What 'real' travellers are not supposed to admit

It's like eating McDonald's or listening to Bon Jovi: you're not supposed to admit you like going on tours.

Especially not if you're a traveller. Tourists might lower themselves to the old fortnight on a bus but travellers? We know better.

We know you can't say you've "done" a country if you've only seen it from the window of a bus. We know 14 countries in 21 days is a ridiculous notion.

Don't we? Actually, I'm not so sure.

I've been reading Dark Star Safari by world-renowned travel grump Paul Theroux and I had a good chuckle at his impression of tourists doing "overland" tours through Africa.

Finding himself stuck in northern Kenya, he'd hitched a lift with one of the trucks filled with travellers having their African adventures together and he wasn't too impressed with the company in which he found himself.

"No one calls out 'Are we there yet?' because no one except the driver has the slightest idea of the route or the difficulty," Theroux writes of his fellow passengers.

"We had crossed the wide Dida Galgalu Desert, and north of Marsabit, the Ngaso Plain. We had climbed to the Kaisut Plateau and been stranded for two days in Serolevi on the Losai Reserve, and had traversed the foot of the desert mountain, Olkanjo.

"If you had asked any of them where we had travelled, the answer would have been, 'Was that where Kevin barfed?' or 'Was that where Jade gagged?' or 'Was that where the road sucked?' After months of trucking in Africa, everyone on board has the dull, torpid smile and brain-damaged look of a cultist."

I had a good chuckle because I, too, have done an overland tour in Africa and I, too, probably had the brain-damaged look of a cultist by the end of the three-month journey.

There were only 10 of us passengers on that trip and we laughed, fought, gazed, photographed, drank, smoked, howled and cried together for every moment of that stretch. Africa's a big place but it's still impossible to get away from your tour mates.

Our tour's theme song became, predictably, Toto's Africa, although we changed the words in the chorus to the more fitting, "I left my brains down in Africa".

By the end of that harrowing three months, without a night in a real bed, with intermittent showers, questionable campsites, blown tyres, boggings and constant squabbling, we rolled into Cape Town and checked into a hostel.

There, we all sat around for a farewell drink and agreed that despite all the hassles and personality clashes, we'd all happily jump back on the truck, turn around and take another three months getting back to Nairobi.

There's something Theroux doesn't understand about tours. For him, travel's a solo pursuit, a pursuit of knowledge, of understanding. He wants to know the name of that mountain over there or the plateau he happens to be on.

That's fine - but it's not every traveller's cup of tea. Some don't travel strictly for knowledge. They don't feel bad about ruining a day's sightseeing because they've got a hangover or recalling their time in a city fondly because "that's where Kevin barfed".

They've got a small amount of time off work and want to pack as much fun into that period as they can. To crusty old travel writers that can seem a bit of an insult but travelling the "right" way is a subjective notion - you've got to do what makes you happy.

If what makes you happy is jumping on a bus, or a truck, with a bunch of people and hurtling around the countryside for a few crazy weeks, then go ahead, you'll have a blast.

My touring career started where most people's start: on a Contiki bus in Europe. I was 17, everyone else was in their mid-20s. We spent three weeks zooming around, getting drunk in some fascinating places.

I've since done the African overlander, plus a four-week tour through Bolivia and Peru, then a six-month stint back in Europe, working with Topdeck. That's enough experience to realise the truth about touring: if you're the right age and in the right frame of mind, it's fun. Really, really fun.

You've got a bus-load of new friends from the minute you set out. You won't spend a single second standing around at a train station wondering why the hell the 5.15 to Interlaken seems to be chugging away into the distance. Everything's taken care of: food, transport, accommodation and sightseeing.

Is that a dumbing-down of the travel experience? Maybe. But some people don't have the confidence or experience to take on Africa or South America on their own. Some people don't have the time to work out all the intricate details of travel on their own.

They just want to meet people, drink some beers, see some sights and have some fun. More power to them, I say.

Sorry, Paul.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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