Dom Joly: Heaven is... camping in the axis of evil

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The Independent Online

We've camped under a huge range of cliffs where I used to camp with my family as a kid. I'm here doing a programme called Excellent Adventures for Sky One with my best friend Pete, who lives in Newfoundland, retracing the steps of past expeditions made with my family. Today, I've been trying to find a little cave where I scratched my name back in 1975.

So far, we've stormed massive Crusader castles, discovered entire Roman towns in the middle of the desert and got hopelessly lost in the souks of Aleppo, all without seeing even a hint of a tourist; it's absolutely magical. But this incredibly beautiful country has a dark side. It's a police state and, despite the people here being among the friendliest on earth, there is an ever-present underlying tension. When we arrived at the Lebanese-Syrian border, we were told by the Syrian Embassy in London that there would be someone there to help us through the border negotiations - not an easy job when you've got a camera crew and equipment in tow. When we met our "fixer" he announced that he would be accompanying us on our entire trip through Syria. This was news to us, but we had no option, as we are technically journalists and thus not to be trusted to wander around the country on our own.

Our minder, Sham, whom we've named Jimmy after Jimmy Pursey, the leader singer of Sham 69, takes pictures of us everywhere we go. Outside every café, shop and restaurant, he insists we pose for a "memory photo". Every evening he disappears to email the photos to his bosses as well as to report on where we are staying and what we are up to.

We know this because he went absolutely mental when we announced that we were going to camp in the middle of the desert. When I really pushed him he admitted that he had to let Syrian intelligence know where we were staying and he couldn't simply say "in the middle of the desert". He was apparently worried about all the secret military bases that we might stumble across. I didn't have the heart to tell him about spy satellites and that the whole country had definitely been searched with a fine toothcomb and logged into some enormous American attack computer by now.

Also, Jimmy is a man who likes his creature comforts and the idea of a night under the stars clearly didn't appeal. He's not that brilliant at his job anyway. In Aleppo, after he insisted that we all come back to the hotel with him and his driver after supper, we did the old everyone-going-off-in-a different-direction manoeuvre, and he didn't know who to follow, so we got away and had a top night out.

If I'm really honest, having a government minder with us makes the whole adventure even more fun as we are constantly having to sneak out of places and always hiding our faces by raising our glasses every time he goes for a "memory photo". I think that Pete and I are secretly rather chuffed that either of us could be considered to be a subversive and a threat to the state. Obviously it's not quite so much fun for the poor unfortunates who have to live under such a repressive system day in, day out, but we are doing our bit to chip away at the state monolith.

So here I lie, snug in my little tent, with Jimmy miles away in town, and my Ray Mears-inspired fire burning brightly in front of me. Below me the whole desert plateau is lit up by surreally glorious moonlight, the air is full of the sound of cicadas and the occasional owl, and rich with the odour of the apple-flavoured nargileh that Pete is sucking on. As I send this by the power of Bluetooth, it's one of life's rare moments of perfect bliss. Camping in the axis of evil: pure heaven - who'd have thought it?

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