Fatal mistakes, losing your jaw in the night….and Roy Hodgson
Baboons kept me awake all night (as well as trying to sleep in the hammock). Hackling, coughing and grunting to each other around the forest floor, it must be a social serenade to them. Shouting in the dark; probably making each other aware of the nearby dangers, they’re quite arrogant in their anti-neighbour behaviour.
We sent a message ahead to the lodge and even though the reaction from our small gang back home was a little underwhelming, they still sent half a dozen guys to help us carry Bjorn. Philippa, the volunteer nurse in the village who resides at Zulunkhuni River Lodge for a few months a year, now has a fairly serious patient on her hands. Although no extra medication can be prescribed, I’m glad Bjorn has a professional to hand rather than us simple bush-monkeys who can barely go twenty minutes without ridiculing him. It isn’t surprising that our message about malaria wasn’t taken too seriously, as we have also just learnt that apparently I injured my finger on glass in the bush a few days ago (not grass). With questionable reports being lost in translation, Bjorn’s condition was glossed over. Besides, there wasn’t anything anyone could do till we brought him back. With quite a bit of help from the eager village boys over the last half mile, Bjorn is now in more comfortable surroundings and his recovery is under way. For the last half mile, we could rest our shoulders and focus on carrying our gear. Bjorn’s temperature is still high but it is manageable. With an experienced, responsible and professional eye on him, he should be out of the woods in a day or so.
Philippa has been helpful for a couple of other incidents. To add insult to injury, Matt also tested positive for malaria this afternoon and is in a bed not too far away. Karma just slapped him in the face for being such an arse! Charlie has cut his legs and feet so much on the rocks and brush that he has fallen ill with a blood infection. This wouldn’t be so worrying if it wasn’t for the fact that recently, I found out that a school friend of mine had been diagnosed with a similar infection after cutting himself on coral in South Africa. He slipped into coma, was in a critical condition for two weeks and abruptly passed away due to the fast-moving infection. It’s an extreme story, but one that is too familiar to those who experience the wild often. When on holiday, it’s often easy to forget the dangers of the wild, even if just going for a casual swim. Charlie would need to be careful and act quickly with the treatment we have available to restore his health. It’s a common incident here and one which he is familiar with. I might write lightheartedly about the topic of illness, but non of this is taken lightly. Charlie’s legs look like they have been used as breaks while sliding down a log flume constructed out of razor blades. Bruised and bloody, he’s wandering around with huge amounts of disinfectant and sterilisation juices on his shins as well as some spray-on skin-adhesive to keep the slashes as taught as possible. He’s a little hazy with some drugs and I’m fairly certain he’s found some of that medicinal jungle again. If it were 50 years ago, and without appropriate bandages, I imagine he may be covered in some sort of tree sap. I feel like I’ve walked into a recovery room and I am slightly amazed that apart from a bloody finger which is now well on the way to recovery, I’m wondering how I have managed to escape with only a few bruises. The bush isn’t a place for the faint hearted, and we have been scuppered by merely a few bugs and some sharp rocks. Looks like I’ll be enjoying a beer with just the ladies tonight.
Drying some fresh mango on the rocks
I can’t iterate enough how easy it is to damage oneself in remote locations. In the places in North America where I have truly been alone, I became extremely aware of my surroundings and the lurking dangers – something that switches off when I am in a familiar environment. No one can afford to do that in the wild! Distinguishing between being alone and feeling lonely are two very different things. When you lack all company and are in alien territory, you find out which category you fall into. I have found that having a heightened sense of awareness to danger might be one reason so many lose their minds in the bush. Understandably, prior to any incident even occurring, it can push anxiety levels past their limits.
Thankfully, being prepared and understanding the dangers evolves a character and produces a calm. I have commented on Bjorn in the bush previously, and I’m finding out just how capable Charlie and Matt are in these surroundings now. I’m the relative rookie in Africa, but I know if I took them to North America where the dangers are very different, I’d be the one with much more experience. In any wild circumstance, even using a knife around camp becomes ritual – making sure you use it in a certain way repeatedly and without taking stupid risks. The way you lay out and pack your kit to avoid losing often life-saving equipment becomes oddly, an important part of survival. I’ve noticed even the way I walk occasionally alters; the extra steps I take or to hold onto things when it’s so easy to overlook. Matt took a fall off a log which snapped under him, and it was a miracle he didn’t break his back when he landed on a rock and a tree stump. When the environment changes, so does our behaviour – and it should. It’s a healthy reflex for survival. A simple ankle sprain or cut finger can mean the difference between living and having a disastrously compromised time. We’re accustomed to the privilege of having access to medical treatment, something made so obvious when you don’t have it. Here, the issue is not avoiding inevitable accidents, it is being unable to treat them as quickly or as effectively as we might in the west. Of course remotely in North America or Australia or even in the bucolic sanctuaries of Europe, it is hard to find medical response units and treatment quickly. However compared to Southern Africa even the remote wildernesses in the west have a forgiving nature compared to the dangers here.
Extreme weather the world over is a killer, but not only is it very easy to find yourself at least a week from some basic medical treatment (and that’s with mechanised transport), the dangers here simply keep coming. Get lost in the bush and you’re susceptible to a multitude of life-threatening bugs, pain-inducing reptiles and amphibians, heat stroke and dehydration in a matter of hours. There isn’t just a couple of massive predators wondering around. There are a multitude of powerful species that would add you to a picnic if they knew you were vulnerable. As your fellow man has been a bullet-weilding problem in the past, even the giant vegetarians would hammer you into the ground merely for mistaking you as a threat…much like Roy Hodgson would bench you as soon as you look like you’re about to win a football game for England (that is likely the only football analogy you’ll ever get from me).
Animals aren’t stupid. They merely protect their territory, just as we do. With niggles that can seem minor that we might take a week to ponder over in the west, you’re absolutely more likely to have less than that time here before they might kill you. A bug bite or cut, a sting or secretion, a glass of the wrong water, too much time in the sunshine or a wonder through the forest can all be fatal if you’re not careful, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating. A snake bite might not kill you, but being unable to walk because of the pain makes you an easy target for everything else. A bug bite won’t kill you, but the infection through lack of access to appropriate antihistamine and disinfectant will seriously compromise your ability to fight off a brain-damaging fever. Things can quickly escalate. You are forced to become very much aware of what is around you, what your options are and what is available should you need to diagnose and treat yourself. To be unknowing of the dangers or unaware of what is required to avoid them can be dangerously naive. For many unfortunate souls, simple mistakes are (too) often fatal.
I’ll hit this home just a little more….It’s not all too unusual to see a few people from across the border missing a large piece of their lower jaw. The often illegal woodcutters fall asleep in the bush after a few torrid hours of toil and a few swigs of jungle juice. While a curious hyena will come to inspect if they’re dead (they only eat carrion), the chaps often wake up half drunk, mid way through their face being chewed on by some of he strongest jaws in the animal kingdom. People have survived after the hyena realises you’re not dead but only after it’s taken a chunk out of their face. Surviving the rest of the day is another challenge altogether. Hyena can be heard “wooping” across Malawi at night, but are more common in the national parks and across the flat bushland, away from the lake and people. Fall asleep in the bush; hyena will take what’s on offer, as will most things.
Hovering around Zulinkhuni River Lodge and relaxing on the rocks, I’m beginning to realise that after a week in the bush, we have all rapidly fallen apart. Charlie’s legs are infected. Matt still has an (invisible) “scorpion” sting. Bjorn and Matt have malaria and I’m being mocked for having pneumonia, although in reality I have developed a passive smoking habit and my lungs are collapsing because everyone around me is chaining it like Eddie and Patsy.
We’re all covered in bruises and dozens of bites. We could have continued in the bush and pushed through the problems. We are all capable and everything we have is common. However, without an endless supply of medication and food (we didn’t want to start living off the jungle without knowing what was there), we need a respite. Matt and Bjorn should be fine in a few days. Charlie should see an improvement in his feverish condition very soon and my lungs should mend quickly now that all the guys are on their backs, unable to blow smoke at me for a few days! By the end of the week, we should be making our way towards to the village, and onto the Ilala ferry back to Nkata Bay.
Before then though (and hopefully after everyone has recovered) it is Bjorn’s birthday…