A trip you don’t want to take

[words by Mark Eveleigh]

Last year I returned home from a month in Ghana with an unwanted souvenir. Somewhere among the coastal swamplands I had contracted my third case of malaria. I had picked up similar souvenirs on expeditions in Borneo and Madagascar, but this one was different. While the first two cases were memorable in that they were recurring malaria and stayed with me for almost a year between them, this last was the potentially fatal kind. Doctors told me that if I hadn’t made it to hospital I might not have had to suffer this bout (or anything else for that matter) for longer than 10 hours.

It might not be a fixed rule – there seem to be few fixed rules with malaria – but it seems to me that the trippy hallucinations (sometimes the only relatively enjoyable part of the experience) diminish with the amount of times you have contracted the virus. My first bout of malaria hit me when I was 10 days up an unexplored river, traveling by dug-out. A side benefit of the whole episode was that it provided what was probably the most dramatic chapter in my book Fever Trees of Borneo. After all, there are no bad experiences for a travel writer: just good material.

Here’s a short snippet from my Borneo “trip” (pun intended):

…I looked towards the river and a gravel beach on the opposite bank attracted my eyes; it seemed to be shimmering and flickering like an out-of-focus television screen.

Concentrating to clarify it, I brought into focus a tiny figure. He was wearing blue shorts and a white t-shirt and, though he was looking back across the river, he had not seen me.

Then I realised that each splash of colour was a minuscule figure – a Lilliputian, straight from Gulliver’s Travels, each one the size of a tiny pebble. By association, the beach appeared to be a long sweeping crescent and the little river a wide and incredibly beautiful bay.

There were about two hundred tiny people on the beach. They wore colourful western beach clothes and here and there I saw the garish stripes of parasols.

I held my breath, literally spellbound. The silver flow of the river caught my eye. Small rocks in the stream had become elegantly domed steel-grey islets. On each one I could clearly see two or three sunbathing Lilliputians. After a month in the jungle a sleek, bronzed beauty in a yellow bikini particularly attracted my attention.

I was enjoying myself now and I let my eye roam onwards to the first ripples of white-water sucking into the rapids. Tiny dugout canoes with whooping holidaymakers were sliding into the churning water.

The sounds were so clear that I believe they must have been the ‘real’ sounds of some forgotten day at the beach in my early childhood, stored in my subconscious for that moment. I listened carefully to the laughter and shouts, and as I did so, I was aware that the general hubbub began to fade.

One-by-one the Lilliputians stopped what they were doing. A man caught his Frisbee and turned to look at directly at me. The girl in the yellow bikini stood up and shaded her eyes to stare.

There was silence. Everybody was squinting across the sunny bay towards me. Then one voice somewhere in the crowd started shouting. Another joined in and from somewhere, farther along the beach, still another. Suddenly I noticed a fat woman in a flowery swimsuit bellowing at me with unmistakable hatred. A ragged, ill-disciplined chant swept quickly through the crowd.

In the confusion of differing tones and volumes, I could discern individual voices – just slightly out of time. The girl on the rock was shouting so furiously, with such loathing, that her head butted forward as she spat out each word. I could clearly make out her voice but I struggled to understand the words. Then the chant became clearer and louder as it picked up tempo and soon the whole crowd was screaming hoarsely.

The meaning came to me with a shock: “Cut his throat! . . Cut his throat! . . Cut his throat!”…

Keen to dodge a “bad trip”? Then follow this link to a recent world-traveller’s medical kit-list I compiled. In some cases conditions and preventions change with alarming frequency. Get reliable up-to-date advice (ideally from Nomad Travel & Outdoor).

If you’re planning an expedition, get your comprehensive check-list of what to pack here.

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