End of story

I once went on one of those overland expeditions. Nairobi to London via Timbuktu. Twenty-two of us crammed in the back of an army truck driven by a muscle-bound, Pom-hating Australian surfie called Rod. It took five months.

We hadn't gone far when I caught amoebic dysentery and ran out of toilet paper. Too proud to borrow from my fellow tourists, I resorted to using pages torn from Shiva Naipaul's excellent travel book, North of South. When I reached the end of the book I used leaves; and on the Serengeti Plains smooth stones, twigs, and handy pieces of desiccated elephant dung. By the time we reached the windy shore of Lake Victoria the dysentery had ceased, but unsurprisingly I had an enormous abscess on the rim of my anus. Probing with my finger tips, it felt about the size of a championship- winning conker. And it hurt, too. It got to the stage where I could barely walk.

Rod was unsympathetic, "Bloody whinging Pom faggot," he said. But he did grudgingly offer to have a look at it for me in order to ascertain whether it showed any signs of bursting.

We were camped among some attractive pink boulders. I led Rod behind one of these, dropped my shorts and bent over. He peered at my behind.

"Mate," he said seriously, "do you think you could part your cheeks a bit?"

I parted my cheeks.

Judging from his response it was the first time that Rod had ever been impressed by any attribute of an Englishman.

"Jeez!" he exclaimed, "D'you mind if I get a photo of that to show the boys back home?" And without waiting for an answer he hurried off to get his camera.

That night Rod generously offered to perform some no-nonsense bush medicine on my abscess. When the guys back home in the bush get an abscess, Rod said, they heat an old milk bottle in the campfire, "get it good 'n' hot," then place the open end of the bottle over the abscess to let the vacuum draw out the poison.

"All things considered," I told Rod, "I think I'd prefer to let the thing run its course."

The abscess burst in Rwanda. I kept the hole clean by sitting in a plastic bowl of diluted Dettol every evening while the others set up camp. I must have presented a puzzling spectacle to the hundreds of locals who turned out to stare at us as part of their evening's entertainment.

In eastern Zaire I was sitting like this, on the ground, shorts around my ankles, bum in the washing-up bowl, when a tiny, malnourished boy stepped forward from the crowd and presented me with a handful of marijuana. The ceremonious manner in which he handed it over suggested that he had identified me as the chief, and that it was a small token of his esteem. In exchange for the marijuana I gave him a banana, which he seemed well pleased with. For my part it was the best drugs deal I have ever done.

Unlike many overlanders, smoking the local dope was low on our truck's agenda. Rod was against it for one thing (it was unmanly) - though he wasn't bigoted about it. But eastern Zaire's marijuana is the stuff of legend, and some of us thought we would be silly not to give it a try. So that night, when Rod had gone to sleep under the truck, I rolled the marijuana in a grubby 10 million Zaire banknote, and set light to the end. Including Marcel, the armed guard, there were four partakers perched around the camp fire.

The joint went round only once. After that it was abandoned and we just sat there in the firelight as if we had been turned to stone. Even Marcel refused it a second time. His feeble gesture of refusal suggested awe, fear and utter weariness. I just sat there like a gonk. If someone had asked me who I was, I would not have been able to tell them. My main concern, as I remember, was whether my head was going to fall off.

Eventually I got down on my hands and knees and crawled into the darkness, hoping to find somewhere private to die. About six hours and 18 inches later, I came upon a sleeping bag laid out on the ground. When I tried to climb in, I found myself on top of Rod, who told me, among other things, how much he hated the English.

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