I’ve been volunteering with Game Rangers International out in the deepest darkest depths of the Zambian bush for a few weeks, have fully settled in and am loving bush life.
Picture the scene
I get out of the bush shower at about 6.15am. I go to grab my towel off the hook and throw it over my shoulders. An immediate, fierce, piercing pain penetrates my right shoulder, making me instinctively drop my shoulder and rip my towel off.
Within milliseconds I’ve gone through the potential culprits – a tsetse fly? Nope, worse than that. Likewise with a thorn in my towel – it feels different. Then I see a 3cm ish long black beetle scuttle away from me underneath the awning, its black pincers leading the way.
F&CK. A scorpion. I’m going to die. Sh%t.
My first thought is guilt for my mum and brother, how they will go through hell because I’ve gone and got myself killed in Africa. I get dressed – putting on leggings when still soaking wet with the massive shakes is no easy task – and peg it over to my manager Jeni’s tent.
‘Err Jeni? I’ve been stung by something and I don’t know what it was.’
I don’t want to say it was a scorpion as my knowledge of African insects is decidedly sketchy and I don’t want to be a drama queen. Within seconds there is a medical kit and a southern Africa insect book laid out in front of me. We skim through and find the scorpions, which are looking eerily similar. I have found my nemesis, or a near enough relative, at least.
It’s painful, but that’s not what brings me to tears. It’s the idea that I might drop dead in sub 30 minutes. At this stage, I have no idea what I’m dealing with. Jeni calls the GRI CEO, Sport, and I describe what I saw – about 3cms, big pincers, black.
‘What about the tail?’ he asks. I didn’t notice it so assume it wasn’t that big.
‘Well, sounds like a scorpion, eh?’ I hear down the phone in his casual Zimbabwean tone.
‘Yes, it seems that way,’ I reply nonchalantly, or so I hope, my mouth drying instantly.
He asks how I feel… Pain at the top of my right arm, just below my shoulder. It’s like a really bad dead arm with a bee sting but much, much more intense. I also have the serious shakes – but assume that’s the shock and adrenaline pumping through my veins.
‘Any nausea or shortness of breath?’
‘Only now you’ve mentioned it…’
Is the pain moving from your arm?’
‘Now you mention it, my left leg is tingling…’
‘You’re not going to die.’
‘No. Zambia scorpions aren’t lethal. It’s going to hurt like hell but it won’t kill you.’
Literally, the best words I have ever heard – this guy is a man of the bush and knows his stuff. I immediately feel better.
‘It’s going to be painful.’
‘That’s fine! I can cope with pain. Bring the pain ON! I just don’t want to die…’
So it transpires that Zambian scorpions don’t kill
This is excellent news. Yet it’s not quite that clear cut. Just with bee stings, you can have a reaction to a scorpion sting – and some people react worse than others, some people die, never knowing beforehand that they were allergic. Hence the quizzing about shortness of breath, tight chest, pain anywhere else in my body.
So Sport explains that to get a really accurate assessment of how my body is reacting, I need to stay calm. Me getting all panicky may mask a more severe reaction. My mindfulness meditation practice kicks in – concentrating on my breathing, keeping it steady.
Within 20 minutes I’m feeling relatively calm but also pretty weird, a bit shaky, very spaced out and generally all over the shop. We jump into the truck and head to the nearby Mukambi safari lodge for some ice to put on the sting.
Being welcomed to the ‘scorpion club’
The reaction at the lodge is more of amusement than panic – and the general lack of concern provides great relief.
‘Congratulations – you’ve been initiated!’, says one guy.
‘Ah yeah, I’ve been stung four times. One time I walked around all day with a scorpion in my boot,’ the lodge owner regales. ‘My daughter got stung on the face when she was four years old.’
Added to that are the conflicting ways of how best to treat it.
‘Antihistamine and not painkillers.’
‘Take painkillers but not antihistamine.’
‘Have sugary tea and coke to get your blood sugar levels back up.’
‘Don’t drink anything except small sips of water.’
‘Don’t move your arm – you’ll spread the poison around your body.’
‘Keep your arm moving if i doesn’t hurt to, as you need to spread out the poison.’
The resident army guru/sniper/anti-poaching training ex-police dude by the name of Clive arrives at the lodge from camp to check me over. He confirms that I’m doing good and there’s nothing to worry about, I just need to ride it out.
Emergency helicopter on standby
The helicopter that is currently on standby in Lusaka to come and pick me up is told to hold fire. I speak to the evacuation emergency services doctor, Finley, talking him through my symptoms, and we agree he doesn’t need to fly up in his chopper to rescue me just yet. Gutted.
Finley talks me through the next 48 hours – I’m in for a rough ride, it seems. Serious headaches, feeling very clammy, a lot of pain at the sting site, aches everywhere else. Essentially, it’s the poison working through my body.
We ice the sting site and it’s painful but not agony. The rest of my arm feels a bit numb and my legs feel a bit odd but I think that’s the nerves more than anything.
I can’t express how reassuring it is to have all these people around me helping and checking up on me and making assessments. I hadn’t met any of these people three weeks ago but feel so cared for.
Later that morning I try and get some rest but general weirdness and clamminess prevent sleep. I end up pouring bottled water onto towels and wrapping myself in them to cool down.
Family in the dark
I decide not to tell family or friends back in the UK. What’s the point in worrying them when it’s clear I’m going to be fine? Thanks to everyone who’s with me being so bloody awesome, I don’t feel I need to. A true reflection of the brilliant people working at GRI and the lodge.
I hit a wall later in the day and am white as a sheet, apparently. I’m SO tired and groggy and slightly tight chested, which is something Doctor Finley told me to look out for. I go to bed at 6.30pm and, lying in my tent, I’m pretty freaked out that I might not wake up the next day. I’ve been told it will be all be ok, but there’s still that niggling feeling of a random, totally unexpected delayed reaction.
And then it’s the next morning – and I’m alive!
I check in with the delightful Finley who tells me that my tight chest pain is ‘just the poison working through your organs’. GREAT. The rest of the day is peaks and troughs. One minute I’m my usual bouncy/hyperactive self and the next, I’m sound asleep in a chair.
The following day – 48 hours after The Sting – I’m back on my A game. I can barely feel any pain in my shoulder, just a dull dead-arm pain with a bee-sting on top. I’ve avoided any really painful headaches and the chest pain has subsided.
I am even back on my beloved Savannah cider that evening – all is well in the world.
That’s life in the bush – I love it!
Love, Rach x