Travel: Trapped in a truck in Africa

Nine weeks travelling overland to Cape Town from Nairobi should have been the trip of a lifetime. But for Caroline Synge, it turned out to be a bit of nightmare

Two weeks into a nine-week overland trip through Africa, I began to panic. "Get me off this truck!" I scratched onto the airmail letter I was writing. Perched inside a 9m-long Mercedes-Benz truck with 22 strangers, I was trying to endure another giggling fit from silly Sally, a 31-year- old fellow passenger who had, it seemed, never been away from home. She had taken off her T-shirt and was sitting in her bra, enjoying the proximity of the Danish boy on her right. Had I been a tad optimistic when I booked myself onto this trip?

I was travelling with a company called Exodus through Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, starting in Nairobi and ending in Cape Town. That night, we arrived near the border of Tanzania and Malawi, and it was the turn of my "cook group" to brew up the noodles and vegetables we had bought in local markets that day: relief from exhaustion and backache.

It was like that, this trip - up and down. In normal life you can walk away from irritating company once you have had enough of it. But on an overland truck there is nowhere to go. For 24 hours a day, week after week, you are with the same people: driving together, cooking together, sightseeing together, even sleeping together (sharing a tent that is).

One solution was to get out of the group as often as possible - a couple of nights at a hostel or hotel, or just a meal out with less than 20 people. But unspoken rules still lay beneath any actions. One night we had arrived at a campsite in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and another girl, Sabrina, and I decided we needed a break. We told the cook group there'd be two less for dinner. Sally was not happy: "What about the cooks, how do you think they feel?" "We're on holiday, not on an army training course," we replied. We went, but unasked questions hovered on our return.

We were a mixed bunch, comprising Britons, Danes and Australians aged between 18 and 54. Other than quite a few people who had escaped from office life for the first time in years, personalities included an 18- year-old North Londoner on time out before university, a raucous social worker from Lincolnshire, a Scottish engineer who had spent the last 17 years working on oil rigs, and a policeman and his girlfriend - a designer - who were at the beginning of a two-year trip.

The 18-year-old was absent-minded but excellent company, and ended up being my second tent partner. She would come in at 2am while I slept, and then snore in an alcohol-induced haze at 7am while I rose. The engineer once saved me from near-death after I went walking in the Fish River Canyon in Namibia in 45C heat. The social worker, on the other hand - I ended up wishing she was dead, which was a shame, as we had both thought we would end up bosom buddies. The couple caused resentments as they sat on the best seats in the truck every day, but I rather admired them. "If we're still together at the end, I'll marry him," said Geraldine the designer.

The beginning of the trip was on a par with freshers' week at university and some people never lost that initial urge to drink themselves into a stupor and fabricate romantic situations with other truck passengers. Had anyone got off with anyone yet? Why not? What about the other trucks from other companies - maybe our Derek would go for that blonde? In fact one girl (the social worker) had sex with one boy (the Dane) on a beach by Lake Malawi, but in general, our truck was not the "nooky bus" some people wanted it to be, apart from a fumble between one of the leaders and an Australian girl, a kiss between yours truly and the engineer in Cape Town, and a doomed liaison between Sabrina and a management consultant.

Five weeks into the trip, seven people left and seven new people joined, which for me offered a welcome influx of new and older people - but which for others signified an alien intrusion. Christopher, an eccentric 40- year-old Belgian with a liking for vodka, was a case in point. "Why are we here?" he scoffed as we unloaded at a Penguin colony in South Africa. "To see the penguins," I replied. "Penguins, penguins!" he babbled. "I hate camping, and all of this!" Another newcomer was Sean, a chatty 54- year-old Irishman, who got off on the wrong footing with a girl called Gail who kept dumping his loose possessions outside the truck during the dreaded daily Truck Clean. "The stupid cow! She was a fascist in a former life!" Another day, another row.

I can't say there were no good moments. There were times when the group camaraderie was genuine, particularly during life-risking diversions such as bungee jumping, white-water rafting, bareback horse-riding and quadbiking. I remember a water fight on Christmas Eve in Namibia's Etosha National Park, when we ended up in the swimming-pool at midnight fully clothed, singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and holding hands. This was then rather spoilt by the fact that we had to decorate a shrub from the Namibian desert and hang tinsel in the truck.

Had I been a novice, this might have been a good way for me to put my toe in the water. It was also extremely cheap - at pounds 145 for three meals a day for nine weeks, the food kitty represented about 80p per meal.

But how much of the "real" Africa did I see? I learnt about the human need to chat, I questioned whether my empty head was a sign of total relaxation or total boredom, and by the end of the trip I was tormented by the question of whether we were extremely interesting or extremely dull people. But about Africa I remain unsure.

OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA

GETTING THERE

Caroline Synge paid pounds 1,930 for her trip from Kenya to the Cape with Exodus Overland Expeditions (tel: 0181-675 5550) - this year the price is pounds 1,850. This does not include flights to or from the UK - Exodus can arrange these for you (into Nairobi and out of Cape Town) from around pounds 520 depending on exact dates. The food kitty is pounds 145 per person.

Extra activities are not included: for example bungee jumping costs $90 (pounds 57), white-water rafting $95 and quadbiking $50. Allow around pounds 150 for relevant visas and vaccinations and pounds 60 a week for general spending.

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