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Put the Mobile Away!

17/04/2015 14:04 BST | Updated 11/08/2015 11:59 BST

At the tender age of 18, I took a gap year before starting University and joined an overland expedition from London to Kenya, in a clapped-out Bedford army truck. Twenty-two strangers boarded the truck in Balham and four months later - having dug up roads, repaired bridges, dodged malaria and dysentery (some more successfully than others) and come face to face with the mountain gorillas - emerged as lifelong friends.

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Meeting the mountain gorillas (I'm the one on the left)

For four months, the only way to keep in touch with family and friends was via airmail letters, which were sent to the post offices in each of the larger towns we were due to pass through. There were no mobile phones, no pagers (remember them?), no Twitter or Instagram on which to post amazing photos. Only the major cities had public phones - and it was a risk to phone England and spend all that money, if you couldn't guarantee someone would be home to pick up the phone at the other end.

Sometimes we passed through the post offices a few days too early and missed the post. Other times the airmail just got lost in transit (or perhaps opened by a nosey postal worker). Receiving letters was so exciting. And the lack of them - devastating.

Half way through the journey we spent six weeks travelling at a snail's pace through the rainforest of what was then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo. Facing torrential rain, mudslides, overturned lorries and broken bridges in a ten ton truck, meant that on average we travelled only 12 kilometres a day.

Meanwhile our letters sat unopened in Kinshasa. And my parents were wondering if I was alive or dead. There were no phone calls, no postcards and the expedition's head office had no news of our progress. Mum tried not to imagine the worst.

It's so hard to conceive now how my family must have felt and how they coped, just not knowing where I was, or if I was safe.

As a society we seem to have reached the other extreme. We have so many ways to communicate with each other it's become impossible to switch off. Last night I had dinner with a friend and was saddened to see half the family on the table next to us interacting only with their mobile phones, rather than to each other. It was the parents who must have been in their late 40s who were glued to their glowing screens, not the teenagers. It's the modern version of the 'dining dead'.

All around us groups of people were eating with their phones on the table in front of them. To me, this sends out a clear message that someone more important than their present company might try to make contact. It's the equivalent of constantly looking over someone's shoulder while they're talking to you.

I admit I find it difficult not to check my phone for more than an hour at a time, but I am determined not to look at my phone at the dinner table. My kids aren't old enough for mobile phones yet, but I dread the inevitable squabbles about putting the phones away.

Obviously mobiles provide massive benefits which outweigh the disadvantages. When my kids are ready to travel, they'll be equipped with the latest technology and never entirely out of contact. Even if they don't want to talk to me when they're away, I'll be able to read about their adventures on the latest social media channel.

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