Avoid Kissing Chimps

Article from the series: Staying Safe and Healthy in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

I generally manage to stay pretty healthy on my travels through a combination of common sense, a robust immune system and precautions such as wearing long sleeves, washing my hands and avoiding travel in high-risk malarial areas. But just like during the rainy season in tropical Africa: when it rains, it pours.

I had been in DR Congo for six weeks or so when Miha and a Swedish friend and journalist, Karin, joined me. We were to spend ten days in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and at Lwiro Primate Sanctuary. One morning, while Karin and I were interviewing one of Lwiro’s employees, I began to feel fluey. Uh-oh. Luckily there was a clinic nearby, which is often the case in rural Africa. Within an hour I had taken a malaria test. Two hours after that I had received a giant injection on my left buttock. Recovery should now have been swift.

Except it wasn’t. It turns out that I had most likely picked up another parasite from one of the orphaned chimpanzees. Until that point my immune system had kept it at bay, but now that the malaria had arrived it went amok. I spent the next 15 hours not sleeping a wink with unrelenting stomach cramps and an inability to retain any liquids through any orifice, and without knowing what was causing it. Memorable, to say the least.

In the morning, I was feeling marginally better, though I had not yet received the antibiotics that would end up curing this second malady. This was the time a group of my ranger friends chose to turn up with two illegal gold miners they had arrested. Super excited, they had the two men mimic digging for gold on the lawn so I could photograph the process. I could barely stand up and was sweating profusely, white as a ghost, but somehow managed to take a few shots and congratulate them on their catch before collapsing in bed again. That afternoon the local veterinarian (!) administered the medicine I needed. Two days and two painful injections later I was back to normal, but I still think Karin’s photo of me deserves to be featured here rather than one of mine.

The lesson? Take your prophylactics, use hand sanitiser, and avoid kissing chimpanzees. You’ll probably be fine.

photo by Karin Wallén, edited by Marcus Westberg; don’t miss our extensive interview with Marcus and head to his website for even more.