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A Most Painful Experience

by Robin Stobbs

With a friend and colleague from the Veterinary Department laboratories near Nairobi, we often used to hitch down to the Kenya coast in the mid- to late '50's

We'd set up camp somewhere along the quiet Watamu beach (which now is a ghastly mess of touristy 'development') or in the grounds of his parents' house on Mida Creek, and 'go bush', surviving on what fish we caught, crayfish (spiny lobster), coconuts, sweet potatoes, cassava, mielies and cashew nuts by the sackfull (Shs 20 [= R2] for a whole 20 pound sack back then!)! Yep - a good, lazy lifestyle swimming, diving and absorbing far too much solar irradiation, interrupted frequently by bouts of having to earn a salary!

Epinephelus tukula - Potato bass

On this particular day we were spearfishing; drifting along on the outgoing tide looking for crayfish or pan-size fish among the corals and crevasses when we spotted a LARGE tewa (grouper). Campbell shot it with a spear right through the gills preventing the fish from re-entering its hole in the reef and I planted my spear into the back of its head

The fish wasn't going to die very easily and we had quite a struggle getting it to the surface and into the little fibreglass canoe we had. But we eventually did after I elected to get into the canoe first

Campbell pushed from below I hauled from above until the fish finally slopped over the side and in over my feet. We then had to swim the little canoe with its load about half a mile to the pathway up to the house, then lug it up to our camp

We had no means of weighing the fish but, using JLB Smith's calculation based on body measurements (length, girth and species type), estimated it to have been at least 45 kilograms. We had more than enough food for the three remaining days of our stay, and so gave most of the fish away to some local villagers. But not before we had taken a good look at what it had been eating (what else would two veterinary laboratory technicians do?). On removing the liver we discovered a large, hard lump; a calcified cyst about 40mm diameter. Bashing it open we found it contained a well preserved, but rusted, large hook (all but the eye and part of its shank). How that hook became lodged in the liver is anyones guess

There was a very painful (for me) sequel to this story. In manhandling the fish into the canoe it slid onto my right foot, deeply impaling the top of my foot with one of its dorsal fin spines. It hurt a lot and bled a fair bit but didn't seem too serious - I'd had many similar stabs before which hurt for a day or two but healed with no problems and we were for ever collecting wounds from sharp corals

However, two days later my foot was the size of a small football, bright red, and throbbing like crazy. By the next day when we had to hitch back to Nairobi, my entire lower leg was a brilliant rainbow mixture of red, blue and green with deep red tendrils reaching up towards my groin and giving me absolute hell. The bumpy ride from Mida Creek to Mombasa (on a road grader for part of the way) was not one I care to remember; the pain in my lower leg had become excruciating. Fortunately it wasn't too long before a young couple in a Landrover picked us up and after taking a look at my leg they broke all speed records for the next 330 miles straight to Nairobi hospital

I was told afterwards that for the last 100 miles or so I was delirious and drifting in and out of consciousness and throwing a high fever (a sure sign of generalised septicaemia). I spent the next two weeks in hospital being pumped full of antibiotics and stuff - I don't remember the first three or four days which were a blur of semi-consciousness and through my delirious fog I remember a blurred swirl of nurses and doctors and drips and awful throbbing pain

One of the nurses who looked after me said, as I was hobbling out after being discharged, 'You're so lucky you're walking out of here today. You were in a very bad way!'

It took about two months, and loads of antibiotics, before the deep cellulitis cleared up. My lower leg eventually lost all its rainbow colours and returned to near normal size. Though still very sensitive my leg was no longer painful to use, but my whole leg and foot had swollen to such proportions that even two months after the stabbing my skin looked like a shrivelled orange peel! Not everybody gets stretch marks on their leg!

Sadly I never discovered who my good Samaritans were but sincerely hope they knew just how eternally grateful I am for their dash to Nairobi

Serranids (tewa, groupers, sea bass family [Serranidae]) do not have poison glands but like so many fishes, marine and freshwater, they are covered in a soft mucus which is supposed to protect them from infection and parasites. That may not hold true for the humans they stab! Handling fishes can be dangerous; not because the fishes are necessarily venomous but simply because any deep, penetrating wound must receive immediate and effective treatment

Epinephelus malabaricus - Malabar rockcod

My memory tells me the culprit was a Malabar rockcod; Campbell's memory says it was a potato bass! Either way it tasted good but I could have done without the attachments!

Moral of the story - if it looks and feels serious, it IS serious!

Both illustrations from the SA fishes "Bible": Smiths- Sea Fishes by Heemstra and Smith


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