Although I realised quite early on in this endeavour that a trip to The Gambia was not exactly going to be travels through the White Geek's Grave (not only are there Peace Corps cocktail parties to attend, but within two messages of being introduced to a friend of a friend working in The Gambia he'd invited me to a pool party) I am aware that there may be a little more risk involved than in, say, a trip to Tescos to buy some teabags. For this reason I spent last weekend on a Wilderness Medical Training course organised by the Royal Geographic Society. This is the very course that Bruce Parry (on-screen taker of psychotropic drugs and chunderer extraordinaire) attended, and now he gets paid to travel round the world meeting interesting people and lives in a mansion on Ibiza for the rest of the year. Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation, but I can live in hope.
The preliminary reading certainly looked interesting if a little alarming, with its warnings to put a knotted rope down pit latrines as an emergency exit if the boards shattered. It also advised that human bites were the most likely to become infected, a useful hint in the event of zombie attack, and concluded with a stern admonishment that rectal thermometers should always be clearly labelled as such. Even a mild hangover couldn't take the edge off my excitement on Saturday morning.
I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting the other people on the course to be like, but I think muscles on top of muscles covered with facial hair and Goretex featured quite prominently in my mental image so it was a relief to discover how normal everyone looked. This lulled me into a false sense of security but I was swiftly disabused of any notion I might be as tough as the rest by the first lecture on wounds. Our lecturer warned us that some of the slides coming up would be pretty horrific and that there was no shame in leaving the room, but that it was better to find out now if we couldn't deal with it than to find out in the field. "Pish!" thought I "not only do most of my favourite movies feature eyelid eating zombies but two of my best friends are a nurse and a doctor! Why, whenever they get together the conversation inevitably turns to suppurating abdominal wounds, usually around the time the food is served! Bring it on!"
This turned out to be rather foolish. I could cope with the cut thumb. The cut hand was less pleasant but tolerable. At the slit wrist I had to look down and concentrate very hard on taking extremely thorough notes, and I'm ashamed to say that the split ankle with exposed tendons proved too much for me and I fainted clean away. Fortunately as an undergraduate I did most of my sleeping during lectures so have some experience of regaining consciousness in lecture theatres surreptitiously and with minimal flailing, but it was pretty embarrassing. Luckily when I came to the slideshow had moved on to eviscerations, and I was able to cope quite well with pictures of protruding intestines by imagining them to be Cumberland Rings.
We had a practical session in the afternoon, in which we learnt the best ways to carry an injured casualty. We then split into groups to practice making rope stretchers. I proved rather good at this, impressing an ex-army Amazon in my group enough for her to say "Wow, you really know your knots!". I thanked her, neglecting to mention that this proficiency had been acquired mostly through knitting and crochet. I skipped the after course mingling session in the bar (from experience I know that such things usually end with me having to be peeled off the floor at an embarrassingly early hour) and ran home to my bloke, who spent the evening asking me if I felt faint and generally taking the mick which I thought was a little rich coming from a man who can't even watch House while he's eating.
Sunday brought a talk on common tropical ailments, enlivened by the occasional photograph of explosive diarrhoea, and then a discussion session to teach us group decision making. We were given a scenario; with nightfall fast approaching 3,000 metres up Kilimanjaro, one of your team of twelve exhausted people starts exhibiting disturbing signs of a broken brain. What do you do? What I did was recognise that nothing in my 27 years of life experience qualified me to make that sort of decision, so I sat back on the surprisingly comfortable sofa and let the helicopter search-and-rescue pilot and the woman whose friend once ditched in the sea off the coast of Chile argue it out. They quickly decided to carry her down, which just goes to show that you can't always defer to the experts as we were than told it was most important to consider the safety of the group as a whole.
The instructor asked if anyone had ever had to stretcher an injured person out of an emergency situation. A few people had, and universally confirmed that even with a group of twenty fit people even a hundred metres was gruelling. At this point I remembered that I did in fact have some experience in a similar situation, but thought it best not to mention it as the casualty in question hadn't succumbed to harsh terrain or a tropical infection but had rendered herself incapacitated at the bottom of a cliff on Herm Island through the consumption of several bottles of cheap and nasty white wine. (Are you reading this Kat? I still haven't forgotten honey). As she retained enough mobility to render the two blokes who tried to carry her back up infertile, we decided to bundle her in a blanket and carry her up. The strange thing was that we six not especially fit seventeen year olds (half of us took computer sciences A-level for goodness sake) were able to carry her up a steep fifty-odd metre cliff path and then a further two hundred metres to the campsite, all at a brisk jog because we could feel the blanket ripping, and I certainly don't remember it being particularly arduous, yet a larger group of tough outdoorsy types testified to a similar feat being exhausting. I can only attribute the difference to the amount of cheap white wine we too had consumed, and hence suggest it might be a good idea if rescue teams get completely hammered before attempting a stretcher carry off.
The course concluded with some practical CPR training, in which we were given the depressing news that the only scenario in which CPR alone can revive someone is on Baywatch – in real life it can only keep them going until paramedics arrive. In a survival situation with no prospect of help arriving CPR is pretty pointless, and we were advised to set a limit of twenty minutes just to feel that we'd made an effort then give up. At this point I stuck my hand up and asked about situations like the one I'd be in in The Gambia, where a hospital was six hours drive away but still reachable – was there any chance of saving someone in these circumstances?
The instructor seemed rather unimpressed by the question, saying that by putting ourselves in these situations we had accepted that there would be a risk of death, and that if that wasn't the case then most people in the room wouldn't want to go. I think this may have been intended as a putdown but it actually reassured me. I may not be as tough as most of the people on that course, but I realised then that I was probably a little saner than some. I'm not doing this to push the limits of human endurance or to prove something to myself. I don't relish the prospect of ending up in a situation where I may need to amputate my own toes using only three paperclips, an underwired bra and a kiwi fruit. While obviously I'm delighted to have the opportunity to go somewhere so different from anything I've experienced before, in the end I'm going to The Gambia to get as much data on Musca sorbens as possible at the least possible personal risk. Not only was the weekend good fun and the factual information I learnt very useful (although I sincerely hope I never have to use most of it), but I do feel that this course was very helpful in clarifying my motives for this fieldtrip. I may not be explorer material, but at least I now feel a little more prepared for the rigours ahead.
Bring on the pool party.