Monkeys Never Forget
Flatdogs & Mzungus
Peeping Gilberts
Bus-ted Tourists
Wading with Cobras
Not Dead Yet
Bush Calls


Is There a Doctor in the Bush?

Nothing in the hole but crocs!

I made a few house calls when I worked on Orcas, but none were quite like those here in the bush where I’m expected to dash off to see my safari patients wherever they might be.  I am “on call” here 24 hours a day for my entire three-month posting, though fortunately night and after-hours requests to see me are rare.  My first chance for a bush camp call came early in my stay one evening after the twelve-hour tropical night had descended on the Valley.  I’m afraid I may have irreparably spoiled any chance I had for “Jungle Doctor of the Year” when I meekly requested the lodge send someone to pick me up because I hadn’t visited this lodge last time and  knew getting there required fording a river.  Now if I had known the camp would send their lunatic white Zambian mechanic as my chauffeur, I might have just risked driving myself.  Instead Andrek came racing to Flatdogs in a rickety old Land Rover missing its top, and off we careened through the cool night air bouncing over potholes, revving through the sandy river bottom to splash through the river then zooming too fast along the bank on the other side.  I needed some deep breaths to recover before I could begin suturing the deep cut on the face of the little South African girl after that wild ride.  I was happily able to reclaim some intrepid jungle doctor points the next time the lodge called by driving myself over the potholes, across the sand, through the river, up the steep bank and teetering on the “road” with only two feet of undercut dirt between me and the hippos and crocs in the Luangwa River thirty feet below.

Waiting for me to get stuck

On two occasions, tourists at more distant lodges have needed my services, so I’ve loaded up my rattling chitty and headed off 25 miles over impressively bad potholed dirt roads through the park to their aid.  The road to Nsefu Camp requires not one but two river fords then exciting two handed driving around washouts and potholes and revving down sandy stretches.  On my first trip, I came upon a mother and her young son balancing on their heads sacks of mealy meal, the ground maize used to make their dietary staple, nshima (which reminds me of grits left to cook too long).  I stopped to give them a lift, and I could barely heft the 50-pound sacks they blithely removed from their heads to load into the back of the car.  They were quite grateful when I delivered them to their village five miles further along the track.

Still waiting when I drove home

Unfortunately, I also often have unwanted hitchhikers whenever I drive through the low forests of mopane trees so abundant here.  The dastardly, wily tsetse fly (Latin name Glossina palpalis.  Common name: DAMN TSETSE!!), which can fly thirty miles an hour for short distances, love to follow vehicles – which must resemble really big animals to them – and fly in the open windows (of course the “doctor’s car” has no air conditioning save for the breeze through the windows, and I haven’t tried the vents again after being blasted with a face full of choking dust on my first go).  These maddening creatures then zoom annoyingly around the car bashing into the windscreen and buzzing their high pitched “I want to drink your blood” warning in my ears.  Undeterred by my DEET smeared limbs they bombard me as if I’m living some miniature version of “The Birds.”  Swatting at the elusive beasts while trying to avoid yawning potholes in the road keeps me occupied for most of the trip, but the marauders usually manage to sneak in a painful bite or two before I bat them away.

Sometimes I think I should consider the advice of Marcel, a crazy Afrikaaner who works at Luambe National Park north of here.  Marcel, the same chap who last time recommended in case of snakebite, to cut the wound, pour in gunpowder and light it to “burn up” the venom – among other things I’m sure.  Marcel swears that a combination of garlic and rum will fend off the tsetses.  These evilest of flies are worth thwarting not just for their painful bite but also for the fact that some carry trypanosomiasis, better known as sleeping sickness – Africa’s eternal cure for insomnia.   Marcel’s trick deterrent apparently involves maintaining a steady blood level of rum while chewing slowly on garlic cloves throughout the day.  I’m still not sure though I got Marcel’s “recipe” quite straight since he was working hard on maintaining his level of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum at the time of the telling.

Marcel has a reputation for being quite the lady’s man in the Valley with his antics provoking many a round of Chinese whispers here, but I do wonder what the girls find quite so attractive about the aroma of garlic and alcohol constantly emanating from him.  Since I’m not sure about Marcel’s concoction, I suppose I could try the defense used by the Italian cross-Africa motorcyclist who followed his physician’s advice for testse bite prevention by wearing his full motorcycle leathers on a game walk in 100-degree heat.  The guide gave a comical description of this tourist’s Frankensteinian, leather-creaking gait for the short distance he managed before collapsing from heat exhaustion, though without a tsetse bite in sight.

Talk about dangerous!

Often my bush camp calls are delayed by larger creatures.  As I rounded one of the final, wash-boarded turns towards Nsefu Camp with my ears ringing from the loud trumpet of an elephant who thought I had driven too close to her baby, I was stopped abruptly by a kakuli, an old male Cape buffalo, blocking the road.  He waggled his massive horns at me just in case I had forgotten this king of my road was notorious for unprovoked charges.  I decided to spare the car’s front end from certain damage and waited for ten minutes until Mr. Buffalo decided he’d made his point and wandered off.  On another night returning home from seeing a patient late at night, I saw something big in the road grow taller and taller and develop brown blotches.  Lost in a rare bit of reverie, I thought I was looking at an apparition until the apparition suddenly turned into a very tall giraffe. 

Once I’ve run the gauntlet of bad road and large animals, I’m always greeted politely with an offer of a cold drink before I proceed with my battered aluminum medicine box in hand to see my patient.  These safari-goer patients never fail to be interesting folks hailing from around the world.  I’ve met first-timers still wide-eyed from their first glimpse of a lion in the wild and a couple in their 80s celebrating their golden wedding anniversary with their thirtieth trip to Africa.  One elderly New Zealander spoke of the magical draw of this complex and beautiful place.  She had been vomiting for most of the past two weeks as she traveled here by train from Tanzania and felt not surprisingly miserable.  She said that she had told her children she was happy to die in Africa and have her ashes scattered to the savannah wind, but she didn’t want to die “feeling this badly!”

I'm hungry.  Where's the doctor?

Once I’ve handed out my magical curative powders, I retire to the open air bar for a cold drink (lots of cold drinks involved in these bush calls you see).  Usually I’m invited to stay the night and enjoy a gourmet dinner and relaxing evening with the other guests in the oddly luxurious tents of the bush camp surrounded by the Zambian wild.  I fall asleep to the sound of lions roaring and hyenas calling just outside my tent.  Just another dull bush call in Zambia.

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This page was last updated 09/10/07