Smuggling lettuce and apples

If you wanted a fresh lettuce in Swaziland in 1981 you had to either grow it in your own garden or smuggle it in. The Kingdom of Swaziland, a small landlocked country sandwiched between Mozambique and South Africa was alarmed by the outbreak of cholera in neighbouring South Africa. So steps were taken. Vaccinations were obligatory (and they hurt) and the import of fresh fruit and vegetables from neighbouring South Africa was banned.

All good steps I guess – that is if everyone follows the rules. But they don’t and so the frequent shopping trips to Johannesburg, South Africa turned into smuggling trips with people coming back with lettuces under the seats and apples hidden in handbags.

It makes me laugh now when I watch Border Patrol and I see those confiscated foods taken out of suitcases while the “smuggler” stands by managing to look amazed and puzzled at the same time. Why? I can’t bring in bags of dried fish? It’s just like fish jerky – try some. It’s good.

One trip back from Johannesburg I had fallen by the wayside and let temptation rule as I bought a big bag of Granny Smiths apples. Oh they were so green and crisp looking and I knew I could make them last a while in a cool dark cupboard spread out on newspaper – not touching each other. This was a trick I had learnt as a child in Somerset, England, when Mom and Dad would take us out to pick apples to supplement their income. Part of the deal was that we could take as many apples back to our house as we could carry and so we cleared out the linen cupboard and carefully lined up all the apples – not touching. We had apples for months – albeit a little wrinkled.

But wait – what happened about the apples I bought in Johannesburg? As we drew close to the border I got a little worried. This was a big bag of apples and I didn’t want them to be “confiscated” – we all know what that means. I got my husband to pull over to the side of the road and tucked the bag under the inside lid of the bonnet (OK you guys call it hood – we are all on the same page here). Then we drove for 2-3 minutes till we got to the border at Oshoek – this is the main border post between Johannesburg and Mbabane, the town in Swaziland where we lived. Just another 30 minutes from the border and we would be home.

Cleared customs and immigration fine – the plan was to go a little bit down the road and then whip out the apples from the hood and homeward bound.

Not so fast!

Ya Wena ” (hey you in Siswati!) – running up to the car comes one of the border officers and my heart stopped beating.

Yes – we said (smiling) rolling down the window.

“Please baas – give me a lift to town”.

What could we say. He climbed in the back gratefully and we drove for 30 minutes into the middle of Mbabane town where we dropped him off as he waved and shouted “Siyabonga” (thank you in Siswati) and “Hamba kahle” (goodbye).

That night we had stewed apples for dinner – it was heavenly!

By Lesley Keyter

Lesley Keyter is the face of travel in the fast growing city of Calgary. Every week since 1997 she has has featured live on the Morning News Global TV.


  1. Lol!! Oh Lesley that was a great story! I thought you were going to say the motor made the apples get so hot they exploded and/or stopped the engine from running. That would have made for some big trouble! So glad you were able to enjoy them, even if they weren’t quite as crisp as planned! (;


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