f you study an 18th-century map of Africa, you will note that the northern half of the continent was charted in great detail. Every dune in the Sahara, every dried-up stream in what’s now Sudan, every goat trail in the vast heat of Egypt: all of it had been explored and recorded by lantern-jawed ex-public-school boys with big shorts and stiff upper lips.
It was the same story in the south, but in the middle there were no details at all. It simply said “Uncharted Africa”. And that’s always puzzled me, because what was stopping them? The weather is usually lovely, there are no impenetrable mountain ranges, fresh water is plentiful and delicious food grows from every bush and every tree.
And yet somehow, despite the area being no more taxing than the Dordogne, explorers couldn’t even find Lake Victoria. Which is a bit like saying: “Well, we’ve looked all over Hyde Park and we can’t find the Serpentine.” Lake Victoria is massive. It takes 18 hours to cross on a ferry. So how the bloody hell did they manage to miss it?
If they were capable of saying to tribal leaders: “Hello, can we have some of your boys to carry our stuff, and some of your girls for other things?”, then surely they would have had the ability to say: “Is there a big lake near here?” And yet they didn’t. Instead, they’d get back to their mates at base camp on the sun-kissed beaches of Dar es Salaam and write to the Royal Geographical Society in London asking for more money so they could go back next year for another look. “It’s very perilous here,” they would say, “and we are very brave.”
To prove how brave they were, they would commission artists to make sketches of them fighting lions and 8ft cannibals. And then, to ram the peril home even more clearly, they came up with a brilliant idea: malaria. They claimed that the psychotic episodes they were having had nothing to do with the dodgy opium they’d ingested the previous night, but were in fact caused by, er, insect bites. “Bloody hell, Blashers — that’s a brilliant wheeze.”
People are still employing this tactic today. Whenever you read about a celebrity who’s caught “malaria” while doing important charity work in a remote African village, you just know it’s a smokescreen to mask the fact they’ve overdone the charlie at the Firehouse.
When I came round, I was a zombie, wandering around with a silly smile on my face
Now, it’s completely out of hand. Whenever you go to a doctor to say you’re going to the tropics, he doesn’t say: “Ooh, you might break your arm or get run over.” No. He says: “Ooh, you might get malaria” and gives you a course of pills that only slightly lessen the chances of you catching it. Frankly, I’m sure it’s all a travel company ruse to make your holiday feel more exotic, but, whatever, we all fall for it.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, US soldiers were given Lariam, but quite soon the top brass realised this made everyone go stark staring bonkers. Which is not something you want to see in a man who has a fully loaded machinegun slung over his shoulder. It’s said that many of the people who were diagnosed with PTSD were actually suffering from the effects of the anti-malarial pills.
So, a new drug was introduced. You’re supposed to take one every day, but what happens is, you take it for a couple of days and then you forget. As Richard Hammond once said: “If I were a girl, I’d be pregnant a lot.”
If you do remember, they mess up your liver, which means the very doctor who prescribed them will pull a serious post-medical face six months later and say you’ve been drinking too much. And that’s just the start of it.
For a trip to Mozambique last week, I started taking them as instructed, and that night I had some truly weird dreams. I’m not going to tell you what they were, because there is nothing more boring than listening to someone going on about something that didn’t actually happen.
The next two nights I didn’t sleep at all. So I consulted a doctor, who said he’d cure this by giving me an antihistamine, which put me into a coma so deep you could have removed my spleen for transplant. When I came round, many hours later, I was a zombie, wandering around with a silly smile on my face, being nice to James May. And so it continued until I threw my malaria pills in the sea and went back to being normal.
Later I spoke with a South African friend, who said I’d been stupid. Mozambique, he explained, in the wet season is a malarial cesspit and I’d surely die in screaming agony very soon. Yeah, yeah. This is just a trick Africans have picked up from Livingstone and Speke, making out that life there is harsh and unforgiving. When it’s no such thing.
Almost all of Africa is fabulous, and Mozambique is one of its jewels, and you don’t want it to pass you by in a foggy blur of sleepless nights, hallucinations and poor co-ordination.
If, for some reason, you can’t accept that malaria is just a Victorian invention to screw the Royal Geographical Society out of more money, then fine. Take your holidays in Bridlington. Or write to Santa to see if he has any suggestions.
Alternatively, you could try to sleep while wrapped in Ena Sharples’s curtains or buy repellent that will keep insects at bay but will also dissolve your clothes, your watch strap, your iPhone and your sleeping bag just as surely as dipping them in a vat of sulphuric acid.
The best solution is: take up smoking. Because if you hammer your way through 40 fags a day, every mosquito in the world is going to screw up its nose and feed instead from the lemon zesty buttocks of the fresh-air fanatic in the next tent.