Fear and loathing in Sierra Alone
It is a taboo subject in the expeditionary world, actually admitting weakness, but I can guarantee that every single explorer past and present will have been struck down with anxiety at some point.
Mine crept up on me whilst I was lying in my bed back home in Norfolk. In the weeks leading up to an expedition my days are filled with preparation, the acute stress of not having received a critical piece of gear usually superseding any opportunity to engage with the project on a psychological level, that is, until night falls. In the sensory deprivation tank of a darkened room grisly images of my certain demise start to flick madly through my mind.
It is horrible.
Knowledge is power, I thought, and reached for Tim Butcher’s excellent account of his walk through Liberia and Sierra Leone in the footsteps of renowned writer Graham Greene. The page fell open on the following passage:
“Guinea worm is one of Africa’s nastier parasites and is caught by ingesting its larva from rivers…Swallowing or even just splashing in the rivers can cause infection, as it allows the waterborne larva to enter the body through abrasions, cuts or breaks in the skin. When inside a human the grubs grow into worms that can reach prodigious lengths, sometimes as long as three feet, inflicting agony on the host who has the feeling of snakes worming through their lower limbs…the worms eventually cause a painful boil to grow on the victim’s skin which erupts spewing out thousands of fresh larvae. To remove it from the human body, you have to dig around in the boil cavity, find the tip of the worm and attach it to twig which is then turned, drawing the creature out as if balling string. It’s a delicate manouvere and if it breaks, leaving part of the worm still in one’s body, the resulting infection can kill.”
I delicately replaced the book by my bedside and metaphorically, yet completely, shat myself.
I struggled to reconcile in my mind which part of the Guinea worm account was the worst – the use of the word “nastier” instead of “nastiest” or the thought a massive worm circumnavigating my central nervous system before spewing out thousands of little maggots from a massive boil. I imagined it would be a bit like that scene in Alien where the little one that looks a bit like a nob bursts from that man’s chest, except with about 10,000 more nob-shaped aliens.
Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep, and there in lies the fundamental problem with being scared of the unknown – especially if you are woefully addicted to the sorts of places where stories like the above are commonplace.
There is nothing wrong with the ‘right’ type of fear. In reasonable quantities you can channel it into your physical and mental activity. It can give you an edge, a sharper focus, and an all-important dose of respect for real dangers, but if you allow fear to overwhelm the senses it has the exact opposite effect. It is debilitating. It bleeds into your daily routine, clouds your judgment, makes you irrationally terrified, and massively affects your ability to properly rest – something you desperately need whilst on any expedition and, with most of your movements stopping after nightfall, one of the only essentials you have in relative abundance.
So what to do?
For the most part my friends and family are just as worried about these projects (if not more so) as myself, so I feel a bit of pressure to put a brave face on it and look elsewhere to pull myself out of my mental Rubik’s cube. This usually involves a full and frank private admission that “I am scared” followed by a process of figuring out how rational my fears actually are. Usually by placing them into two broad categories:
1. Things that are real that I can legislate for – e.g getting malaria can largely be avoided my taking the appropriate anti-malarial, wearing long sleeved clothing, and using DEET based repellents.
2. Things that are real that I can’t legislate for – e.g crocodile attacks – which are pretty impossible to actually survive (poke them in the eyes apparently, good luck with that) but, having researched the area, I know the chances of being attacked here are almost zero.
If you are panicking it becomes impossible to differentiate between the two categories and inevitable and avoidable errors creep in as a result of being overtired, plus, you generally end up hating the entire expedition.
Now I am actually in West Africa, seeing the environment for real and making excellent contacts, I have started to relax; the West Africa of my nightmares being replaced by a warm, friendly and very helpful reality. Even so, I have a couple of things up my sleeve to cheer me up when I’m sad, some stock motivational phrases passed down from friends, nothing too high-brow, just simple stuff like: “every single day on expedition is a victory” and “you are still here and that’s all that counts”, also I continually remind myself that the pressure I put on myself to pull off a project is mine and mine alone. I will always come back with a story, but it is coming back that counts. Experience has taught me that tales of both success and failure are as interesting as each other and that ultimately it comes down to how comfortable I feel with the risks. I can always turn back.
I received an email today from Phil Harwood, a highly experienced adventurer who became the first person to canoe the length of the Congo, he wrote:
As far as motivation goes, for me, the first criteria is simply to be 100% committed, you want to be there more than anything else in your life…every difficulty was simply a challenge to be overcome, totally believing that the harder the challenge, it may just take a little longer to overcome … BUT IT WOULD BE OVERCOME.
Altering the way you think and approach problems isn’t something that comes overnight, but simple straightforward strategies help me immeasurably. I’m not saying I am completely over my fears by any stretch, but they will be overcome, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.