Graham Boynton

Facing death in the African bush

Perhaps civilisation isn’t so bad after all

  • From Spectator Life

I travel to the African bush frequently, at least once a year. It takes my mind of British politics. The trips often involves watching predators hunting down their prey and then tearing the poor animals limb from limb. Red in tooth and claw, the African bushveld reminds me of the fragility and brevity of life and the ever-presence of death.

My insignificant place on the planet was thus confirmed

A week ago I was in the Botswana’s Okavango Delta, at the safari operator Natural Selection’s new North Island camp, when I suddenly found myself confronting my own mortality. I had gone to bed early after a pleasant meal in the camp’s mess with several fellow guests, including two eminent Americans, a wealthy New York investment banker and a prominent Miami medical professor. I lay in my tent dozing off to the soothing grunts of hippos in the nearby pool.

My dreams that night were vivid, as they often are when I’m in the African bush. They quickly turned to nightmares, and I found myself dreaming that I couldn’t breathe. I awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in my bed, and discovered I was fighting for breath in real life. In fact, I simply could not breathe.

After what seemed like an eternity, I managed a shallow, desperate, gulp. Then another. Then a third. This was not breathing, it was gasping at life, frantically grabbing micro-gulps of oxygen. Second after second. After about half a minute I managed to draw in half a lungful of precious oxygen and then slowly, painfully, gasping again and again, each one slightly longer than the last. 

Finally, after a good two minutes, I was breathing reasonably normally. After five minutes I felt restored to my normal self. As reality returned in the early hours of the African morning I began to contemplate the peculiar and remote circumstances in which my body had chosen to have a potentially catastrophic breakdown. Beside the bed was a SuperSound klaxon, to be used in dire emergencies to summon camp staff. This is usually activated if a wild animal has entered your tent and is threatening to disembowel you. 

No doubt someone would have responded to the emergency klaxon… but then what? We were a 50 minute flight from Maun, the main Delta town, by light aircraft. But that was in daylight hours, and at night the only things that move are the animals. It was now 3 a.m. It’s a further hour-long flight to Gaborone, the country’s capital, where the major medical facilities are located. I wouldn’t get there until some time the following day… a dramatic delay in emergency medical response.

The hippos continued to grunt as I was coming to terms with my circumstances. My insignificant place on the planet was thus confirmed. I googled ‘anaphylactic shock’ as that seemed the most plausible explanation, although I had never before had an allergic reaction to food or drink in my life. And as it was now 3 o’clock in the morning, six hours after I had eaten the camp dinner – I chose salmon instead of Botswana grass-fed beef – and drunk too much of the camp merlot, that seemed unlikely. So nervous was I of a relapse into a non-breathing state that I sat upright in my bed for the next three hours, listening to what had now become the soothing grunting of the hippos.

At dawn I staggered to breakfast and greeted my fellow North Island campers, zoning in on the American doctor, Dr E. Robert Schwartz, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Miami School of Medicine. His calm assessment was comforting. He assured me that had this event been life-threatening I would not be standing before him confidently describing the alarming experiences of the previous night. His reassurances dissuaded me from calling in an emergency light aircraft to casevac me to hospital. It probably had been some kind of anaphylactic shock caused by something I’d eaten. Maybe the salmon.

Equilibrium restored, I headed out in our Land Cruiser after breakfast to watch a pack of wild dogs stalking a buffalo herd, seeking out the vulnerable old members of the group. To kill the weak. Had they succeeded there would have been blood. Death. To my great relief they failed.

I do not recommend such a skirmish with mortality to anyone. The remoteness of an African bush camp is one of its main appeals – to escape the overwhelming crush of the overpopulated, over-mechanised, over-organised modern world. That remains an attractive option as long as everything’s OK. But the minute something goes wrong – as it did for me that night – you realise that you’re as vulnerable and dispensable as an old buffalo on the African plains. And you recognise the virtues of the modern world these safari outfitters are constantly imploring us to abandon for their nirvanas.