Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

I can't imagine why people claim to enjoy camping. Before the trip - a six-week overland slog through southern Africa - I joked with friends about how impractical and ill-suited to the Outward Bound lifestyle I am; how I'm never knowingly more than six feet from a make-up bag, and am incapable of assembling, with full instructions, the contents of a Kinder egg (more general jocularity). But I wasn't laughing as I wrestled, feeble-beamed torch wedged between jaw and shoulder, with unco-operative tent pegs in the pitch-black, improbably freezing African early mornings, with weak fingers and a weak will. Sleep deprivation made it worse. I averaged a few hours' broken sleep a night, as it was more or less impossible to find a position that was comfortable for more than 15 minutes at a time: my sleeping mattress, bought in haste, turned out to be about half the length of my body, and my sleeping bag, although it makes extravagant claims to the contrary, provided little protection against the intense cold. Night after sleep-free night I lay swathed in up to six layers on the upper body, four on the legs and feet, and a hat and gloves. I wore so many clothes that I could hardly move, which enhanced the claustrophobia that I already felt whenever I was in the tent. Despite persistent efforts to find a level piece of ground, my tent was inevitably pitched at an angle so that the blood rushed to my head and I feared that, in the unlikely event of my ever getting to sleep, I might never wake up. And, once I'd actually managed to dismantle the tent every morning, there was the humiliation of having to carry it to the truck. The only way I could lift it was by accompanying the manoeuvre with a roar of exertion reminiscent of an Olympic weight-lifter. The final crack-of-dawn ordeal was rolling up the self-inflating sleeping mattress and getting it back into its small and badly designed bag before it spontaneously reinflated itself. I didn't improve with practice and, ever present at the back of my mind, as I cursed and struggled, was the fear of holding up the Group. We had been warned by the trip leader that delaying the group might lead to unpopularity. Other members of the group seemed to take great pleasure in pushing themselves to the limits of physical endurance, and so it was with a sense of acute shame that, whenever the trip leader asked if anyone wanted to go for the 'upgrade option'- i.e., a hotel - I raised a sheepish hand and said with a hoarse whisper, 'I do.'

Ingratiating oneself with one's fellow passengers is one of the more exhausting aspects of group travel, but it is crucial. Some members of the group require more effort than others; for example, Ron, from the West Midlands. A physically sprightly 68, Ron had a less nuanced approach to Africa than the delegates who were soon to descend on Johannesburg for the Earth Summit. (The summit was the only news story that filtered through to our group; wars and rumours of wars passed us by. It was a bit unnerving, now that I look back on it.) At any rate, the only sustainable development that concerned him was his own. Ron fancies himself as a bit of a ladies' man (hobbies: ballroom dancing/going on cruises); he is highly skilled in the art of the boring monologue, has toxic breath, and is helpful, but aggressively so. …

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