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One afternoon, as I was lazing in a beach hut on Kokrobite Beach, the trucks rolled into town, and from the instant they started disgorging their sweaty contents, I was fascinated. For these trucks weren't just any trucks, they were trans-African tourist trucks, and they blew my mind.
Every year a large number of trucks leave London to drive all the way to Cape Town, taking around nine months to snake through Europe and West Africa before crossing through Sudan into Ethiopia and Kenya, and then down the well-travelled route to South Africa. It's a fantastic way to see the continent, and it removes all the hassle and expense associated with doing it yourself on public transport, but there's no doubt that most independent travellers look at these buses and wince. It's not hard to see why.
Imagine being stuck in something like the big, blue Truck Africa behemoth that rolled into Big Milly's Backyard a few days before Christmas. 29 people (including the guide and driver) spilled out of this big blue beast, and for three days I watched them go about their business with the same fascination I reserve for those displays they have in museums, where ants live in a nest squashed between glass panels. These people live in each others' hair, sharing the cooking and cleaning duties, camping in closely pitched dome tents and rattling for long periods along the roads of Africa, all crammed together in the back. In a group that big you're bound to get some friction, and the politics of the whole situation kept me spellbound like a soap opera.
The second truck was a smaller, redder affair, carrying only 19 people, but they were equally interesting. I talked to quite a few people from this bus, and it turned out that things hadn't been going too smoothly within the group and there'd been quite a few stand-up rows, so much so that some people were about to leave the bus early to fly home. The big blue truck seemed much more relaxed, and this sums up the gamble you take when you jump on a trans-African trip; if you get a good group of people, it must be a magical experience, but being cooped up in a truck for nine months of hell with a bunch of people whom you can't stand... well, it doesn't bear thinking about.
I was lucky enough to have a couple from one of the trucks staying in the room next to mine; they were obviously sick of sleeping in dome tents, and opted instead for the luxury of a bed during their Kokrobite stay. I was pleased that they'd gone for this option, because they would sit in their room, the door carelessly open, and talk for hours about how irritating so-and-so was, and how the guy who snored really badly never pulled his weight around the camp. I had no idea who anyone was, and I only caught the odd phrase as the sea breeze changed direction to blow their conversation my way, but it was as vitriolic and analytical as the worst office politics. It was brilliant.
I only watched the trucks and talked to the participants, so there was no way in which I could really experience what it must be like to be cocooned on a trans-African truck for so long, but there's no doubting that they're part of a slick operation. The trucks themselves are monstrous, with huge tyres, copious spares on the back and engines that shake the ground in a way that means business. The 19-person red truck was pretty basic, with the back cabin covered by a domed tarpaulin and precious little else, but the blue truck was a step up in luxury (though it also held ten more people, so perhaps 'luxury' is the wrong word). It had two floors, one in the rear and the other just behind the top of the front cabin, though whether this created any more space, I don't know; everyone seemed pretty crammed in when they arrived. Both trucks were smothered with lockable compartments containing all sorts of things like tents, cutlery, cooking utensils, the herb rack and so on, and by this stage the entire crew knew where everything was; trucks obviously have routines.
Something else they have along with routines are rotas, and while the truckers were relaxing in the bar, there would be a steady stream of people wandering over, saying things like, 'Mike, is it your turn to chop the tomatoes? We're ready for you now.' I guess that's the only way to run what is effectively a self-sufficient crew that cooks for itself, sets up its own camp and has to look after itself in environments that are often a long way away from the luxury of Kokrobite; these trucks may provide a safe haven and a less immersed travelling experience than going alone, but they still make an impressive journey through some of the harshest environments on the planet, and that's no mean feat. The price is having to behave like a bunch of mature schoolchildren on a school trip, a price that quite a few people are obviously happy to pay.
It would drive me completely insane, though, to be stuck on a bus with the same people for months. I'd end up escaping from yet another idiotic neighbourly comment by jumping off in some backwater, which would make the whole thing rather pointless; but sometimes, when I'm feeling lonely, feeling ill or just suffering from a lack of drive, taking a truck across Africa sounds like the perfect way to travel. Someone else takes care of the itinerary for you, someone else sorts out the visas for you, the pre-pay nature of the journey makes it easy to budget, and you're never on your own. I'd never survive on a trans-African truck, but sometimes I quite fancy a few days on one, just for the experience.
Sadly the trucks only stopped in Kokrobite for a few days, and they soon raised anchor and floated off down the coast for Christmas. I'd rather enjoyed talking to the truckers, but possibly more interesting was the attitude of the other guests at Big Milly's towards them.
For example, the overland clique – those who have their own transport and are driving overland through Africa – looked on the trucks with utter derision, praying that they'd leave for Christmas and stop making the place feel so darn touristy. It's interesting, but overlanders often fall into the 'holier than thou' trap, possibly because having your own transport is the ultimate way to explore. I often wish I had a Land Rover to explore Africa with; public transport is so bloody awful and restrictive that a car is a genuine advantage, and it's a painful experience to listen to your average overlander rattle on about all the amazing places they've visited (all of which, of course, you can only reach with your own transport). Their cliquishness is actually a good thing sometimes; it keeps them away from me, with my far less impressive itinerary.
On the other extreme the VSO volunteers I met in Kokrobite were fascinated and thought the trucks were a wonderful idea. Then again, most of the VSO contingent had been stuck in rural northern Ghana for the last year or two, and after an experience like that, a trans-African truck must appear as awe-inspiring as a supermarket, a decent pizza or an ice-cold beer. Judging by the merry way they all guzzled their way through the luxuries of life in Big Milly's backyard, being out in the sticks with the VSO is a far harsher life than a trans-African truck journey.
I tend to go for the latter opinion – I quite like the trucks – though I'd never apply to go on a truck myself; you can be all snobbish about how easy life is in a truck, and that it's not real travelling, but who cares? At least the truckers are seeing Africa, and most of them seemed pretty happy to me. Still, travellers can be a snobbish lot, and trans-Africa trucks come pretty low down the imagined hierarchy, somewhere above package tourists, but way below backpackers and overlanders. They're damn entertaining, though; I thoroughly enjoyed watching the soap opera.