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. A defining Ron moment was when he looked out of the truck (or coach, as he insisted on calling it), as we were travelling through South Africa, and exclaimed, in the excited tone you might expect from a child spotting a farmyard animal or an aeroplane out of a car window, 'Look, there's a shanty town!' Ron is also inclined to shout (he's hard of hearing) and has a tendency, prevalent among the elderly, to make the most banal and unnecessary comments ('Ooh, this is nice, isn't it?') over and over again, and to focus obsessively on trivialities such as the temperature of food ('This isn't very hot, is it?). Occasionally, we were treated to an angry and irrational outburst about how expensive things are in Africa. Then there was Monique, early thirties, a Jamaican-born Canadian and follower of Louis Farrakhan. Monique lacks any sense of irony, and frowns on drinking alcohol and changing money at black-market rates. Abe, 61, is a pleasant, though possibly dirty, old man. One of the lowlights of the trip was being sandwiched on a sofa between Ron and Abe in a hotel lounge in Victoria Falls watching a softcore American teen movie. Abe kept remarking, in his southern-fried Texan drawl, 'God, isn't this awful?', but made no move to change channels.
Running parallel with the competition on the physical discomfort front was the award for who could indulge in the most dangerous extreme sport. I chose white-water rafting, despite being a weak swimmer and not liking to put my head under water, even in the bath. I was desperate to back out beforehand, especially during the safety talk (what to do if you get sucked down by a whirlpool), and considered throwing myself a short distance down the gorge to sustain an injury bad enough to enable me to withdraw with my dignity intact, but not bad enough to kill me or cause any permanent damage. Fortunately for me, a hapless Dutch girl in our raft managed to fall out twice, cutting her lip on her paddle in the process, before we'd even completed our practice manoeuvres at the beginning, and I am ashamed to say that I gained confidence at her expense.
All of us in the group swiftly reached the point when we became blasZ about spotting game - not another elephant -and chose instead to focus obsessively on what we hadn't seen (a leopard). We attempted to alleviate the boredom on game drives by coming up with well-who-would've-thought-it? facts, such as a giraffe (as well as having a 45-centimetre tongue) having the same number of vertebrae as a human being. Things livened up, though, when, in the course of a walking safari in Hlane national park, Swaziland, we stumbled across a disgruntled-looking white rhino. I would like to be able to say that, as we huddled together in a trembling mass, I stood my ground, but I am afraid I hung back in a semi-crouching position (it would have shown more backbone to have gone for the full-blown crouch, of course), quite prepared to use the group - and Ron, in particular - as a human shield in the event of a charge. Should you happen to find yourself in a similar situation, the appropriate course of action, so they say, is to run away, darting in a zigzag fashion (rhinos are acutely myopic), and make for the nearest tree.