It gets kind of depressing, wondering if you'll be dead by next weekend.
On assignment for National Geographic a week ago, I was deep inside a cave in Uganda, photographing a roost of 100,000 Egyptian fruit bats. I tread carefully, watching out for the pythons and forest cobras hunting the cave floor. Turns out that was the least of my worries.
Exiting the cave at dusk, I had just taken off my respirator and glasses when I heard a tremendous noise above my head, the sound of a thousand wind-up toys all going at once. A hot gust of wind followed as nearly every bat in the cave poured up and out into the night sky.
I looked up, just for a second, and caught a dollop of fresh guano directly in my left eye. It was hot and it burned. I knew this was a "wet contact," as bad as a bite.
Back at camp, I immediately called the Ugandan arm of the Centers for Disease Control to see what they knew, if anything, about those bats. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "You shouldn't have gone in there," he said. "Marburg circulates in that cave." I instantly started to sweat, then to tear up. The Marburg virus causes a terrible, messy death. It creates hemorrhagic fever (translation: you bleed, everywhere) that's similar to Ebola (only it kills you a little faster, sometimes).
If I'm infected, the symptoms will arrive three to 21 days post-contact; severe headache, organ failure, and a raging fever so bad you won't remember much if you live. The disease is 90 percent fatal if treated in Africa. "Go home now," the man said, "before you have any chance of becoming contagious."
I'm in quarantine now, inside my own house in Lincoln, Nebraska. From a small bedroom that overlooks the street, I see it's sunny outside, with white puffy clouds. The birds are singing, and a garbage truck rattles and roars on the next block over. Like clockwork, my dog barks at the mailman. Indeed, the whole world acts as if nothing at all is wrong. Don't they know what's going on in here? Of course not. If they did it would make the national news.
I must stay away from my family at all times. If I'm a carrier and so much as kiss my kids goodnight, they could die too. So, I don't do much. I just sit and think. Do I feel hot? Does my head hurt? Yes? Maybe? Maybe not? At the slightest onset of a high temperature, I'm to drive immediately to the nearest hospital, just two miles away, where they have already set up a negative pressure room with my name on it.
Up until now this story had been a thrilling ride. We'd put camera traps on water holes and carcasses, getting hippo, hyena, lion, and leopard from just inches away. I watched vervet monkeys steal the food right off my dinner plate. I'd been charged by elephant, lion, and mountain gorilla. Of course there are times when it was simply grim.
In the capital city of Kampala, one gets a taste of what the end of the world might look like. Uganda is a country that can sustainably hold 8 to 9 million people. They're at 34 million now, on their way to 80 to 90 million by mid-century. The cars are out of a Mad Max movie. People cook meat in the dark by burning charcoal in tire rims. Mounds of garbage are everywhere. It's filthy, grueling, and crushing.
Once out of Kampala, the going is still intense.
To get to our first park, the road was so rough that in two hours I couldn't read the driver's wristwatch, and I was sitting right next to him. Some potholes were big enough to literally swallow our truck. Eventually a part vibrates off the engine. To my surprise, it turns out that I'm going to be the mechanic. I use my Swiss Army knife to get us going again, but not before my guide yells, "Bees!" We dive under the truck, then we wait, listening to what sounds like a freight train coming in the distance. "They're attracted to sweat!" he yells. "We're all sweating!" I snap back. Eventually the roar fades as the swarm misses our scent, hurtling on relentlessly in the midday sun.
Arriving late to our lodge, a bat circles the night receptionist's face, inches away. Round and round it goes, chasing bugs in the light overhead, fanning us. We both act like this is completely normal. I hand her my credit card.
The lake flies are at full throttle that night. They're tiny, and here by the billions, like a dry rain. The white walls of my room are brown, and moving. Someone sprays my room with insecticide, forming drifts of dead flies several inches thick on the tile floor, their bodies forming swirls and eddies wherever the ceiling fan chose to deposit them. The stench of the poison is so bad though that I have to sleep in the same respirator I'll use in the bat cave.
But that was then, and a world away. Here in Nebraska, this is only day seven. I have two weeks left. In my little quarantine room. I sit and mope and read story after story online about how terrible it is to die from the Marburg virus. I remove a wall clock because it ticked too loudly, just another heartbeat that I don't need right now.
And at night, when I'm trying to sleep, I think about the work. I wonder if my photos are good enough. I wonder what I missed by not staying in Uganda until the end of my assignment time. But more than that, once I'm out of the woods, will I appreciate all that I have in this life? Or in time will I forget this feeling, of being so scared, right here, right now?
Ask me next month. Right now, I'm a bit preoccupied.
—Joel Sartore, February 11, 2011
Postscript: I eventually did make it through the three-week incubation period, without a scratch, like nothing had ever happened. Indeed, I've been back to Africa three times since then, all without incident.
On day 22 though, with great relief, I sat down at my own dinner table for the first time since leaving for Uganda. Kathy and all three kids were there, preparing a special meal to celebrate the end of my quarantine. Then someone turned on a blender.
Just for a moment, the room was filled with the sound of ten thousand bats taking flight. I quickly looked down and closed my eyes as tightly as I could, just in case.