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Show and Tell: The bugs in my notebook


'Parasites, that's what worries you'
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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So the point, the really important point about Borneo, don't think you're offending everybody: really make sure you have two water bottles, one either side, and one of them is always brewing with puritabs, with chlorine. Because there was a hero of mine, actually, who was at Oxford, McKinnon, he got the very best job, the plum task, which was to go and study the sex life of the orang-utan in Borneo. Now it turned out nobody knew, but it was bad luck for him, that firstly, that the orang-utan doesn't really have a sex life. They meet every five years. So his film was full of orang going [looking around] and that would be it. And then you'd see very slowly getting together with the female, a great moment of film. And then slowly parting. And that was it. She'd have her babies, you know. It was no big deal. And so that was the first piece of bad luck. He never sold his film. And then the second was that he thought that he had to drink with everybody... he mustn't purify his water, he had to absolutely join in, and he came back, and he had just 13 weeks in a year when he was okay, without worms hatching from his bloodstream, from his blood, from different organs.

And there were... I think it was 23 papers written on all the new parasites that had been found in his blood at the Radcliffe. Well, that's pretty staggering. I mean, now he's more or less alright. But he couldn't do a thing. There were just 13 weeks of the year that he could operate. And I went to his lecture when he got back, you know, the great man, our student hero. There he was, he could hardly hold the lecture cue. And he was yellow. He was just this dark yellow. And then he went into hospital. Still, I'm proud to say when I get back from these trips, I go straight into the Radcliffe to the Tropical Diseases Department, and I thought, how wonderful these people are. I am so grateful. And then I thought, 'Well, hang on a minute. I've given so much blood I can hardly bloody walk, and they haven't got the money to go out and see if these diseases... they're just hoping that I'm going to make their names for them. I'll just have a little blood.' And then, so you get cleaned up, but that's the real horror about it all, is it's not dramatic things like being... having an arrow put through you, it's stuff like Chagas Disease, which is CHAGAS. And Rhodnius prolixus, a big bug, drops on your head. If it's infected, its brain is full of... full of this Trypanasona and it crawls down your cheek, swings around, bites you, and defecates on the bite. You think it's a mosquito, and the itchiness, and you scratch, and this puts the Trypanasones into your system. And it's simple, but there's no cure. There's no money in anybody researching it. You die from between a year and 20 years from this parasite. It just eats the muscle of the heart, that's what it likes to eat. And there was a time when people thought Darwin had it, but anyway... And I got one of these things, put my hand up, thought it was a mosquito, this beautiful, big, violent and black-veined bug, and I whopped it in a notebook. But luckily, I'd felt it. It's got long, long legs, and it didn't bite me, but that was a bad moment.

It's parasites, that's what worries you. Something that will take 10-15% of your energy, and therefore stop you being a writer.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Borneo, John MacKinnon

Duration: 4 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 01 November 2017