The World’s Toughest Trucker

By: Tom Clynes

Warm beer won’t make you any friends up here, mate. Garry White’s torture trek fuels the fridge.

Author’s note: I stumbled onto this fun story on my first visit to Oz. It’s still one of my favorite pieces, and I often feature it in my keynote talks

Hidden under the rainforest canopy at the top of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, Pajinka Wilderness Lodge is a tropical retreat for wildlife lovers, bird watchers and fishermen. The lodge lies just short of the northernmost point in Australia, at the tip of a slender green finger that stretches up from the wide brown continent toward New Guinea. Locals call this spot simply The Top.

After a day in the sun deep-sea fishing with Pajinka’s manager, Alan Geary, a few guests cooled off at the lodge’s outdoor bar. Someone brought over a round of XXXX (Queensland’s home-brewed beer, pronounced “Four-X”) and asked Alan a question of essential interest:

In a place where the temperature rarely dips below 90 degrees, a place far too remote for electrical lines, how is it that the beer at Pajinka is always cold?

Alan answered with a tropical syllogism. For good conversation, he said, you need cold beer. To get cold beer, you need electricity. To get electricity, you need fuel for the generator. To get fuel to The Top…you need Garry White.

Three times a year, Alan told us, “this bloke Garry” pulls his full-size tractor-trailer rig out of Cairns and heads up the peninsula to the fuel depot at Weipa. There, he fills the tanker with diesel for the cattle stations and aboriginal settlements in the distant north, and for Pajinka. The 1,500-mile round trip—not a single foot of it on paved roads—takes him through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness. He has to plow through jungle rivers, chain-saw through downed trees and shovel his way out of truck-gobbling mud holes. Every time he stops to change a flat tire or replace an axle, he’s bait for leeches, wild boars, taipans and giant crocs.

“It’s a well-known fact,” said Alan, “that he is the world’s toughest trucker.”

It’s also a well-known fact that Alan is an avid fisherman, which means that all his stories are suspect. I would need to confirm every syllable.
I couldn’t judge the roads, because, like most of Pajinka’s guests, I had flown in via bush plane. So I contacted the editor of an Australian trucking magazine, who told me that Cape York has “the toughest tracks on the continent.”
I called Trinity Petroleum, which supplies fuel out of Cairns, and asked the owner if anyone else brings big tankers up to The Top. “Well, other drivers have gotten trucks in there,” he said. “But aside from Garry, no one else has managed to get ‘em back out.”
I talked to ranchers around the peninsula, who resolutely confirmed their dependence on Garry White. The owner of the old telegraph station at Wenlock River said that “without him we couldn’t live up here, mate, it’s that simple. Also, we’d have to drink our beer warm.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.


I had expected a seven-foot-tall hybrid of Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee. But the guy who comes to the door looks a lot like…my dad. He’s a burly 5’ 9”, with a standard-issue trucker’s belly and a brushy cop mustache that nearly hides two missing front teeth. With blotchy English skin and a perpetual squint, he looks altogether unsuited for the tropics.

It’s late October, and Garry says he’s running dangerouly late for his last far-north run, before “The Dry” gives over to “The Wet,” the northern Australian monsoon season. When The Wet arrives—which could be any day now—it will deliver more rain in a week than Seattle gets in a year. The big storms will push the rivers up as much as 20 feet a day, devouring the land. Anything that can’t fly or float out will have to stay put…for the next four months.

Garry and his wife, Kathy, live in a concrete-floor house outside Mareeba, a scruffy town in the tablelands above Cairns. Kathy fires up some dinner for us, and talks about the trials of being a “truckie’s wife.” She misses Garry when he’s gone, which can be up to a month at a time. Sometimes she’ll ride with him on the easier trips; she likes to sit beside him and “watch his tummy bounce up and down like a lump of jelly.”

As we eat, a little horse clomps through the open door and into the living room. It’s a miniature pony, and there are a few more outside, sharing the paddock with several full-size horses and a few dogs. One of the mutts is a slobbering bull terrier named Diesel.

The next morning, Garry and I head to Mareeba’s supermarket, to pack some “tucker” into the truck’s small fringe. He steers the shopping cart directly toward the meat counter, and picks out some bacon for breakfast. Then some pork sausage for lunch. “We’ll get some sliced ham for sangers (sandwiches),” he says, “and we’ll need something for tea tomorrow.” He suddenly decides to cut me in on the decision-making process: “D’ya like pork cutlets?”

Since we’ve covered most of the pig, I propose some vegetables. Garry gives me a puzzled look.

“Veggies? Like—what?” he asks.

“Like, say, cucumbers.”

“Nah,” he says. “They return on me.” I decide that I can live without a definition of this digestive condition, and we compromise on a couple of fat T-bone steaks.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

FOR THE FIRST LEG OF THE TRIP, we’ll head up the peninsula as a “road train,” with tandem trailers connected by a dolly called a dog trailer. At Weipa, we’ll unhook the rear tanker and negotiate the narrow tracks to the far north with a single trailer. Over the course of the trip, we’ll barrel through coastal mountains, scrub forests, heaths, rolling hills, swamps, deserts, jungle—some of the wildest terrain on the continent.

Garry’s rig stretches 140 feet back from the headlights. Kenworths don’t come off the line as ORV’s, but this one has been fitted out for serious off-road extremes. It has a 470-horsepower turbocharged Detroit Diesel, hooked up to a Spicer gearbox with 18 forward speeds and four reverse. The prime mover rides on Rockwell axles and a Hendrickson air suspension. The rig’s 44 wheels are shod with Dunlop rubber.

“It takes a flogging,” Garry says, proudly.

Garry has named the tractor Pegasus and had a winged horse painted on the doors. The cab interior is Spartan brown vinyl, embellished only by a set of triple-dueling evergreen air fresheners hanging from the sleeping compartment ceiling, just behind the seats. A rock screen protects the windshield, and a huge “bull bar” is the first line of defense against cattle and boomers—big kangaroos.

The pavement ends and the outback begins about two miles from Garry’s house. Torqueing up and down the mountain ranges that make up the northern stretch of the Great Dividing Range—the Sallies Range, the Bamboo Range, the Sussex Range—we roll past teams of jackaroos (Aussie cowboys) on horseback, driving herds between giant termite mounds that bulge like teeth out of the rust-red earth. The sky opens up into a seamless, heavy blue.

The ranches, called stations, are too vast to fence, and animals roam freely across the road. Garry seems to know which bulls will interrupt a graze to bolt suddenly across our path. He tells me that he’s “conked a few,” and that he used to carry a gun under the seat, so he could dispatch of anything he hit quickly and humanely. But recently, a law was passed forbidding guns in Australian vehicles.

“Last brumby (wild horse) I hit, I had to finish ‘im off with a piece of pipe.” There’s melancholy in his voice. “I didn’t like that.”

We drag a huge dust cloud behind us as we dip through gullies and wend around limestone escarpments. A sign announces Split Rock Gallery, coming up on the left. The hills and rocky outcrops around the town of Laura contain the world’s densest concentration of prehistoric rock paintings—thousands of open-air “galleries” with paintings up to 40,000 years old. In some spots, groups of stick-men, drawn in vivid ochre and faded white, chase catfish and platypus. In other spots, spirit-women with flaming heads cavort with emus and giant frogs. I ask Garry if he knows about the Quinkans, leprechaun-like figures who are said to sneak up on sleeping humans to steal their kidney fat.

“What a load of bloody nonsense.”

Garry has rolled by Split Rock Gallery more than 100 times. But he says he’s never had time to pull over and check out “the blackfellows’ art.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

AROUND MIDNIGHT, GARRY PULLS the rig under a silver ghost gum tree and shuts down the engine. In the warm wind, the land seems to exhale magic. Garry pulls a camp stove and a dusty pan from the spare-parts cubbyhole, and we fry up some pork. Then he puts on the billy—a camp kettle that looks like a paint can—and makes some coffee.

We get to talking. He tells me that his grandparents came from England and settled near Cairns. Garry was raised on farms, and he likes to be around animals. He got into trucking “back when the money was good,” and now, with his hazardous-cargo rating and years of experience, he can still “make a fair quid.” But it’s rough on the marriage, and rough on the back.

When Garry retires into the truck’s sleeper I grab my swag—the Aussie bedroll, a pad and sheet wrapped in thick canvas—and climb up to the tanker’s flat top. In the few minutes before I drift off, I see a dozen comets shooting in and out of the unfamiliar constellations.

The Aborigines, who have wandered these lands for more than 50,000 years, believe that sky heroes rode shooting stars down to earth during the Dreamtime, and carved the outback’s strangely beautiful landscapes. I look for Garry’s sky hero, Pegasus, in the canopy of light above me. But I can’t find the constellation, and I wonder if the old European hero is even visible in these southern skies.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

AT DAWN, I WAKE TO THE SOUND OF A GONG being struck next to my ear drum. Actually, it’s a rock hitting the fuel cap I’m using for a pillow. I sit up and look over the side of the tanker. There’s Garry, with a fistful of stones, grinning up at me.

“Wakey wakey, hands off snakey!”

He tells me to go have a “dingo’s breakfast”—a piss and a look around—as he inspects the truck. Once the air pressure builds, we hop in and press on into the interior, where the vibrant greens of the coast give way to dull olive and beige hues. The Dry shows no sign of abating. In fact, the landscape seems permanently blighted. Wildfires have scorched the melaleuca tree trunks, and carpeted the forest floor with black ash. Some are still burning. For hours, there’s no sign of human life. Then the Archer River Roadhouse comes into view.

“Go in for a feed?”

When we walk in, it’s clear that Garry White is a celebrity in these parts. Everyone drops what they’re doing to find out what “Whitey” is up to. The cook, a cheerful, enthusiastic woman known as “Feral Cheryl,” fires up an English-style breakfast of greasy eggs and heaps of undercooked bacon, and talk eventually gets around to where we’re heading. “The Top,” Garry says, raising eyebrows all around. Glen, who manages the roadhouse, speaks up.

“You’re takin’ a big risk goin’ up this late, aren’t you Garry? One big storm, and you’ll be up there for the duration of The Wet.”

Garry admits that he’s procrastinated “about three weeks too long.” Cheryl asks him about the longest he’s been stranded in the bush. There was the time he was “bogged in tight” for five days near the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had to dig a ditch to drain the track, then cut down trees and lash them together, finally driving out over his makeshift wooden road.

“Ran low on tucker, so I made some crab traps and put ‘em out in a billabong, not even thinkin’ about the crocs. I made the mistake of going back there the same time three days in a row, wadin’ right out into the tea. On the last day I had the boots off and was ready to go in when I got a feeling. Threw some rocks out and sure enough, a big saltie was out by the trap, waiting ’round for me. They’re smart. They’ll watch their prey for a few days; they’ll learn your habits.”

On the way out, Garry decides to call home. When he climbs back into the truck, he’s perturbed. He tells me that Kathy “went crocadelic” on him for spending too much time and money in the pub-tent the other night, “among other offenses.” He sighs. “It’s getting to the point where a bloke can’t even have a reasonable piss-up with the mates, without getting an earbashing.”

The road, horrendously cut up after eight months of dry-season traffic, narrows into a track of sand and bare rock. It’s a bone-jarring, ear-rattling ride. An hour out of Archer River, the air brakes on the rear trailer lock up. Garry tugs on this, replaces that, and finally finds the culprit, a valve fitting with its threads vibrated bare. There’s no spare, but Garry rummages around in his “mobile workshop,” pulling out boxes of tools and parts until he finds a couple of other fittings to cobble together, and we’re on our way again.

A hot wind has come up, driving the red dust into the air. The powder collects on the sunglasses, around the lips, and in the moist corners of the eyes. I can taste the land’s thirst in each metallic, stale breath. Barreling into a dust-stormed gully, we enter a section of exposed rocks too fast, and we’re both slammed against the ceiling.

“Fucking horse!”

Garry grapples with the bucking Kenworth, plowing the rig through a sand berm at the bottom of the creek bed and into a motocrosser’s nightmare of boulders and hip-deep ruts. As the gully bottoms out there’s a nauseating crunch behind us, the sound of metal being torn apart. Fighting to maintain momentum, Garry stomps the throttle, downshifting twice a second as we bore into the soft sand. With each lower gear the engine roars an agonizing note, and the Dunlops burrow deeper. Overcome by grit and gravity, we bog to a stop.

As the dust rises around us, Garry grabs his window crank to seal off the cab. The crank falls off in his hand.

“Fuuuuuuuckkk! Bloody fucking mongrel roads.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

OVER BREAKFAST AT ARCHER RIVER, I had asked Garry if he enjoys his job, overall.

At the time, with his buddies around him and a hot meal in front of him, his response had been balanced: “I suppose when the roads are good it’s all right. But sometimes—these roads are mad.”

Since then, Garry’s mood has darkened. After we dig out of the gully, the top leaf spring on the tractor’s left front wheel—a two-inch-thick, $800 piece of hardened steel—shears. The next day, the bolts holding the intercooler to the frame snap apart. At the Aurakun aboriginal settlement an impatient road-crew worker tries to squeeze past the truck with his pickup, smashing two tail lights. The road surface has gone from sand to a hard red soil with deep corrugations that deliver a kidney punch each time one of the 44 wheels slams into one. The vibration is hellish; for the past three hours we haven’t been able to get higher than second gear—that’s second out of 18.

Garry pops a couple of Panadols for his back and squints at the clouds coming down from New Guinea. Then he looks over at me.

“You’d have to be mad to enjoy this.”

If he intends any irony, I can’t hear it over the jack-hammer sound of the stutter bumps beating the youth out of his Kenworth. I ask him why he keeps making the run.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been thinking about chucking it in. This may be my last run up here. They’ll all be on their own then, as far as getting fuel up here.”

I ask him if he’s ever considered hiring a helper, an apprentice mechanic to ride shotgun and provide an extra pair of hands.

“I’d never be able to find anyone who wouldn’t make a dog’s breakfast out of everything he touches.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

EACH TIME WE PULL TO A STOP, Garry jumps down into the dust like the first astronaut on a new planet, not sure what he’ll find when he hits the ground. By the time we’ve finished unloading at the aboriginal settlement at Mapoon, a fuel discharge valve has stripped bare, and a fitting has torn from the air-system expansion tank. The fuel tankers are literally coming apart at the seams—some of the welds have cracked, and fuel is trickling out.

Garry refuses any assistance with the repairs, and the farther north we go, the crabbier he gets.

There’s smoke and charred land everywhere, and lots of small blazes still kindling in the bush. When a scrap of smoldering debris blows across our path, I look back at the fuel leaking from the cracked tanker.

“Don’t splatter your bladder, mate.”

Diesel isn’t nearly as volatile as gasoline, Garry tells me. I’m not completely reassured, but at this point the thought of exploding in a spectacular fireball seems preferable to a slow death by corrugations. But in a few minutes, I see Garry nervously eyeing his rear-view mirror. Suddenly, he yells “fuel!” and hits the kill switch. Chaos erupts. The crossover line connecting the tractor’s tanks has torn loose, and fuel is gushing out by the barrel. We both fly into action, crawling under the prime mover into the diesel juice and dust that’s quickly turning to mud, twisting valves shut under each of the four drive tanks.

When the flow is stanched, we climb out from under opposite sides of the truck. Through the gap between the tractor and the trailer, I see Garry looking at his watch with a stunned expression. Diesel fuel and dirt cover him like brown batter on a piece of fish. I let out an involuntary chortle, and when Garry looks up from his watch, he’s wearing a dazed smile.

“Fuck me wrong,” he says. “It’s my birthday.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

WE LIMP INTO WEIPA and head to the fuel depot to reload. As Garry raps the side of the tanker with his knuckles to judge the fuel levels, the depot manager, Vince, comes out of the office. Vince, in his early forties, has the easygoing manner of someone who grew up in cooler climes, then connected with his true natural rhythm in the tropics. He’s one of Garry’s best friends up here, and he listens sympathetically as Garry details the last three days, listing the repairs he’ll need to make before we can continue to The Top. Vince offers to help work on the truck, but Garry waves him off.

I mention to Vince that it’s Garry’s birthday.

“Fair dinkum?”

That’s Aussie for “no shit?” Vince immediately gets on the phone to round up some people for a celebration. He tells Garry that he’ll chain the gates if he tries to leave before we have a night out. Vince’s wife, Leann, will be joining us, and I ask Vince if she’ll be bringing along any single girlfriends. He looks dumbfounded.

“Uh, Sheilas are a bit of a problem up here, mate. They’re scarce as rocking-horse shit.”

We start at the Stubbie Hut, a ruddy, open-air fishermen’s pub on the commercial wharf. Then we move to another place for dinner and more drinks. I tell Vince about my conversation with Garry, about how he told me that he’s thinking about calling it quits.

Vince laughs out loud. “He’s been saying that for years, he has! He whinges (complains) non-stop, but the thing is, he loves this stuff. The reason nobody else brings fuel up to The Top is because he won’t let anyone else have the run.”

I’m starting to see how Garry’s world works.

The pain is part of the package—just as it was for the heroes of the “outlaw trucker” movies of the American seventies. In those fabulously clumsy epics, the trucker-hero, like Jesus, must suffer. In Convoy, Kris Kristofferson gets his eye poked out. In High-Ballin’, Peter Fonda gets his ass kicked with tire irons.In The Great Smokey Roadblock, Henry Fonda keels over after a heroic battle with the cops.

But if you’re a Hollywood trucker, at least you have good roads. And you can share the burden with your buddies. You get on the CB, call up a convoy and crash the roadblock, sayin’ “Let them truckers roll, ten-four!” But if you’re Garry White, swaggin’ across the torture tracks of Cape York, you’re on your own. You can’t have a helper—of course you can’t—because you’re the one who helps. You handle everything the world throws at you. You deliver the blood to your flock, you light up their tropical nights. You cool their beer.

And if you happen to love it, you sure as hell don’t let them know.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

THE JARDINE IS THE LARGEST RIVER ON THE PENINSULA, the only one that can’t be forded by a vehicle during The Dry. A small cable ferry shuttles vehicles back and forth, but when we pull up the ferry is on the other side of the river and the last four-wheel drive is rolling up the bank, joining a couple of other vehicles making tracks into the rain forest.

“That’s Ben‘s truck,” Garry says, reaching for the horn. But Ben, the ferry operator, doesn’t look back as he turns the corner and heads out of site. And we’re stuck here. For 10 hours.

A Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up, filled with Torres Strait Islanders, people of Melanesian descent who inhabit the islands and part of the mainland at The Top. We strike up a conversation with one of the guys.

Garry says he knows where Ben hides the key to the ferry, and he knows how to get the boat across the river. “But the only way to get over there is to swim.”

He looks at me. I look at the Islander. He looks at Garry. They both look at me. I take a step back, reflexively.

“Y’ know,” the Islander says, “I used swim across here every now and again. But not since that bloke got taken.”

The “bloke” was in our situation few months ago, and he decided to go for it. Apparently, he made it about a third of the way across before his companions saw an 18-foot log drifting toward him. It was drifting…upstream. The shore-side screams caught his attention, but fate was already in gear; his buddies might well have spared him his final few seconds of terror.

So we fire up some steak and onions and gaze over at the opposite bank, where our ride will sit for the next 13 hours, guarded by a prehistoric underwater anti-theft device.

That night, thick clouds blot out the stars, and the monsoon rains come in hard just before dawn. There’s no doubt that The Wet is on its way, and that we’re running out of time.

In the morning, after Ben arrives and brings the ferry over, Garry noses the truck down the riverbank. But when the Kenworth’s front wheels transfer their weight to the boat, the shore-bound end sinks under the load, sending the other end rearing out of the water spectacularly, nearly throwing Ben’s helper overboard. Up-ended, the ferry seems poised to shoot out of the water and into the air like a toy boat out of a bathtub. But Garry stays steady on the throttle, and when the drive wheels connect with the ferry, they claw it back down under the truck. He balances the truck on top of the teetering flat-top and jumps out. Ben runs over, wild-eyed.

“Bugger me dead, Garry, what’s vehicle weight on this bastard?”

“About 40 tons.”

“Y’ know, the capacity’s only 28.” Garry looks away like a guilty schoolboy, and does a little whistle through his missing front teeth.

“Well, I guess she’s on now,” Ben says, and yells at his helper to fire up the cable motor. In no time, the truck’s on the opposite bank, and we roar off into the jungle. Safely away, Garry looks over at me.

“I rounded down,” he says.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

NORTH OF THE RIVER, the road narrows and snakes into a series of tight turns, and the soil changes from hard red dirt to white, boggy sand. The bumps stretch out and yield into soft, forgiving moguls. Garry works up through the gears, wrestling the beast through the hairpins, finessing torque and momentum into distance.

The track narrows further as jungle pulls in on both sides. We stop to remove the antennas, before they’re torn off, and Garry eases the big truck into the trees. Branches elbow out, grabbing at the mirrors. Vines reach down, clawing at the windshield. Garry negotiates a series of turns so tight that the bull bar digs into the corners, carving away at the berms.

Finally, we pull into Pajinka’s gates and roll up to the generator tank. We decide to go up front before we unload the fuel, to say hello and see who’s around, maybe rustle up some tucker. Peter, the cook, brings over a round of stubbies and tells us to help ourselves to whatever’s in the fridge.

Three guests come in from fishing and join us in the shade at the bar. They’re sweaty and sunburnt, and when they get their beers each of them drains half the bottle in a long, appreciative guzzle. We get to talking about an American actor, in Cairns filming a movie, who may or may not helicopter into the lodge for the weekend.

In a few minutes, Garry and I will venture back into the sun and unload the fuel. Then I guess we’ll have to start thinking about heading back down the peninsula, before The Wet catches us and bogs us in.

But for the moment, we’re in the shade, kicking back and savoring our cold beer and conversation—Garry White’s great gifts to The Top.

Author, photojournalist and National Geographic photographer speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment, education and archaeology. His work appears in National GeographicThe New York TimesNature, Popular Science, The Atlantic and other publications. As a keynote speaker, Tom works with organizations that want to catalyze creativity and engagement at their events, inspiring audiences with his stories and photos and bringing them along on assignment to fascinating locations around the globe. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and motivating programs, please email

Explore more of the story through the image slideshow

National Geographic: Dangerous Medicine

With each outbreak of the world’s most fearsome disease, an ad hoc team of doctors and researchers risk their own lives by heading straight for ground zero. Tom Clynes joins them at the epicenter as they battle to contain the virus–and trek into the forest in search of its secrets.

Photo by Seamus Murphy

When the old Czech prop-plane lurches to a halt at the side of the military airstrip, the six doctors unfurl their stiff legs, disembark, and begin unloading. They shift 47 boxes—a metric ton of laboratory gear—onto a truck and drive toward town, trailing a spiral of orange dust as they pass army checkpoints and outsized churches, roadside vendors and crowds of people listening to radios, talking, and singing.

The most surprising thing is how ordinary it all looks, at first. Set in the middle of a fertile, if unrelieved, savanna, Gulu could be any other East African provincial center. Everywhere, people are on the move, some pedaling bikes, others riding on the fringed rear seats of bicycle taxis, most just walking. They walk upright, with stone-straight posture, some carrying babies on their backs, some balancing loads on their heads, some bare-footed, others in sandals. They walk—and the doctors drive—past the field where the Pope once spoke, from atop two shipping containers still piled one atop the other; past the turnoff that leads to the witch doctor’s house; past another road that leads to a small village near the forest—the forest where, perhaps, it all started.

It takes a few minutes, as if the doctors’ eyes were getting used to a new light, before hints begin to emerge that life here is far from normal. There are none of the usual swarms of children in school uniforms. White trucks drive through town, emblazoned with the red crosses and acronyms—UN, WHO, MSF—that portend crisis. The hospital building, where the doctors pull up, is wrapped in white plastic sheeting. At the door, a hand-lettered sign warns “No entrance without permission.” The sign is illustrated with a crude human figure, with an X drawn over it.


Dr. Anthony Sanchez got the news on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October when he stopped by his lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. Sanchez was surprised to find his boss, Pierre Rollin, in the office. Rollin told him that Ebola, after a four-year respite, had resurfaced in northern Uganda.

“Feel free to say no, Tony,” Rollin said. “But I’m putting together a team to go over and set up a lab; we could use you.”

Sanchez had a four-month-old daughter at home, his first. But the agency was already spread thin, with a team in Saudi Arabia covering a Rift Valley fever epidemic. An on-site laboratory could give the Ebola containment operation a tremendous advantage.

Sanchez, a low-key Texan, had spent much of his career researching the virus, often in the CDC’s maximum-containment lab, protected by a space suit. But he had never seen it operate in a human epidemic. Once, a few years ago, he had wondered if he had missed his chance, if the disease would ever come again.

Sanchez walked to his office and picked up the phone. He dialed his home number and told his wife that there was something he needed to talk about when he got home, something important. The line was silent for several long seconds, and then:

“I’m not going to be happy about this, am I?”


Five weeks into the crisis, a crowd of foreigners occupies a government office room in a yellow concrete-block building on the north side of Gulu. Doctors and scientists hunch over notebook computers and talk into walkie-talkies. Through the babble of languages and accents, an American voice speaks into a satellite telephone: “We’ve got more positives in Pabo now—we’ve got to get on top of this.”

After she hangs up the phone, I walk over and introduce myself to Cathy Roth, a World Health Organization physician who is, at the moment, coordinating the operation. When I extend my hand, she throws both of her hands over her head in a “don’t shoot!” gesture.

“Uh, we’re not actually doing that anymore,” Roth says, smiling down at my retreating hand. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids, including sweat. And although it’s unlikely that either of us would be carrying the virus, people are avoiding handshakes like . . . well, like the plague.

A dozen or so exhausted-looking professionals trudge into the room for Roth’s afternoon update meeting. “Everyone’s getting really tired now,” she says. “We were thinking we had it under control, and I was thinking about giving the mobile teams a Sunday off. After five weeks of 24-7, they’re making mistakes, and they need rest.” But now Roth is worried that the illness is flaring up again, threatening to break through the containment operation.

In the past, Ebola had struck only rural areas, and the disease’s rapid death sequence had actually worked in favor of containment, since infected people couldn’t travel far before they toppled over. But the Gulu area is densely populated, with transport links to East Africa’s major cities—and, from there, to anywhere in the world. No one knows what might happen if the virus were given the chance to take advantage of these more favorable conditions.

CDC epidemiologist Scott Harper begins the meeting with bad news from Pabo, a refugee camp north of Gulu…

The complete story appears in the anthology “The New Age of Adventure: Ten Years of Great Writing”