That night, as I walked to the camp fire, my spirits were still high – but so was something else. As the jacket potatoes and baked beans were dolled out, I suddenly realised I’d lost my appetite. Moreover, I seemed to be developing a terrible headache - as if someone were actually drilling through my skull. Half an hour later, everyone else still tucking in, I excused myself and retired to my tent. Putting my hand to my forehead, I knew I was burning up. After a long drink of cold water, I crawled under my net and into my sleeping bag, telling myself I was just overtired and needed nothing more than a good night’s sleep.
Only a few hours later, I awoke to find myself drenched in sweat. Crying out in my sleep, the woman in the next tent had awoken and come in to see me. Switching on her torch, she later told me that she found me semi- delirious and burning up in a big way.
The owner of the camp knew immediately. Like all locals, he’d seen malaria many a time before which (I guess) was good, because it least he knew the drill. A cold flannel was placed over my head, and asprin administered. It was 4am but the jeep that shuttled people to and fro was in Harare and wouldn’t arrive for another 16 hours. Even in my feverish state, I understood that, since few people showed up here with their own transport. Short of me trekking the 150 kms back to the capital, there was nothing to do but wait.
Soon after, my fever was replaced by violent shivering and feeling very very cold. The chills, as they say out in the bush. Wrapped up tightly, Lady Luck (as usual) was on my side, in the form of a Dutch nurse who’d been in my canoeing party. Rather than spend her final day enjoying herself, she sat beside me for long stretches, reassuring me constantly and forcing me to keep drinking. If she was worried, I don’t remember her showing it.
Eventually, the jeep arrived and I was carried into it, and laid out ceremoniously on the back seat. The journey down the long and bumpy road back to Harare was a few hours, but seemed to last an eternity. Wheeled inside the private Avenues Hospital (a favourite with ex-pats) the last thing I remember was a a friendly doctor putting an IV in my arm.
I woke up properly, two days later, in a quiet, white room, with three other girls in beds near me. Disoriented and groggy, I saw one of them get up and walk over to me.
“Lucky you” she smiled. “You had the kind that doesn’t kill. Me? Three days ago they thought I was on the way to the Pearly Gates.”
A moment later, a doctor appeared, dressed like a true colonial (khaki shorts and white knee-high socks), his manner both brisk and jolly,“Good morning young lady” I heard him say. “Would you like a cup of tea?” His words, of course, were music to my ears.
I spent three days at the Avenue Hospital, drinking tea and eating apple crumble (which came with lumpy custard, which I kept protesting I hated, but somehow the message never got through). I had, indeed, contracted malaria but, just as the girl in the next bed had said, not the kind that kills you, just the kind that makes you feel like death warmed up.
Some local, generic drugs were administered, and a few fluids too. When the nurse asked me if I were cutting my trip short, to return to Europe, I looked horrified. No way. I had three weeks left, and I intended to enjoy them, however easy I had to take it. And that I did…
On return to the UK, I made a trip to the London School of Tropical Medicine, to for a check-up. The doctors looked bored, even glum, when I informed them that I’d come down with a generic strain of non-deadly malaria. I was, apparently, one of between 2,000 to 3,000 people who returned from Africa with it. I told them I was sorry I hadn’t picked up anything more exotic and that I’d try harder next time – West Nile Disease or possibly Bilharzia. Anything to advance medical research, right?
It later transpired, funnily enough, that I couldn’t have caught malaria at the Hippo Pools anyway – with an incubation period of 10-14 days, chances are I’d contracted it back in Namibia’s swampy Caprivi Strip. So, a misadventure, for sure. But easy enough to survive. A few months later, I heard that a subsequent visitor at the camp had deliberately (for the thrill of it, or for the perfect photo op?) directed his canoe a little too close to one of the beasts. For his trouble, he’d been tipped violently into the water and, swimming like crazy to the riverbank, had escaped drowning by the skin of his teeth.
Now that would have been something to write about.