Scott is swarmed by locals as he prepares the rafts close to Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands.
Ethiopians appear from nowhere at our remote riverbank campsite close to Lake Tana on the Blue Nile.
One of the few calm spots in the Blue Nile's deadly Northern Gorge.
Granite that has been polished by millions of years of Nile floods in Ethiopia's Black Gorge.
Woman from the Gumus tribe in Ethiopia, close to the Sudanese border with distinctive facial scarring.
Sudanese fishermen on the Nile in Sudan close to the Sixth Cataract.
Sudanese man selling fish freshly caught from the Nile.
Proud Sudanese women at the entrance to their Adobe hut.
The illuminated Luxor Temple by night, one of countless ancient structures lining the Nile.
My new roommates made genuine efforts to greet me as I entered a small room of five, frail, bed-ridden men, although all but one of them struggled to even raise a hand or groan a welcome. Their bones protruded through their thin, almost transparent skin. They stared at the ceiling and those with their mouths open revealed unusually large gums. A man in the corner with a large crooked nose and wonky eye seemed in slightly better health. He pointed at my leg and made sawing actions as he cackled. That didn't help.
The slight nurse straightened the sheets and briskly brushed the crumbs and dirt from them leaving just faint blemishes of poos and blood. She looked at me with dark, sympathetic eyes and helped me onto the mattress.
I lay on my bed twisted in a knot of fever. The sheets clung to my sweating body, and my pillow was soaked. I gazed vacantly at the beige wall, at a row of Arabic symbols scribbled with a black marker pen. A chrome pisspot covered with dust at the foot of my bed reeked of stale urine, but it did little to hide the stench of rotting flesh from one of the patients behind me. I felt like I'd get sicker just breathing it in.
I hoped the Ampliclox would work its magic. I hoped I wouldn't be there for much longer. I hoped I wouldn't catch anything else.
Les returned jumpy from his circuit of the hospital. "The 'big chief' has admitted me for the night."
"What on earth for?" I asked.
"They need me to write a report."
"What type of report?"
"That's exactly what I asked and they said anything I liked. I suggested a hospital assessment and they were like ‘ah yes, assessment, perfect, exactly what we need'."
"I guess there'd be no better man to critique their medical facilities."
It gave Les something to humour himself with while we waited, hoping anxiously that my health would improve. Each time Les ran into the manager of the hospital, he was asked for an update on the report, and he promised it was coming.
The night was hideous. The man to my right wailed in agony with a frothing throaty cough. The man on my left chanted "Allah," repeatedly as he wheezed. One of the patient's mothers, sitting on a stool across the room, coughed, snorted and spluttered, sounding as ill as the patients. Les's nightmares returned and bugs buzzed incessantly around my net all night. I twisted and turned as my fever raged. I could never get comfortable, and with each restless stir, the sweat-sodden sheets clutched at my limbs and I soon became tangled in a snarl of cotton. My leg's convulsions seemed to worsen with every heartbeat and I felt as close to death as I could be while still having a pulse.
Each time I finally dozed off, I was woken by a nervous man in a white uniform prying my arm for a suitable spot to inject the Ampliclox. Although my dosage was due every six hours, I was visited four times during the night by a different, yet equally sheepish, nurse. Everyone seemed to want a turn at injecting the khawaja. In nine hours I received the amount I had been prescribed for 24 hours. I felt groggy.
Late the following night, as the ward rang with cries and groans, the power generator spat, spluttered and then stopped chugging and the hospital plunged into darkness. For a few hours the nurses passed by every ten minutes, panning the rooms with their flashlights like security guards in a museum. It would have been annoying to have a torch shone in my face even in full health, but in my condition it was detestable. An hour passed with no flashlights and the ward remained pitch black but I couldn't sleep, kept awake by the din of my roommates. Suddenly Les bolted upright. I looked over and could make out his figure thrashing about, tangled in his mosquito net. He was terrified. "Help!" he screamed, panting. "Help! Heelllp!"
No one came. We were in a hospital, and no one came to aid someone in distress.
Les had endured another nightmare. This time our kayaks had become trapped in a cave and there was no way out. The next morning, the wonky-eyed man who had made sawing motions two days earlier found the whole ordeal highly entertaining, re-enacting Les's screaming fit over and over again. To make matters worse, someone pointed out a dead scorpion under Les's bed. Les's eyes became huge and his face lost all of its colour.
"We've got to leave this place, I'm a million miles outside my comfort zone," insisted Les.
"Irony at its best, Jick," I chuckled. "You're the healthiest person in this hospital and you're having a tougher time than anyone."
"Well, it's no country club."
The whole expedition had been no country club. I'd found new respect for Les on the trip. He was terrified during waking hours, and there was no escape when he slept. Les's friends were amazed he'd come to Africa given "He doesn't even go to a gym in the west because he's worried about germs." He had dived into the sea of all his wildest phobias and discomforts and swum out until he couldn't see the shore.
My state hadn't improved. I'd been pumped full of antibiotics, yet my calf was still the girth of a soccer ball and burning a toxic scarlet. Surges of dread pulsated through me as every hour my leg continued to swell, the possibility of losing it got worse. I was haunted by images of a red-eyed doctor slowly carving above my knee with a rusty serrated saw, as the guy with the wonky eye watched laughing madly. I tried to be positive. I tried to visualise how life could be okay with one leg, I could still run marathons and learn to tango, but that image of slow carving kept coming back. Clenching my eyes shut, blocking out as much of the background commotion and stench as I could, I clung onto the image of those slabs of concrete as the Nile spilt into the turquoise sea beyond. Whatever it took, one leg or two, we would make it there with the paddled Nile behind us.
I lurched between states of acceptance and regret, blasting back to points in my life to question what had influenced my decision to come on this expedition in the first place. Adventures I'd had on my bike, in the bush and at the beach as a kid growing up in New Zealand. My bicycle trek across Canada. A string of people I'd met since I was young. Everything I'd done had in one way or another led me there.
Losing a limb to a hungry crocodile was something I'd joked about before coming. Now I had time to fathom the real possibility of amputation, I was terrified. All the experiences, stories, and satisfaction of a Sir Edmund-size achievement meant nothing if I only had one leg to stand on.
"Les, have you seen Dr. Shawgi around? I'm not getting better here, I need to talk to him. Unless something improves soon I'm going to have to get on the next bus to Khartoum," I said. I was frantic.
"He doesn't seem to be around as much today, I'll go see if I can find him."
Ramadan had just begun. During the religious observance, one of Islam's five pillars, any Muslim who has hit puberty, is in fair health, not pregnant, not in battle, or not travelling, is to refrain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk for the month. It is the holiest period for Muslims, and, by fasting, they learn the value of patience, modesty and spirituality.
After being told Dr. Shawgi was at the mosque praying for Ramadan, Les tracked him down in his office, sitting with his head in his arms asleep at his desk. He fumbled around with excuses, but with the lack of food and drink in that heat, it was totally understandable. Still rubbing his eyes, he returned with Les to our room and studied my leg.
"Your leg is improving," Dr. Shawgi assured me. "It is less hot, the swelling is down, and there are stretch marks from the redness retracting."
"When do you think I can start the Ampliclox capsules?" I asked.
"You should have started after the injections finished. I will get you the capsules now, then you can leave soon after. If you are still experiencing a lot of pain, I will give you the name of a doctor in Sennar who will look after you."
His presence was calming and my pulse rate eased. All his justifications seemed true now I was in a more rational shape. I was relieved but still anxious that my leg wouldn't recover.
Checking out of the hospital couldn't come soon enough. Sennar was only a few days paddle away if things got worse.
Les handed in the six crinkled pages of his report to the hospital manager as we were on our way out. The manager of the hospital was fidgeting and biting his fingernails as he skimmed through the pages. He took a deep breath when he got to the page with the conclusion which read:
If the hospital were to properly dispose of spent syringes, offer patients effective mosquito nets, eradicate the scorpions, give injections according to prescribed schedules by trained professionals and not accidentally fire up the power generator in the middle of the night, they could quite conceivably become one of the finest Medical Facilities in North Africa.
The manager's face lit up with an enormous smile, zealously shaking both our hands and patting Les on the shoulder, thanking him profusely for completing the report. I almost forgot my anxieties as Les and I laughed all the way back to the river.
© Copyright 2012 Mark Tanner
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