The Sickest I’ve Been: A Tale Of Nick’s Worst Travel Illness

Nick Wharton Author Bio Picture

A life on the road isn’t all beach bars and hammocks. We’ve had some really trying times in our (almost) 5 years of travel and if you’ve been on a long trip before, you know that getting sick is all part of the fun. We absolutely hate being sick, but when you’re travelling in developing countries, it’s not a question of if, it’s when! This is the story of my worst travel illness, and it all starts around Monkey Bay in Malawi, Africa.

I’ve been sick many times on the road. Sometimes it’s just a day of food poisoning, while other times the illness has lasted upwards of 10 days. Looking back at all of my ailments, I must say that the random stomach virus and potential malaria in Malawi was the worst.

It all started when Dariece and I were offered some left-over Boerewors (sausage), by a family of travellers from South Africa. They explained that the sausages had been in a cooler for a couple of days so they should be eaten as soon as possible.

Cooking up the suspicious sausages..

We’re not sure if it was the Boerewors that caused me to get sick, but it’s a possibility. Either way, Dariece only had a day of diarrhea, so we’re sure that my sickness was far more than just food poisoning from those sausages… but they may have been a catalyst.

The morning after eating the delicious and dangerous boerries, I went for a swim in Lake Malawi but I could barely keep myself above water. I simply didn’t have any energy. I slowly sauntered back to the room and laid down for a rest.

monkey bay malawi
Enjoying the lake, pre-sickness

Later that evening, the sickness really started to take hold. I had a terrible bout of diarrhea which is normally not too hard to deal with, but we were in a small room with shared toilets. That doesn’t sound so bad does it? Well, the toilets were actually about 300 feet from our room, and to get to them, I literally had to pass a pond with an angry hippo inside of it!

In case you’re not aware of the dangers of Hippos, they kill more people than any other animal in Africa.

So there I am, hobbling along with a high fever, trying to keep myself from dropping in my pants, with the sound of an angry hippo grunting at me as I passed by.

The pain from the cramps was excruciating, but what made it worse was the intense fever and cold sweats that I endured all night in the heat of our tiny, fan-cooled room.

The next morning I was even worse. The hourly visits to the toilet were doubled, but now half of them were to vomit. The fever would rise and break continuously throughout the day. I had a headache that felt like someone was chiseling away at my skull, and all of my joints ached as well. I couldn’t get comfortable in bed no matter how I was lying and I couldn’t muster enough energy to leave bed for more than a trip to the bathroom.

Our room was only fan cooled and in the middle of the day, the tiny 4 walled prison became absolutely sweltering. The small fan that buzzed in the corner was simply moving around hot air, and if that wasn’t bad enough, frequent power outages meant that for much of the time, there was no fan at all.

After 5 DAYS of intense fevers, vomiting, aches and pains, I decided I would have to brave a ride to the hospital. The only reason I waited so long is because I just didn’t think I could make it out of bed long enough to go to the clinic.

I chose a bad time to get sick in Malawi. We were there during a fuel shortage. Apparently the UK Prime Minister said something that the President of Malawi didn’t like. In retaliation, the President kicked out everyone from the UK Embassy in Malawi. In retaliation to this, BP Oil decided to cut Malawi off from all petroleum, leaving the country in complete mayhem.

Transportation in and out of the country was at a near stand-still. Goods weren’t being shipped in or out which meant that it was hard for Dariece to even find water for me on some days. On top of this, people were running out of fuel, so it was almost impossible to find a taxi.

We finally found a ride on a motorbike to a nearby clinic where I could get tested for malaria and other viruses. The bike ride itself was like torture. Every bump over the dusty, pothole filled roads made my head split in two. When we arrived, I could barely get off of the motorbike but I managed to get inside the clinic, sit and wait for a doctor.

When the doctor finally came out, he explained to me that because of the recent shortages, he didn’t have any malaria tests. In fact, he barely had any medical supplies at all, not even painkillers!

He urged me to take a ride all the way to Cape Maclear, about an hour away, where I could visit the Irish doctors at the hospital there.

I decided that there was no way I could make it there on that day, so I reluctantly got back on the motorbike and rode back to our little hotel room. There I lay back in my sweltering room and Dariece and I tried to figure out what to do next. I had taken all of the pills we had in our medical kit, so Dariece went out on a mission to find some painkillers, malaria test and something to ease my stomach.

She searched high and low and came back with a few painkillers, but nothing for my stomach. Luckily the painkillers helped me to survive yet another night under the grip of this horrible sickness. The night came with fewer toilet breaks, but the pain of them had become worse. Also, the hippo seemed more aggravated with me and a couple of times I could hear him splashing about in his pond, threatening to tear my now feeble body in half!

The next day, we decided to try to make it to the Irish run hospital. We talked to the hotel owners, who looked at me with extreme concern when they saw my condition. They called around to many taxi drivers (I refused to get on a motorbike again). Finally they found a private taxi that would take us directly there. We asked and made sure that the taxi was just for us and that we wouldn’t be stopping to pick up others. They confirmed that the ride was private, so we sat down and waited for our taxi to arrive.

Of course when it came, there were about 20 other people loaded into the small pick-up. Furious, we told the driver what we had said and he insisted that this was a private taxi. Private for 20 people?!

malawi transportation
Transportation in Malawi was insane during the fuel shortage

Despite the fact that I could barely stand up, Dariece and I weren’t about to get ripped off. It’s the principal you know! So we bargained and argued with the driver and finally he agreed to take us for the group rate… the same rate that the 20 locals were paying. Nice try!

When we got to Cape Maclear, the driver refused to take us to the hospital. He had to drop off 20 people after all. I was too exhausted to argue, so he dropped us off at a nice hotel with A/C. We checked in and I spent the afternoon battling more fevers, diarrhea and vomiting. The sickness had been going on for about a week at this point and I still hadn’t seen a doctor.

Finally, the next morning, Dariece spoke to other travellers at the hotel. One of them, an older gentleman from Slovenia, offered to take me to the hospital on his motorbike. At this point I had no choice. I had already lost 20 lbs, I was horribly dehydrated and I couldn’t go on without seeing a doctor. When the man dropped me off I thanked him profusely, knowing that his petrol was a hot commodity at this time in Malawi.

The hospital was like heaven. I was treated by Irish nurses who were kind, gentle and attentive. I felt so frail that I didn’t know how much longer I would last! Unfortunately, they too were out of many of the tests, including a Malaria test. They did have a bunch of pain killers, some antibiotics and some stomach pills.

They explained that it could be Malaria, or a bunch of other diseases that are common around the area, but that I would have to take the pills and come back if anything got worse. After the check-up, I couldn’t move. I had used all of my energy riding the motorbike to the hospital over all of the bumpy roads.

I just lied on Dariece’s lap on the bench outside the hospital. Dariece knew we weren’t going to get a taxi so she asked the nurses if there was anything that they could do. We were lucky! They were planning to take the ambulance to a nearby village and they could drop us off on the way.

After waiting for about 30 minutes, the nurses loaded us up in the Ambulance and started driving. Unfortunately, the ambulance was running out of gas! They had to drop us at a junction, where we were to walk about a kilometer to our hotel. The walk almost did me in. I vomited several times and almost passed out.

In the next couple of days, the pills started working their magic and I was slowly getting better. I spoke to a couple of other foreign doctors, but things were looking up. For several days during my recovery, going to the washroom felt like I was pushing out razor blades. The illness had badly damaged my intestinal tract and I had to take another set of pills to help them to heal.

All in all I was bedridden for about 10 days, and I was not 100% for about another 2 weeks and it took me over 6 months to gain back the 20+ pounds that I had lost. This was by far the worst sickness I’ve ever had while travelling, but I’m sure (unfortunately) it won’t be my last.

What’s the sickest you’ve ever been? Tell us all the gory details in the comments below!

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The Sickest I’ve Been – A Tale Of Nick’s Worst Travel Illness
Nick Wharton Author Bio Picture

Written by

Nick Wharton

Nick is the co-founder, editor and author of Goats On The Road. He contributes to numerous other media sites regularly and shares his expert knowledge of travel, online entrepreneurship and blogging with the world whenever he can. He has been travelling and working abroad since 2008 and has more than 10 years of experience in online business, finance, travel and entrepreneurship.

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26 thoughts on “The Sickest I’ve Been: A Tale Of Nick’s Worst Travel Illness”

  1. This sounds horrible! Bad enough to be that ill, but when the country’s at a bit of a stand still too that must have been really bad. Glad you made it through okay in the end though, and, like they say, if it doesn’t kill you it only makes you stronger!

  2. Nick,

    That’s intense dude!

    I contracted giardia in Muhamma, India, I lost 20 pounds in 2 weeks, didn’t eat anything for 10 days, and had to be picked up and carried by my fiancee and our wonderful caretaker, looking like a limp puppet, to the tuk tuk. I could see my vertebrae sticking out of my back, and had the sunken in cheek bit. On a positive note, all my abs were showing.

    45 minute ride to the hospital. Each bump felt like a journey to the center of the earth. I feel your pain bro, I really do.

    After a few days in the hospital, including some critical electrolytes received in the emergency room, I began to recover. I couldn’t keep anything on the….um….back end, even though I was nibbling a bit on food.

    5 weeks after my initial symptoms, I ate more than a bird.

    I’m not superior athlete, but I’m in damn good shape…..last week here in Fiji I carried a 30 pound propane tank 3 miles into town….no sweat….and I had to be *carried around* before I got those electrolytes. 1 week after the emergency room visit, even though I was out of the hospital, I could walk on flat land for more than 30 seconds, without losing my breath.

    It was insane. I felt like a freakin’ baby lol….but lesson learned. Be even more careful when eating foods, and I take care of my body even more religiously these days, to fight off the germs and other nasties.

    Thanks for sharing dude.


  3. Oh you poor thing, that sounds so bad! What a story though 🙂 I can’t believe you lost 20 pounds so fast!
    I was sick for three weeks of our last trip, I was so weak and tired all the time, with a nasty cough, chills and a very dodgy stomach. We did a lot of travelling during that time and everything was so difficult. I was starting to feel a little better but then had a pizza in Varanasi and the cheese was really off. That brought on days of the worst diarrhea and crippling stomach cramps ever! Getting sick is the price you paywhen travelling and despite how terrible it is, it’s well worth it! 🙂

  4. Man, that’s quite a story! And with the fuel shortage and the lack of malaria tests…I can’t imagine what you guys went through. Somehow, during all of my travels, I’ve never experienced anything worse than food poisoning. So far I’ve been lucky! But while my boyfriend and I were traveling in Cuba he had dengue (or what could have been some other horrible ailment). Yeah, the whole shared bathroom, fan-cooled room thing SUCKS when you’re really sick. Luckily a super nice Cuban family took us in and we stayed in their place for the ten days it took for him to return to normalcy. The pain he was in and the insanely high fevers (hallucinations even) were the scariest parts. Luckily I speak some Spanish so I was able to get some medicines to help but, really, he just had to wait it out. I felt really helpless and scared. Your story is a thousand times worse than what I experienced. And I’m sure Dariece must have been terrified. Glad to hear you made it out ok 🙂

  5. How horrible, I’m glad to hear you survived it!! My worst experience was food poisoning on my first trip to Pakistan in 2006. Doubled over in the street, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea simultaneously, waiting for it to stop so I could get in the car and go to hospital… then when I got there, none of the medicines they gave me in the IV line worked for the first 2 days. When the doctors seemed visibly worried, that got me quite worried too! By the third day something had started to work for me, and I began to recover.

  6. That’s terrible. And sounds like everything that could go wrong did. 20 lbs!! Holy shit.
    My worst was in a country very close to Malawi: Zimbabwe. We were staying in a little shack in Matopos National Park and had a BBQ. Great steak and wine, interrupted only by an agitated baboon (funny how both our stories had animals involved).
    During the night I woke up with the shitaloos. Which go worse. By the morning I had full scale crappuccinos coming out of my butt and was also puking my guts out. The craps stopped but the puking continued.
    We drove to a hotel in Bulawayo, pulling to the side of the road every 20 minutes for a puke at the side of the road. By the time I got there I was severely dehydrated. They called a nurse, gave me the pills, and took about 15 minutes before I felt the effect…within a couple of hours I felt a lot better. By the next day I was fine.
    But I’ll never forget the feeling of being that sick and I felt like that nurse in Bulawayo saved my life!
    Frank (bbqboy)

  7. Wow, that’s an intense story Ryan! Thanks for sharing with us. Getting sick abroad is definitely not fun, especially in India where you can contract almost anything! Nick was super sick in Pushkar as well and lost 15 pounds or more during 10 days (on a different trip). Luckily he is able to gain weight back!

    Cheers and healthy travels 🙂

  8. Hi Justine,

    Thanks for sharing that story with us, that sounds awful. Like you said, there’s nothing you can do and he just had to wait it out…which is the worst part. I had to take care of Nick and felt so helpless! Glad to hear your boyfriend ended up being ok.

    Cheers and safe travels.

  9. Oh man, seeing the doctors worry would not be a good feeling! Food poisoning is the worst, and being sick on the street in front of people? That sucks!

    Thanks for sharing your story with us 🙂

  10. Both in Africa, both with animals involved, that’s too funny! There’s nothing worse than shitting and puking uncontrollably. Glad to hear it was under control fairly quickly.

    Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  11. Wow, that’s insane. Did you ever find out what it was? I’ve never been that ill and honestly don’t ever want to be….I’m super suspicious of random food. Good story there, your writing had me laughing and cringing at the same time.


  12. Thanks Paige!
    Ya, it was awful. We don’t know what it was, something brutal though. The nurses just pumped Nick with all sorts of pills because there were so many things it “could be”!

    Being sick on the road is never fun, but we got through it and now it’s a good story 🙂

  13. Started reading thinking how lucky I am that it never happened to me. Then I remembered that time in India: watermelon slices bought from a street vendor late in the afternoon. I know, pretty stupid… Then there was that accident in Antananarivo : fell down from a very high sidewalk, landed on a car hood, made a dent on it with my nose. Going to the hospital ? No way. Black eyed, swollen nosed, cuts and bruises, limping: I was quite a sight when I flew back to Jo’burg the day after. Traveling solo has its down sides: you feel really lonely when shit happens. Fortunately I forget quickly.

  14. Fair play that was horrendous for you, particularly having to face the hippo!! Great you came through it!
    We can’t beat that but we were on our Honeymoon 13 years ago in Dominican Republic where I (Carole) developed profuse diarrheoa and vomiting, very dehydrated, hotel doctor kept me on a drip in our hotel room, after 3 days improved but unable to eat or drink for the rest of the holiday and we had paid for all inclusive!

  15. Ah that’s dreadful! Maybe it beats my story because you were on your honeymoon 🙂 Hopefully you were able to have a re-do!

    But I guess you can be happy that there aren’t any hippos in DR.

    Thanks for the comment.

  16. That’s CRAZY that the sickest you have ever been was in Malawi – because the SAME thing happened to me! I was in the Peace Corps in Namibia from 2012-2014, and went to Malawi up in Nkhata Bay for about a month during one of my breaks. During that month I got malaria, which was followed by a SEVERE foot infection that almost caused my foot to fall off…… and right after I recovered from both those wild rides and came back to Namibia, I got malaria again about a week later……

    Rough times! But despite my incredibly bad luck with health in Malawi, I still thought it was one of the coolest places I have been. But I would recommend that NO ONE goes swimming in the lake if you have ANY sort of cut. There is some kind of crazy ass bacteria that will get in and cause it to get super infected – I saw it happen to multiple people. My foot was definitely the worst, but it started out as a blister and I transformed into big foot.

  17. In all the years I have traveled across India, mostly away from the tourist hot spots, I have thankfully had very few problems with illness. Village India, as the goats indicate, is a foodie paradise especially when sampling the street stalls and especially at night. Each area has its own specialities and whether it is egg orientated or purely vegetable or even meat, everywhere has its delights. However, one has to be careful. After a 30 hour plus train journey with a very disturbed sleep I stopped off at a small town between Pune and Mumbai. Having booked into a basic hotel I went looking for somewhere to have a proper meal. The dingy restaurant above a tatty workshop was not one of my best decisions, in fact it was downright stupid. Within a few hours I was hugging the toilet in the hotel hoping to die. I was far too tired and out of it to think of summoning help even if there had been anyone available. By the morning, totally drained, I managed to speak to the reception guy who directed me to an ‘English pharmacy’ just up the road. They dispensed two brightly coloured pills which worked wonders within two hours. By midday I was recovered and able to get myself back together helped by the kulfi man on the station who must have never sold so many ices to one person in such a short time. Rehydrating with water and mango juice, a real favorite, and managing to keep down some station food all was back to normal by the afternoon. As the goats advise, look to see who else is using the restaurant. If there are lots of locals it should be fine.

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