12:25 – I woke at 2am with a splitting headache and couldn’t get back to sleep. At 6:30am I got up feeling groggy and have slightly recovered at lunch. Am treating the symptoms with ibuprofen and paracetamol and hoping it is just fatigue. If I worsen tonight I’ll take my malaria treatment and look to abandon the project.
20:00 – A beautiful camp by the wide river Mano. I have made my target but it hardly matters right now. I’ve had a dip into the river to bring my temperature down and have taken another couple of paracetamol and ibuprofen. I am really worried about my health. My mouth is filling with ulcers. I can’t eat.
I was getting into serious trouble. I was looking at just another four days to the river mouth and the end of the expedition but I knew that unless I made a remarkable recovery in the night the project was over and I’d have to figure out a way of extracting myself from the forest.
* * *
“When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa the very best thing you can do is to get it unmade and go to Scotland instead but if your intelligence is not strong enough to do so, abstain from exposing yourself to the direct rays of the sun, take 4 grains of quinine every day and get an introduction to the Wesleyans; they are the only people on the Gold coast who have got a hearse with feathers.”
So said a veteran of 7 years on the continent in the 17th century. As British colonist dropped like flies through the early establishment of Sierra Leone as a colony in 1808 the region was given the unenviable moniker: ‘the white man’s grave’. Of course health standards have elevated since but both Sierra Leone and Liberia remain at the base of the United Nation’s Human Development Index with one of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality in the world and regular outbreaks of hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever and of course the biggest killer of all: malaria.
As my headache developed into a fever I started to fret, not least because among the last words of warning given to me before heading solo into the bush was the tale of a lady who had complained of flu-like symptoms, not gone directly to hospital, and died, with an undiagnosed hemorrhagic fever, 48 hours later. I was truly in the middle of nowhere, utterly alone and getting sicker by the minute. I needed to make contact with someone on the Sierra Leone bank and find my own way to the road: my lifeline to the hospital and proper treatment.
06:25 – feeling worse than ever. Abandoning the descent. Now I guess I’ll find out how tough I really am.
In your satellite phonecall to the Gola Rainforest National Park office include the following:-
- Where I am, message with GPS co-ords
- Where I’m going
- Exit plan
- Don’t panic my Dad
I started to paddle out. I was aiming for the village of Wunde. At roughly 12km directly downstream it would take most of the day to get there, the other option I had was a bit of a wildcard. Frazer, a British volunteer at the National Park’s office, had written the word ‘Tolo’ in fat black letters on the final section of my laminated map of the park. It was much closer and sure enough, one hour later, I saw a break by the riverbank at the precise spot Frazer had penned, a girl was stood staring out across the river directly at me – Frazer, when I see you next I am going to kiss that big beardy face and buy you more beer than even a gang of binge-drinking Kei Kamara fans could devour in a single sitting at the NP filling station.
My headache had worsened to the point that I could barely keep my eyes open and the pain in my joints was bordering on the spectacular. My bones felt like they were grinding to dust with every movement plus I had developed a massive abscess on my ring ringer: an angry, explosive looking pustule the size of a Cadbury’s cream egg from nothing more than an aggravated hangnail.
I have never experienced pain like it before.
Frankly I could not believe the villagers of Tolo let me in at all.
I was essentially mute by the time I set off through the forest. Unable to open my mouth due to the ulcers and fully focused on simply moving forward, I gave out all my spare food, hired two porters and staggered on for two and a half hellish hours through the jungle. We arrived at a slightly larger village where I slumped on the floor as an acute stabbing pain tore at my kidneys. I thought I was going to die.
“I need two bikes, one for the bags, and one for the kit, to get me to Tigbema.” I stammered.
“How much money do you have?” uttered the chief dispassionately. I looked around. I was not among friends. About ten men were sat swinging idly from hammocks, no one looked remotely bothered.
I negotiated a price well over double the asking rate and two men eventually got up to get their motorcycles. I had a phone call from the National Park office. They had gone above and beyond to help me out and had sent a driver with a 4×4 down the dirt tracks to Tigbema to get me out, if only I could make it there.
I don’t know at what point I lost consciousness or for how long, but what I do know is that when I came round there were still no bikes.
“Where are the bikes?” I asked.
The chief looked on disinterested, “oh, you want to go now do you?”
Clearly the indeterminate amount of time I had just spent passed out had delivered me a vital injection of life because I, quite frankly, fucking exploded.
“YES! I want to go NOW! Do you want a dead white man on your front door?!! – get those boys, get those bikes and get me out of here immediately!”
I wasn’t proud of the outburst in the slightest. It was probably the first time I have ever lost it properly on expedition, but an hour later my motorcycle rumbled into the village to the waiting 4×4 and two days later I was on a drip in Choitram’s Memorial Hospital Freetown wondering what the hell had just happened to me.
* * *
Expeditions rarely finish the way you imagine. Especially mine. But this was not the end for me. I still had a radio documentary to record and this was always going to be a journey of two halves. With the adventurous descent behind me now I had to focus on the people, the politics and the future for the Peace Park itself. The pursuit would lead me to the highest echelons of the Liberian Department of Forestry and knee deep in the mud of West Africa’s grimiest bushmeat markets, I would return once more to the forest and finally find hope at the doorstep of one of the most extraordinary bird species I have ever seen. But that’s all saved up for the broadcasts, right now I want to talk about Risk. Yep, that’s right, strap in.
I did not die in the forest because I had planned my evacuation procedure to such a level of accuracy that when I did in fact get sick I didn’t really have to think at all. At every stage of the descent I knew where my nearest way out was, where the best villages for connections to the main road were, and approximately how long it would take me to get there. I carried a satellite phone that geo-tagged my messages with GPS data and contacted my emergency contacts every 24 hours. I also carried a comprehensive medical kit with malaria treatment and prevention, antibiotics and a trauma kit. Before I started this expedition I spent time with Shane Winser at the Royal Geographical Society’s Geography Outdoors department scrutinising every hazard and reducing the long list of ways to meet a premature end to six major risk areas before looking at effective controls for dealing with each aspect. I won’t go into specifics here, but if you are planning something similar or are simply curious then get in touch and I’ll send you what I have, one thing I would say though is that no solo expedition will ever be 100% safe. I would like to think that progressively I have got better at reducing risk over the last six years of extreme expeditions, certainly I put myself in less riskier situations as time passes, but there still have been so many times when I have had to question whether it is really all worth it. If you find yourself knowingly going into a situation where the risks far outweigh the rewards really you should start questioning whether what you are doing is sensible. The help I received from the guys at the Gola Rainforest National Park office hastened my journey from riverbank to hospital considerably. I owe them a huge debt of thanks for everything they did for me on my project. It goes without saying that finding local partners with the logistical capability and experience to help you out of a sticky situation should absolutely be your priority before heading into the back of beyond, but you should also consider whether your journey is of such great importance that it is fair to call on the stretched resources of third parties should you get in trouble. I guess that’s one of the many things I’m mulling over as I consider my future.
The two part Radio series for BBC Radio 4 is available here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z
Will will be speaking in London on October 3rd for the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone, tickets are available here: http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/thrills-and-spills/