Members of the Tyne Tees regiment of the Territorial Army have just completed their annual summer camp in Cyprus, and, as Sam Strangeways reports, 'playing' at being a soldier is tougher than you might think.

THE Territorial Army soldiers from the Tyne Tees regiment have gone berserk. Completely and utterly crazy, in fact. About 90 of them are screaming obscenities, lobbing oranges and bread rolls at anything that moves and dancing up and down in the blistering heat, beating sticks against metal fences.

Thankfully, their aggression, frightening as it is, is not for real. These men and women from all over the North-East are helping some regular soldiers on a British Sovereign Base in Cyprus by staging a mock riot. And, despite many of them ending up bruised and battered with the odd broken bone, they are loving it.

But the riot - more of which later - is not the reason this composite company of 113 TA infantry soldiers has come to the island. They are here for their annual two-week camp and I've joined them to see how they fare.

Before this trip I had never, knowingly, met a TA soldier - this alien species who have regular day jobs but who relish getting up early on a Sunday, rolling around in mud and having orders barked at them.

By the time I arrive in Cyprus the company has already been there for a gruelling ten days, staying in spartan barracks, ominously named Bloodhound Camp, close to the British Army base at Episkopi and coping with temperatures of up to 42 degrees C.

My first day is spent watching them prepare for their final military exercise - Exercise Lion Star - which involves three days and nights out in the field on a carefully planned search-and-destroy mission.

There's a lot of waiting around in the blazing sun at RAF Akrotiri while the soldiers, clad in desert combats, are given safety drills on jumping from helicopters and landing craft. I don't get to see them do anything, other than listen to instructions, and I begin to wonder if they actually get much practical experience. They put me straight when I talk to them that afternoon.

"Since we got here we've done tactical training, a weapons shooting test, close quarter battle and moving target ranges," says Private David Hunter, 18, a Green Howard from Northallerton.

That's on top of a day of adventure training, which included rock climbing, abseiling and sea canoeing. Somewhere along the line they've also managed to fit in team games of rugby, football, beach volleyball and tug-of war.

Despite the hectic agenda, student nurse David views the TA as his "chill-out". Why?

"There are loads of benefits," he explains. "It keeps you fit. You learn new skills. You have lots of fun together. And, at the end of the day, we provide a service. There's always a chance that we could be needed. It's hard to explain why I am here. But how many nurses can say they've jumped off a landing craft. I'm sure none of my colleagues would even know how to pick up a rifle."

"It's been great so far. I have loved it," adds Private Hannah Evenden, a 21-year-old Green Howard from Scarborough, and one of only three women in the company. "You feel absolutely knackered and sleep for about four days when you get back. But you know you have done something and not just been out drinking every night like most people do abroad."

The soldiers have to complete 27 days of training a year, including the annual camp, or an equivalent training course in the UK, in order to pick up their annual tax-free bounty. That starts off at £330 and rises to £1,290 after five years service.

But all the soldiers here say they do much more than the basic requirement - and none of them is in it for the money.

"We get paid the same as a regular soldier for this two weeks and for any training night or weekend we do," explains Private Aaron Slater, 18, a Northallerton Green Howard. "But for me it's about having a sense of achievement and it's teaching me to stand on my own two feet. I have a lot of friends who take the mick out of me and call the TA "weekend warriors" and stuff. But they're not getting to do even half the stuff I do."

Another Green Howard from Northallerton, Corporal Helen Chamberlain, 31, says it's the routine of her nine-to-five office job as a technical illustrator which keeps her enthusiastic about the TA. "I wanted to get out into the fresh air," she says.

Private Steve Maycock, 32, is a relatively new recruit - he joined the Durham Light Infantry company in Bishop Auckland in February and, so far, he's enjoying every minute of it. Despite having a pretty exciting day job as a private investigator, he also craves the thrill of the great outdoors.

"I'd been thinking about joining for years - I was just wanting something a bit different. Now I'm really glad I have. You get outside and it motivates you to get fitter."

Well, if fresh air is what they're after, they've joined the right club. Early next morning, the troops rise before 3am and are soon marching across the rough terrain of the oregano-scented Cypriot hills, carrying heavy kit bags and rifles. They'll stay outdoors, sleeping rough, for the next three nights.

A regular soldier, here to help train the troops, suggests I join them but I laugh off the idea, terrified that someone might take it seriously. Doesn't anyone ever crumble on these arduous expeditions, unable to take the pace?

Lieutenant Dan Hebditch, 27, from Northallerton, one of the three platoon commanders on the exercise, claims not. "By the time you get here, you usually have to have not only physical robustness but also mental robustness," he says.

You don't usually get people who fall down and let their mates down. People think the TA is a form of extreme scouting and that's exactly what we are not. I have got guys here who have done two or three tours away with the regular army. They fit right in."

Corporal Kevin Bunn, 41, a Green Howard from Middlesbrough, confirms this, explaining that many people don't realise how "ready for action" TA soldiers are. "It takes an awful lot of effort to maintain the level of fitness you need to be in the infantry," he says. "There are ongoing fitness tests throughout the year and this camp is an opportunity to see how the soldiers would fare in combat."

Pretty well, if the day's exercise is anything to go by. The soldiers secure a vast area to enable a Wessex helicopter to land troops, advance on enemy territory and destroy their targets. There's the odd slip-up but, for the most part, they behave as regular soldiers and are energetic and enthusiastic to the last. I'm exhausted just watching them.

The TA is not for those who relish the easy life. That's made clear back at the riot. The enduring image for me is one of a young TA recruit, running from a riot soldier, blood tricking down his cheek, grinning from ear to ear. Seconds later, a middle-aged comrade limps past with a suspected broken ankle. Two youths race away from a frothing Alsatian dog which is snapping at their heels. Back at the camp that night, the troops are exhausted but euphoric. This was a thrilling addition to their two-week camp.

Before I leave the island, the regiment's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Hopkins, asks whether I'd consider joining the TA. He obviously hasn't noticed the mixture of horror and wonderment on my face throughout my stay. Clearly, my answer is no. But for anyone who craves regular bursts of excitement, adventure and hard physical exercise, I can highly recommend it.

* To find out about your local TA, look in Yellow Pages under Territorial Army or visit