Truro doctors' terrifying encounter with armed bandits in Africa
Three Truro doctors survived a terrifying encounter with armed bandits, were grilled by an African president and filmed on national television, all during a nail-biting and memorable tour of the continent.
The men, who are all senior house officers at Royal Cornwall Hospital (RCH) and live in Perranporth, embarked on their Cornwall to Cape Town journey last year.
They arrived at their final destination in June, nine months later, having covered 21,758 miles, and travelled through 30 countries.
Richard Wain-Hobson, who works in the RCH emergency department, described the trip as an experience that tested their nerves and one that they will never forget.
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Sebastian Wallace, who works in gastroenterology and Daniel Nuth, who is a trainee caring for the elderly, said the most dangerous leg was driving through north Kenya and Tanzania.
Tanzania is the largest of the East African countries and one of the poorest, but also one of Africa's premier tourist destinationS.
With attractions like Mount Kilimanjaro, the Great Lakes, and the Serengeti National Park, the doctors were keen to explore the region, but found armed bandits laying in wait.
Daniel Nuth said: “We were involved in a jungle car chase as we drove through Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. We were around 80km from the nearest village and spotted four men, all carrying AK47s standing behind the headlights of their car.
“It was dark and frightening. They were not wearing uniforms. We turned the car around and when they saw our tail lights they gave chase.”
The men drove along the isolated dirt track for more than an hour, terrified that the armed gang would kidnap them or steal their equipment and vehicle.
They took refuge in a hotel, and said the experience made them realise the enormity of their task.
It followed a separate incident several weeks earlier in North Kenya.
Daniel added: “We were fixing a puncture on the Land Rover when a car passed us carrying children. We eventually set off and drove for a while before we met the car that had overtaken us. We heard machine gun fire and saw the car’s body filled with bullet holes.
“The children and two priests had been hiding behind the car and ran towards us. They piled into our Land Rover and we sped off.”
He said that luckily no one was injured. They reported the attack to local police who believed the bandits had been waiting to ambush their Land Rover.
Richard added: “Police suspect local villagers had tipped off the bandits when we headed out. It turned out to be a lucky puncture. We were too exhausted at the time to analyse what had happened. It made us closer, we relied upon each other and didn’t focus on the dangers.”
One of the most unusual experiences took place in Somalia where the doctors were put under house arrest for not travelling with an armed guard.
Sebastian said: “Somaliland is an unrecognised state in Somalia where they have their own currency, army and democratically elected government. The chief of police took us to the capital where we met the president and prime minister and ended up being filmed on national television to promote the area as a safe place for tourists.”
He said despite the demands, that they employ an armed guard while exploring the country, it was one of the safest on their tour, although a “very intense place.”
The Skeleton Coast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the coast of Namibia, was described as one of the most breathtaking scenes.
It derives its name from the whale and seal bones that once littered the shore from the whaling industry, along with hundreds of shipwrecks.
“There are so many whale carcasses and shipwrecks. The coast has a wild bleakness. It was amazing,” said Richard.
The team spent Christmas and New Year in Sudan, a Muslim country where alcohol is illegal and carries a punishment of 40 lashes.
Sebastian said they were keen to mark the festive holiday, adding: “On Christmas eve we rode into the desert and roasted a chicken and drank three bottles of Betty Stoggs we had managed to sneak into the country.”
Keen to learn more about Africa’s medical profession they also worked in Uganda spending time treating patients at the Iganga Hospital.
They also worked on an international medical trial called CRADLE . The study aims to find out whether an African-wide blood pressure monitoring service for pregnant mothers would reduce mortality rates.
Richard said: “Our job was to work out if running such a service in Malawi was a possibility. As it turned out, this feasibility study led to our best experiences in this country. Guided by Grace, a hugely hospitable battle axe of both Malawian and British citizenship, we bounced around the country side, visiting rural clinics and health centres.”
Many of the patients, who often walked for miles to see the medical team, have HIV/AIDS, typhoid fever, TB and malaria.
“At Treliske there are a lot of specialists,” said Richard, “but in Africa we had no one to go to, it was a dead end. It reinforces the fact that our NHS service is so good, we have so many resources at our fingertips. The work ethos in the UK is also good, people work so hard. At Iganga Hospital doctors do their rounds once a week, not everyday.”