever people to complete this journey. Reading about the original journey compared to our own, many aspects were unimaginably different. Unlike our predecessors, at no point did we have to hack our way through the jungle, ford through rivers, or meet people who had never seen a car before. More surprisingly though, is how much of their journey and experiences were so similar to our own. And so, rather than attempt to write my own version of the moment in which we finally drove into Singapore, I shall borrow the words of Tim Slessor that perfectly match our own thoughts and feelings 63 years later:
As the Land Rovers sped over the mile-long causeway the journey was almost over. The crossing of that causeway was a moment we had talked about in our Cambridge rooms before we left England, nearly a year earlier. It was a moment which we had talked about throughout the journey – sometimes hopefully, and sometimes as if it were on the other side of the world. And, after all, in the early stages it was on the other side of the world. But now it was right underneath us, rolling away under the tyres as if there had never been any doubt about it at all…
We had reached the far end of Asia, and, by land, we could go no farther. As an American journalist opined, “I guess you boys have run plumb outta road.” We guessed we had.
And it was most satisfactory.The First Overland, 1957