I arrived on a night flight from Johannesburg. I was vaguely aware that the Aussies are quite strict on what is bought into the country, so I had diligently asked the check-in clerk at Johannesburg what the rules were. She had seemed totally unaware of any restrictions and brushed aside my concerns. Lesson number 1 : Never trust customs information provided at a foreign airport. They don’t know and don’t care.
So I settled down for the long flight and forgot about it. I failed to get a wink of sleep until, it seems, they put on the Customs and Immigration video, at which point I must have gone out like a light. So on arrival at Perth, I proceeded sleepily through Immigration, blissfully oblivious of the regulations. I proffered my 3 month holiday visa and waited while they did the usual quick inspection of my passport. The customs official was taking ages over it, looking increasingly uneasy, and finally announced that I didn’t show ‘sufficient likeness’ to my photo (surely that should be the other way round?) I would have to be seen by a ‘facial specialist’ or some such jargon. I was in such a tiredness-induced daze that I don’t actually remember this person at all, I just wanted it to be over and to go to bed.
What I do remember is emerging from this ‘inspection’ and becoming aware of being followed towards the baggage reclaim area by someone else. He trailed alongside me asking my reasons for entering Australia, without actually asking me to stop, which I found very unnerving. It did cross my mind whether he was a weirdo stalking me or a real official. Probably best to err on the side of caution, given the photo fiasco, so I stopped and waffled about my travels. He demanded to see written confirmation of onward flights and any hostel bookings I had in Australia, and quizzed me incessantly on my precise route around the country. Lucky I had been organised and had printed copies of everything. Unbelievably, he then asked me to repeat my route, clearly trying to catch me out. He even asked what I did in the UK, why I left, and what I was going to do when I went back. None of your sodding business, I was tempted to say, and why the hell would I want to stay in this country anyway? But thankfully I decided against it. Lesson number 2: always have print outs of onward flight information and travel plans. Essential at South American borders too.
Finally he let me go. I breathed a sigh of relief as I spotted my backpack on the carousel, and went to haul it off. Unfortunately someone else seemed to have spotted it too – a very cute, waggy-tailed sniffer dog. His rotund owner made a beeline for me while the dog tenaciously mauled my bag at my feet. I was beyond caring that everyone was staring at the commotion, and desperately tried to think what possible contraband I could be carrying. With a thumping heart, I remembered my emergency packet of biscuits. I told the dog handler, and started to hunt around for the wretched things with a wet-nosed helper slobbering over my hand. Please don’t let there be any other stray snacks, I thought. It’s not unknown for loose sultanas to make a mysterious appearance in the bottom of my bags. I became aware of her asking me if there was anything else to declare, to which I replied no.
Mistake. I should have known from my track record in the packing department that I was rarely in a position to itemise everything in my backpack. Frankly it gets a little out of control at times. I triumphantly located a plastic bag containing the biscuits. She took it from me, delved her hand into it, and to my horror produced – in surreal slow motion – an apple. I was agog. It took a good two minutes to dimly remember shoving the apple into my bag in South Africa, thinking what a useful snack that would be. The dog got a biscuit (not one of my quarantined ones) and a pat on its smug head.
The guard adopted a more official tone, as if she was reading a legal document, and pronounced that I had failed to answer her question truthfully. I made pitiful protests that I was tired and had totally forgotten about the apple. Inwardly cursing my stupidity, I had another nasty recollection. A Tupperware container harbouring remnants of a nice tuna salad, in the bottom of my backpack. In fact, that was probably what the dog had smelt. Oh God, and a shell from a South African beach. I stopped thinking in case other things popped up. Bizarrely, she wasn’t very interested in the tuna when I sheepishly drew it from my bag, although it turned the dog psychotic. Lesson number 3: think carefully what is in your backpack before flying anywhere. I dearly hoped I would take this lesson to heart before my next flight.
Back to the apple. “This is from England?” Uh oh. “Africa.” Suddenly I had a hysterical urge to laugh, but managed to contain myself as walkie-talkies appeared, a supervisor was summoned and the apple inquisition stepped up a gear. I don’t know what they expected me to say, so I continued my pleas that I had asked at Johannesburg and they hadn’t informed me correctly, I had slept through the Customs video (not that I wished to imply it was boring or anything) and had done nothing on purpose. Finally they let me off the huge fine but gave me a long, overly loud lecture on protecting the precious and pure Australian environment.
So I walked out of Perth airport, my backpack a little lighter and clasping a humiliating souvenir – an official written warning from Customs. Welcome to Australia.