Malaria Vector Control: Spraying Programme

Each year at this time the Ministry of Health and Social Services’ Environmental Health Division run a three-month long Malaria Vector Control program. This involves teams travelling all over the malarial areas of Namibia and spraying residences with DDT.

Sadly one of the drivers had a death in their family last week and had to travel to the funeral. In dire straights they searched high and low for a suitable replacement driver for a few days and when none could be found I was volunteered. My feeble attempts to get out of driving and camping deep in the bush during the rainy season came to nothing and with my work actually up-to-date and no training sessions on those days I had no excuses.

Ministry of Health and Social Services Muddy Malaria Control

Wednesday

With the car loaded up with chemicals, my camping gear and some of the team we headed out 14km on tar and then off into the bush for another 140km.

The rains have well and truly started now in Opuwo and the road which was fine last time I was along it (4 weeks ago) had changed from being fairly good dirt and gravel into long stretches of quagmire, gulleys filled with water and in some places had disappeared entirely.

Though the morning started out clear by the time we were well on our way to link up with the existing team the heavens opened with a torrential downpour.

I’ve done a few river and swamp crossings during my time here (and thank my lucky stars for the Swamp Driving Adventure Weekend experience in Caprivi – hi Vivien!) but that was different; either fords through a river with solid gravel (or even concrete) underneath or swampy pools you could pretty much judge the depth of. These however were raging torrents of brown water appearing seemingly from nowhere and just cutting through the road.

As well as the detritus flowing along them there was no clue as to the depth or what might lay on the bottom.

Needless to say I used a combination of pressing all the off-road buttons in the car, flooring it and screaming. We had a couple of close calls where we entered to the left of the road and by the time we had crossed and juddered up the other side were almost off the right-hand side.

The trusty Mazda did well though and with brown water flowing over the bonnet and bits of tree shooting past found enough traction to always pull us through. Only once did members of the team try and abandon ship by bailing out but were too paralysed by fear to work the windows.

Eventually we found the team in the field, packed up their camp and headed back (now with a trailer on for added drag through the rivers) to a new campsite nearer to Opuwo (the new site being near Mashamba’s Gap a place named after our erstwhile Control Health Inspector who once spent three days there waiting for waters to subside and get home).

Unfortunately the rains continued all afternoon. Although the spraying can theoretically be done in the rain people have to leave their houses for 30 minutes which they are understandably reluctant to do during heavy downpours. So we were forced to wait the rain out (strangely reminiscent of DoorCan days).

Rain Near Orumana

By the time the weather broke it was getting late and we just pitched camp and did some of the local area.

In the cool evening a fire was built and we sat around waffling to each other. In addition to two good friends of mine who it turned out were with us all the sprayers were a great bunch who made an effort to include me (and translate for me some of the dirtier jokes made in Otjiherero) with the standard questions as to how well I knew David Beckham and how many cows I had at home.

Thursday

Around eight we were off with my car filled with spraying gear and seven spraypeople (four on the back seat and two on the front passenger seat).

DDT Malaria Vector Control Spray Gear

With no rain after 6pm the night before and now a bright blue sky and hot sun the raging torrents had for the most part vanished leaving wide mud-filled ravines or massive standing puddles (more like lakes).

Again the Mazda even with my feckless driving managed to get us through these muddy abysses with the new added bonus that the oversized “knobbly” (technical term) wheels then threw great clods of mud up and over the car landing on the bonnet, roof or through the drivers window.

We were soon off the “main” road and bumping along goat tracks through the scrub finding small villages and dropping spraypeople off. On a few occasions even my trusty navigational team got lost or found our route blocked by a newly formed ditch that was impassable.

With the low-speed high-revs driving of getting into the foothills of some mountains and through swampy bits the car started to overheat. At one point we stopped in a village and you could hear the radiator boiling. It was just on the point of boiling over with some coolant coming out of the overflow but cooled off soon enough.

Investigating (and worried I had broken something in one of the more energetic obstacle crossings) it turned out there were a lot of seeds in the radiator, a common hazard. They had certainly been there since the dry season but at speed enough air was forced through to keep everything cool. We decided to crack on and just keep an eye on it.

Dropping off part of the team at a larger settlement we headed “to the other side of the mountain” up and over some steep passes and through lots of standing water.

It was then disaster struck.

We came to a shallow mud-filled depression about 20 feet or so across. Owing to some trees in the way I couldn’t just plough through with a fair speed in a straight line, we would have go through slowly and turn as we went. No problem there had been plenty of similar ones before.

Yet again engaging all the 4wd low range and diff-lock goodness we ploughed in, churning up mud in impressive fountains and sinking deeper until we stuck about halfway through with the wheels spinning but going nowhere. Tried a little bit of rocking and a higher gear for less torque without effect.

So standard procedure – back out and try again.

Into reverse and we went back a foot or so before coming to a stop again. Inch forwards and then backwards with plenty of power.

Yet again we were stuck and I kept the power on hoping the wheels would bite on something.

Suddenly they did and we jumped back but not in a straight line, the rear slewed to the right and just as I stamped on the brake a tree branch met the rear canopy window.

Smash.

“Fiddlesticks” (though I may have used a stronger word or words).

So not only were we still stuck but we now had a smashed rear canopy. The branch hadn’t actually come in, just tapped the rear window and shattered it.

Stuck in the Mud

Note the above picture actually shows us part way through the recovery – at the main stuck point we were axle-deep in the mud. Which was fun.

With nothing for it we clambered out to inspect the damage and try to find a way out. At this point I fell over in the mud much to the amusement of the other people in the car.

We had a plan though and some people were dispatched to find branches while I scraped as much mud as possible off the tyres to expose some of the tread.

With branches under the wheels and along the escape route with the car lined up correctly I floored it and after a sickening moment of wheels zipping around got up the side and out of the depression. Home free. We then broke off the rest of the glass from the canopy to avoid the sharp shards that were all around the window.

Muddy Leg After Falling Over

Onwards we continued to the settlements “behind the mountain” and sprayed lots of houses. We had to cross the same point another three times but this time picked a route we could go at straight and with enough speed.

Eventually finished there we ground back through the foothills to recover the people dropped off at the large settlement and make our way back.

They were nowhere to be found.

Communication with the people living there gave a number of different versions on where they had gone and we spent quite a while circling around trying to find them. In the end some guys at a shebeen said the other car had picked them up and been last seen heading out to the area we had been in.

We waited on the road and talked to a few locals but without any more positive sightings. The idea to go and look for them in the bush was dropped as it was now getting dark and in the myriad of roads we could pass each other and not know it.

Luckily the other car turned up and did indeed have our spray people onboard. They had gone to look for us thinking the worst with our overheating problem.

Though we were fine and back out it was great of the other car to go looking to rescue us in those conditions.

On the way back we came upon a (new) massive but slow-moving river (no doubt the run off from the hills we’d been up on during the day). Crossing this was a bit harrowing as the bottom suddenly fell away and the surface level was up to our windows – luckily momentum, a bow wave (to keep the water below the air intake) and plenty of power in low-range kept the engine going and we made it out the other side before it quit on us.

A few spluttering restarts and then a minute or so revving wildly to dry it out and all was well again.

Back to camp for tea and medals.

Friday

Dismantled the camp and packed everything up into both cars and the trailer. The weather was still on our side with lovely blue skies and no rain.

The trailer was held together and closed with bits of wire which were none to clever and with our back window out I drove as convoy leader so the car behind could pull us over when something snapped and stuff was in danger of coming out.

When the trailer needed re-closing everyone piled on top to keep the lid down so the wire could be wrapped tightly on the catch.

Malaria Vector Control Convoy Closing Trailer Lid

We did some more large settlements and then with business concluded for the week came back to Opuwo through the mud and rivers then eventually back on the tar road (yippee!) in time to unload and for me to present myself at the Regional Office with head held in shame and own up to the canopy.

The logistics staff took one look at me, mud-caked and with a haunted 1000 yard stare and said “Good God, what happened?”.

They were really good about the damage saying “these things happen in the rains”, assuring me the Malaria team had already damaged three vehicles more seriously and that the replacement canopy would be quite cheap. I think as usual they were amazed with my poor driving skills we had made it back at all.

Got home to find some friends had arrived for our planned weekend away at Epupa and after a hot shower and a cold beer felt almost quarter human again.

Lessons Learnt

  • ARRRRGH! The mud! The water! The raging brown torrents of filth! NEVER AGAIN.
  • My Caprivi adventure in the floods and in the swampy gamepark though unsuccessful on the elephant front was a vital learning experience
  • Those Malaria Control Teams; boy they work hard and in terrible conditions
  • The Mazda; she good
  • If you can go around an obstacle then do but if you can’t then pray to Zeus and hang on
  • They’re really not joking about this rainy season treacherous travel business. No Siree
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