Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Always carry a first aid kit.

A small group of us have driven Land Cruisers over deeply furrowed roads, kicking up blinding sheets of fine brown dust that circumvent the vehicle's seals, to the Omo River valley in the far south of Ethiopia near the South Sudanese and Kenyan borders, hours from civilisation, on a photographic expedition to shoot the traditional African tribes of the Omo. It is remote.

There are more ways to fall ill in remote Africa than there are ways to avoid it. There is malaria, of course. There is bilharzia, cholera and Rift Valley fever. Diphtheria, giardiasis, yellow fever, sleeping sickness and dysentery. Never drink the tap water. Don't eat fresh fruit unless you peel it yourself. And don't touch your face after you've held a baby, shaken hands with the tribal chief, or handled the consistently filthy money. Sterilise your soap. Tie a plastic bag around your head when you shower. Set fire to your clothes before you put them on.

Something seemed slightly amiss to me when I sat on the toilet with a rumbling belly and it quickly became a scene from a Danny Boyle film. It was like throwing open a faucet.

Within hours I was struck down with fever. It was 38 degrees out and 39 within. The group, encamped with the Kara in the tribal village of Korcho on a high bluff overlooking a grand bend in the Omo River, hastily assembled a cot in one of the wooden huts, divested me of shirt and shoes and wrapped me in a wet towel. Diagnosis: amoebic dysentery.

Here's a handy tip: travel with a nurse. My retired nurse friend Joan, who invited me on this trip, was immense help in administering medication. I knew what I needed but was so weak I couldn't elevate my voice. Paracetamol for the fever. Immodium for the diarrhoea. Electrolytes, medicinal charcoal and antibiotics. We ravaged my first aid kit.

Slowly the fever receded. I found enough strength to get myself up so I could lay down again. I crashed on a cot in one of our army tents, but when the fever stubbornly returned an hour later with renewed vigor I was too weak to call out for help and could only stretch out my hand pleadingly in the hope someone would walk by. All I got was plenty of goats. They would stop and stare into the tent and think, "Oh, man, that guy looks like crap," and move on. This isn't working terribly well, I thought. I tried collapsing onto the ground and remaining motionless. Still nothing. So, with whatever strength I could muster, I dragged myself to the threshold of the tent and managed my best impression of Clint Eastwood being taunted with a water canteen after three days in relentless desert sun. It was a dramatic performance. I was quickly swarmed with people.

They crammed some more paracetamol into me and the fever backed off. Piper, the tour leader, appeared insistent on a medical evacuation by helicopter, but I didn't want to miss the remaining tribes and struck a deal with her: since I was still conscious and sensible and responding to medication, we would give it 24 hours and then make another assessment. But I said she should immediately med-evac me if I became delirious.

And I told her to pass on the message to the goat king.

No comments: