Monday, February 24, 2020

Nilotic Jeopardy: Finale

our escort paddling across the Nile
When my Italian ex and I were visiting the Sudan in 1979, word had it that one of the few tourist destinations in the South was the Nimule game park, within range of the regional capital Juba, and that foreigners couldn’t go there without a permit. The number of interlocutors, rubber stamps, and banknotes we went through to obtain one in Khartoum made Italian bureaucracy seem like child’s play.
When we eventually made it to Juba and handed over the hard-earned permit to a government official, he tore it up. The guerilla war of the black South against the Arab North had nominally ended seven years earlier, but for all practical purposes Sudan was already two countries joined at the waist (their divorce finalized in 2011). Another round of stamp-wielding bureaucrats, another wad of dough, another permit.
Our next problem was how to get to Nimule. At that particular moment, this was a non-trivial issue. All of Juba’s fuel was trucked in from Uganda, and the border had been closed for months, so gasoline was a mirage. But perseverence – and perhaps bribery, I can’t remember now – succeeded in landing us a jeep complete with a driver, a hanger-on, and some kind of liquid in its tank. 
The first minutes of our Nimule safari provided an unexpected sartorial lesson. From our daily treks to the market we thought we knew the local costume: a draping of cloth or animal skin ample enough to cover the vital parts, topped off by a necklace of glass or blue plastic beads. But when we crossed the river heading southeast out of town, around 9 am, we encountered some market sellers who had cleared their merchandise early and were changing out of their work clothes. We stopped to watch. Each removed his piece of drapery, folded it, placed it on his head to double as a support to balance his market basket, and walked off still wearing his necklace but otherwise stark naked, penis swinging.
Between the nearly impassable rocky road, one flat tire, and several mechanical breakdowns, it was dark before we were deposited at the official Nimule lodge 120 miles away, a sub-basic establishment perched on a small hill just outside the game park entrance. 
At dawn we tromped into the park on foot, in the company of a guide with a rifle slung around his neck whose stride was twice mine and who never let up for a moment. After a couple of debilitating hours without seeing a hint of wildlife, we reached the bank of the Nile. The river was wide but full to the brim, and frighteningly swift. Andrea, the guide, and I piled into a dugout canoe with two paddlers, and a small boy climbed into another one, alone. The river was rushing by so fast that the oar-wielders had to angle their canoes’ noses upstream at a good 70ยบ and then paddle like mad, in order to reach the bank just opposite our starting point . . .
 . . . but, as it turned out, not quite. When we emerged from the fast-moving part of the river to where the water was still and full of rushes, about 50 yards from shore, the guide motioned for us to take off our shoes and wade the rest of the way. As a doctor I knew this was a bad idea. Still water full of rushes means one thing in Africa: bilharzia, a/k/a schistosomiasis. Wade in that water and the snails clinging to the rushes will pour out myriad tiny parasites whose life’s mission is to crawl through your skin, work their way into either your urinary tract or your intestines depending on whether they’re named Hematobium or Mansoni – in Southern Sudan both types are rampant – and destroy your kidneys, liver, brain, or all three, causing agonizing pain as they go. We begged, we pleaded, but the boatsmen refused to take us closer to land. I’m sure they had no idea what we were complaining about, since for them schistosomiasis was just part of normal life – in that area, it still is. So it was wade in the water or give up on seeing any of that game we had come all this way for. In the end what we did was take off our shoes but leave on our socks, then splash through the stagnant water as fast as we could, trying to outrace the little buggers.
Yet another entry to add to my incubation period countdown, and a long one: you can’t be sure you’ve escaped schistosomiasis until you’ve made it six months without symptoms.
As far as wild animals were concerned the expedition was a total wash: all we saw was a single family of warthogs. At least we got an adrenalin rush out of them, when mama pig, papa pig, and a pack of piglets dashed precipitously, tails in the air, out of a hidey-hole under our noses so close that the guide pointed his rifle. 
How come a game park had no animals? Our hotel manager let us in on the secret: they had all been killed and eaten by guerilla fighters during the war.
The reverse Nile crossing was uneventful, as would have been the hike back to the lodge if we hadn’t run prematurely out of water. It was still the middle of the day and I lagged farther and farther behind Andrea and the guide, exhausted and shriveling in the sun. At the foot of our hotel’s little hill I admitted defeat and lay down in the dust, curled up in the rudimentary shade of a thorn tree.  
For a half hour or so with nobody coming to my rescue I worked on gathering my dehydrated strength. When it it started to look like I had been permanently abandoned to my fate, I struggled up the hill on two and four limbs, only to find my husband swigging beer with the hotelier and claiming, unpersuasively, that he had been about to go fetch me. Too dazed and sick from heat exhaustion to properly express my fury, I instead vomited a couple of times, drank a vast quantity of water, and passed out on the mattress. Andrea had the nerve to complain, years later, that I’d been a wimp.
Next day at dawn we headed back to Juba. The vehicle crept along without much mishap until well after nightfall, when it died some six miles outside of town. Despite our protests the driver wouldn’t even make a stab at fixing it – we suspected he had his own nefarious reasons for staying put. But the wheels were totally in his power so our only option was to set off on foot. Musically, at least, that hike was memorable – the silence of the moonlit night periodically broken by drumming that would reach us from a far-off Dinka cattle camp, fade away, then return as another camp came within earshot. 
back from Nimule, dusty and famished
Back at the hotel, hours into the night and well past dinner hour, we plunked ourselves down at a table hungrily anticipating the dozen gristly bits of mystery meat that every day of our stay thus far had been the restaurant’s unvarying entree, morning noon and night. But what arrived on our plates this time was white instead of the usual grey-brown. We were thrilled – fish!
One bite banished the thrill. The white morsels weren’t fish at all but chunks of fat, left over after the restaurant ran out of meat. If you don’t count a cup of milky tea, we went to bed without supper.
Nowadays, they say, the Nimule game park is easier to reach, and teeming with elephants. But apparently unexploded landmines and the like make it an even more dubious destination today than it was four decades ago, when the worst thing we risked was a case of schistosomiasis.


  1. A fun read! Thank you for crossing off a risky bucket list item for those of us less brave...Happy the little buggers missed you!

    1. I wasn't brave, just young and stupid (and married to a guy who was obsessed with Africa)