There is never a good moment to contract typhoid, and I’ve had it three times in Nepal. With a two-week incubation period, many different strains, and highly contagious through shit and spit, I never did work out where I picked it up each time.
The first was on a 1985 recce, a trek that turned out to be the nascence of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). It is humbling to find that you cannot put one foot in front of another, especially when hiking with super-scientists Roger Payne (whales), Iain Douglas Hamilton (elephants) and Bruce Bunting (WWFUS).
We had been despatched on our mission by Nepali conservationist Hemanta Mishra who went on with others to push through the ground-breaking ACAP idea. Nepal’s conservation areas and especially Annapurna are still cited as a world model of how a nationally protected park managed by local communities can become self-supporting through tourism.
Iain and I were climbing the Landrung hill through sunny terraced fields when the fever hit. One minute I was fine, and the next I was shuddering with sweat and dazed with weakness. Every step was an effort and the afternoon sun sheered into my eyes.
“If this was Kenya I would suspect bilharzia or yellow fever,” Iain declared unhelpfully. He supported me safely home, peering with puzzled concern through heavy horn-rimmed glasses. Despite a variety of antibiotics the fever lasted 16 days, debilitating limbs, sapping the soul, the mind teetering on the edge of delirium. It took me weeks to find the strength to walk across my tiny garden, and many months before I recovered normal energy levels.
Nearly ten years later I caught a lighter bout in Kathmandu and lay shivering in our Maharajganj house trying to get better quicker by enforced rest, gripped by the first Poldark video series about glamorous smugglers along the Cornish coast. It was 1994 and I needed to regain my strength fast as I was due in Kyrgyzstan — tourism colleague Oliver Bennett of Deloittes was relying on me for a government tourism marketing strategy.
Oliver was an old school consultant, always dressing as though in his native city of London — to my certain knowledge wearing pinstriped suits on every mountain, lake and beach assignments.
The shortage of fuel in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan meant the Bishkek airport was closed. Instead, battling weakness, I flew to Tashkent and was driven 12 hours through breathtakingly remote country by a couple of nuclear physicists who needed to make a buck – the economy was a shambles and I never met a single Kyrgyz who did not long to be back in the USSR.
Nurturing my strength and thanks to Oliver’s protection, I managed to struggle through. Part of our brief was ecotourism training sessions with the budding Kyrgyz private sector. Emerging from the Soviet system, they had trouble with the concept of capitalism, enquiring with all seriousness whether their companies were permitted to make a profit.
Exploring the historic Silk Route attractions of Kyrgyzstan, the hooves of Genghis Khan’s invaders could be readily imagined hammering across the open grasslands. We sampled Issikul Lake mineral treatments, formerly reserved for the communist elite, pummelled by fierce ladies in white coats with strong fingers.In woodland dachas, as guests of friendly mountaineers trying to start adventure travel businesses, we drank vodka in fragrant saunas.
We marvelled at ancient engraved marker stones and discussed snow leopard viewing with Elburz mountain smugglers. I galloped knee to knee down a verdant valley with the gallant EBRD client Khalid after milking mares with yurt-dwelling nomads. At the evening feast Oliver, squatting in his crumpled suit, had to cope with the prized sheep’s eyes. I was disdained having asked one brightly clad nomad lady how long her child had been riding horses — since birth, of course.
By the third attack I thought I was getting used to typhoid. This time was in Mustang with a group of down-under friends on a 2008 circuit of the trans-Himalayan high spots around Lo Manthang. We had hoped to circumambulate Mount Kailash so it was a compromise, defeated by the fluctuating vagaries of Tibetan visa policy.
They were an experienced bunch, and loved the rugged walking and splashed ochres of Mustang’s grandiose scenery (photo, left). We had happily negotiated sheer drops to view prehistoric paintings, explored ancient stupas within a cliff-face cave, avoided charging thar on a steep hillside, and even glimpsed a pair of snow leopards on a distant ridge – or so the excited horsemen assured us.
I was zigzagging up the dusty trail to Tsarang, having linked arms to cross the flooded river in our boots, and couldn’t understand why my unwilling feet suddenly had no energy. Highland Doctor Jamie was waiting for me at the top. “I’m all right,” I protested.
“No you’re not.” Jamie’s Scottish lilt was emphatic. “Looks like typhoid to me and we can’t risk waiting for a helicopter.” For the next three days back to Jomosom he followed my pony closely as I swayed precariously in the saddle, helping me stagger into my tent at night. Haggard, dusty and sweat stained I remember little of the flight to Kathmandu, and this time was hospitalised on a drip, and instructed to stay in bed for days. I did not demur, and can confirm first hand that compulsory rest is the best road to recovery.