Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

Sir Francis Drake died of dysentery while attacking the town of San Juan in Puerto Rico.

He was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Henry V succumbed to it at 35. Accounts of the African missionary explorer David Livingstone's lingering death from dysentery make grim reading. Near the end he was too weak to hold a pencil. He was found dead on his knees in prayer. Tough guy Ernest Hemingway had so many bowel movements in a short time he suffered a prolapse and afterwards went into a physical and mental decline. In Africa it is said to kill hundreds of thousands of children under five annually.

The first time I had dysentery, I had the watery, Shigellosis version. It visited me on a three-day hike up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Dysentery is inconvenient, apart from anything else. I ran out of toilet paper almost immediately and resorted afterwards to chapters torn from a paperback thriller, leaves and, above the tree line, smooth stones. My first week in Africa. I'd been on a derailed train and now this.

We were a party of 22, plus porters and a guide. During the afternoon of the second day my difficulties were compounded by altitude sickness and I fell behind. Each step took the whole of my strength and willpower to accomplish. In a weird volcanic landscape ominously dotted with small cairns, I gave up, lay down on my back, and 'half in love with easeful death' closed my eyes, and drifted pleasantly away.

Presently I heard voices and the approaching footsteps on the gravel of another party of hikers. Scandinavians, I think they were. Too weak to open my eyes, I heard them crowding around to have a closer look at the corpse.

Titters. Someone made a joke. Laughter. Then the clicking and whirring of camera shutters held close to my face. Another witty comment.

More laughter. Then they moved off, and the sound of gravelly footsteps and lighthearted conversation receded into silence.

I was rescued by the guide, who returned and assisted me back down the mountainside.

Our party was travelling west in a Bedford truck. After Kilimanjaro we visited the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater and game reserve.

I spent most of the time squatting in the bushes. It became a way of life. As our group assigned unspoken roles to its constituent members, I found an early niche as the invalid with his trousers down. …

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