Every day, humans take five billion photos. According to one source, we have created 12.4 trillion throughout history, but what is the most important photograph ever taken?
Is it the blurred and indistinct ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, the earliest surviving photographic image, created by Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce in 1826? The first man on the moon? History’s first medical X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, showing the bones in his wife Anna Bertha’s hand?
I am a biochemist, and therefore biased, but many argue that it is Photo 51, an X-ray diffraction image captured by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling in 1952. This tiny nondescript image enabled Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to deduce that the structure of DNA was a double helix. Knowing the structure clarified the mechanism by which DNA could replicate itself – and the genetic blueprint it carries – exactly.
The trio won the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Photo 51 helped them unravel the secret of life.
Of course, these are earth shattering examples, but one morning in Vlorë, Albania, I took the most important photo I’ve ever taken in my life.
From a high point, there’s only one way to go – and that is down.
Whenever we pitch up in paradise, the gods seek to have a laugh at our expense.
Violent thunderstorms made us re-think our proposed route from Berat through the Osumi River Canyon, Albania’s largest gorge. I can’t say I was altogether sorry. Osumi promised many treats – waterfalls, thermal springs, and the legendary hike up the Lengarica Canyon, beneath the beautiful Ottoman stone bridge, Ura e Kadiut.
What troubled me was the road. Parts are unmade, and it clings to the side of a mountain, which means one disintegrating edge abuts the 80 m (262 ft) cliff. After torrential downpours, I didn’t fancy testing its crumbling kerbs by applying The Beast’s sixteen-tonne mass. (For some pictures of the Osumi road, click this link to another blog.)
Instead, we opted for some beach time. Who knew the distress our ‘safe’ option would cause? Like when we got The Beast stuck in a field in Gloucestershire, perhaps we should have paid attention to its What3Words location: slithered:cringed:ghoulish.
We favour getting off the beaten path, and Dalan Beach was certainly that. After passing through the resort town of Vlorë, we continued through a broad avenue of sweet-smelling pine trees to the hamlet of Zvërnec.
There, we turned left on to a narrow peninsula, and rumbled our way along a rough track, which cut a blond gravelly path through a riot of bright green ferns and foliage, punctuated with explosions of yellow flowering broom. To our right, the shimmering opal waters of the Narta lagoon embraced Zvërnec Island, where the ivory arches and terracotta roofs of the 13th-Century Byzantine Monastery of St. Mary’s almost glowed against their backdrop of dark conifers. The salty tang of the mud flats drifting in through our windows soon had water-baby Ruby bolt upright, like a meerkat, sniffing the air.
Driving our large and heavy vehicle in unknown terrain inevitably presents unexpected challenges. Our trial for the day was a low concrete bridge across a rivulet, miles down a single-track road, with nowhere to turn around. Mark pulled up and got out to inspect it. My stomach writhed like a nest of vipers as we tried to decide whether four concrete slabs would support sixteen tonnes.
Making a decision is not difficult. Making the right decision, especially when you’re not in full possession of the facts, is agonising.
For us, the consequences would not be terrible. This wasn’t a rickety wooden bridge spanning a deep gorge – a predicament we didn’t yet know was inscribed into our fate. If this bridge collapsed, we would drop a foot (0.3 m) and our tyres would get wet, but The Beast’s 5 ft (1.5 m) clearance and four-wheel-drive capability would still allow us to cross the stream. What we stood to lose was popularity – with anyone following in a normal vehicle who wanted to get to or from Dalan.
“The span is shorter than our length, so the bridge won’t have to take our entire weight,” Mark observed. “If we take a run at it, we should be fine…”
Back in the passenger seat, I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath. It was the same logic we’d tried with a canal bridge in Briare, France, and we were here to tell the tale. As two-hundred-and-seventy-five horsepower roared forward, I detected a gratifying absence of the sound of cracking concrete.
What awaited at the end of the road was worth the fleeting uncertainty.
This is it! I thought. This is what our lifestyle is all about!
A sweeping arc of firm pinky sand connected two green headlands. An azure crescent of ocean faced us, decorated by lacy white waves.
Mindful of how quickly we sank into the beach at Lido’s place, I took a walkie talkie, jumped down from the cab, and stamped my way along the sand.
“It feels firm,” I radioed to Mark, and beckoned him to reverse on to the shoreline. Once we’d parked, we flung open the back doors.
With nothing but the scent and sound of rolling surf just feet away, it was the epitome of Living the Dream.
In return for these beautiful free park ups, we always collect garbage. In Albanian terms, the beach was relatively clean – Mark collected three black bags full. At least at Dalan, that made a difference.
The pups charged down to the shore and splashed in the surf. Ruby stayed in the water, while Rosie decided the sand was the most perfect texture for digging. She surrounded The Beast with so many craters, it looked like we’d been subjected to a mortar attack. As the sun set, Mark settled down with Kai on his lap, and I photographed our glasses of chilled white wine on our occasional table. (I call it an occasional table, because most of the time, it’s our steps!)
“It doesn’t get much better than this!” I said, overcome with a surge of pure contentment.
We had seen a massive black-and-white dog patrolling the waterfront with a puppy. Referring to his rippling muscles, Mark commented,
“He’s the canine equivalent of Mike Tyson.”
Mark loves a bit of dog whispering. With four small pups in tow, we are always wary of strays and shepherd dogs, so I warned him,
“Don’t feed him near the truck.”
Mark set out with a piece of salami to earn Mike Tyson’s trust. He was shy at first, but then grew in confidence, and let Mark pet him, although the puppy wouldn’t approach.
A herd of goats trotted past, so we put The Fab Four in the truck in case they had shepherd dogs with them. Then came the moment when everything changed.
At that exact instant, a British campervan approached us. When Gayle and Chris hopped out and introduced themselves, they told us,
“We recognised The Beast! We met you at the Adventure Overland Show last September.”
They told us, “We got stuck further up the beach, so we’ve had to let our tyres down to get off, but we don’t have a compressor to re-inflate them. Do you have one?”
“Of course,” we said, and directed them to park close to The Beast.
They had a husky-type dog, and while Mark sorted out the compressor, Chris asked about Mike Tyson, who had now been joined by two other large dogs. Just as I was saying,
“He’s a sweetie! Mark’s been petting him.”
The screech of an animal in distress shattered the air.
I spun towards the sound immediately. In disbelief, I registered that Mike Tyson had our little Kai boy in his jaws and was shaking him. The two other huge dogs were moving in to bite.
Without thinking, I rushed at them.
It didn’t occur to me that three wild dogs the size of ponies could have attacked me. All I wanted was to save my precious boy.
Thankfully, the sight of my charge caused Tyson to drop Kai, and all three ran off. Still screaming, Kai ran into Mark’s arms.
We have re-lived this moment so many times, and wondered how it could have happened. Neither Mark nor I know how Kai had got out of the truck. Distracted by helping Chris and Gayle, we must not have closed the door properly, although none of the other dogs, including Nosy Rosie, had followed Kai, who would never normally approach other dogs. During the diversion, we had also failed to notice a second troop of goats trotting along the beach, which must have arrived with the other two dogs.
One thing was certain, though. Had I failed to act immediately, the outcome would have been different. A few more seconds and Kai would have been dead.
Gayle and Chris were mortified, but we refused their offer to pay for a vet. We checked Kai over, and remarkably he seemed fine.
“There’s no blood and his skin doesn’t seem to be broken.”
We sorted out their tyres and thought we’d had a lucky escape.
It was only when Kai yelped when Mark touched him accidentally in the middle of the night, we realised something was seriously wrong. We checked his back again and found four small punctures where Mike Tyson’s teeth had pierced the skin. We drenched his wounds with chlorhexidine disinfectant and made a discovery following a midnight internet search. There are few vets in Albania, and they aren’t easy to find. There is no definitive list of practitioners, and most don’t have websites.
Vlorë is the third most populated city in the country, but after extensive online searches, all we turned up there was a veterinary pharmacy. One vet we contacted turned out to be in the capital, Tirana, almost 100 miles (150 km) away, although they recommended the pharmacy in Vlorë. In desperation, we left messages with various other veterinary practices around the country.
In the morning, poor Kai was so traumatised that when we took him outside for a call of nature, he wouldn’t go. Tail between his legs, he clawed at our legs, asking to be picked up.
Immediately, we set off to bump and lurch our way back along the long gravel road, and, hearts in mouths, dashed across the concrete bridge. Unless you’re Sylvester Stallone evading the bad guys in the movie Cliffhanger, a collapsing bridge is never something you need in your life. Least of all during a mercy dash.
We parked The Beast on a street in Vlorë without causing too much of an obstruction, and half ran, half walked to the vet pharmacy. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have listened to our instincts. The shop front looked a little dilapidated. Mark and I stared at each other.
“Shall we?” he said.
“Well, the vet in Tirana recommended them…”
We were desperate. What options did we have? A bell clanged as we stepped through the glass door.
Inside, everything was dirty grey. The counter, the shelves, and the wispy hair of the small man behind the counter, who mumbled a gruff greeting. He understood no English and little Italian. (Italian is widely spoken in Albania.) Via Google Translate, I explained that a large dog had bitten Kai and he needed antibiotics.
The man squinted at Kai as though assessing a beef cow. He didn’t examine or weigh him. Almost before I knew what had happened, he had withdrawn some off-white fluid from a bottle, pinched Kai’s neck, and injected it. As I heard the needle crunch through Kai’s skin, I remember thinking,
Well, at least the needle is sterile.
I recalled an incident from Nigel Barley’s memoir The Innocent Anthropologist. The author contracted hepatitis when an African dentist administered anaesthetic using a syringe he picked up from the floor.
When I tried to clarify matters, the man swatted away my phone and Google Translate as though it was a persistent wasp. Between growls and impatient gestures, I deciphered,
“He needs another injection of the same in one month.”
He sold us a bottle of iodine and just before we left, I took the most important photo I’ve ever taken in my life. The bottle containing the substance he injected into Kai.
As soon as I was outside, I looked at the photo and it stopped me in my tracks. I felt my throat constrict and my stomach lurch. Sick with panic, I almost didn’t want to tell Mark. Saying it out loud would confirm it. Make it real. The medication was now in Kai’s bloodstream. There was nothing we could do to undo it. The situation had been bad, but now it was a whole lot worse. I had no choice but to admit what we’d done, because now we had to act quickly.
In a small, wavering voice, I said to Mark,
“He hasn’t given Kai antibiotics.”
“He’s injected Ivercen. The bottle says it’s for cattle, sheep, and pigs.”
A quick internet search made my blood run cold with dread. I relayed my findings to Mark.
“Ivercen is an anti-parasitic which protects livestock against ticks and heartworm, it won’t do anything to protect against a bacterial infection from a cut or bite.”
It got worse.
“The active ingredient, ivermectin, is fatal in some dogs, particularly herding breeds such as collies. Even eating poo containing ivermectin can kill some dogs, and its effects are irreversible. We need to find a proper vet.”
Had I not taken that photo, we would have assumed Kai had been dosed with antibiotics. That everything was fine, when it clearly was anything but.
Thankfully, it gave us a reason to take him to the Animal Veterinar Hospital in Fier. I messaged them to explain what happened, and at our top speed of 45 mph, we growled the 22 miles (36 km) from Vlorë to Fier.
En route, they messaged me in English to say they were ready for us.
The reassuring emergency room tang of alcohol disinfectant assaulted our nostrils the moment we entered the building. Dr. Andi and his assistant and translator, An Ni, took us straight into the bright white and stainless steel consulting room. Both were clad in crisp clean surgical greens.
Straight away, Dr. Andi shaved the fur from around Kai’s injuries and checked that his rabies jabs were up to date. We had no idea how much Ivercen had been injected. My hand shot over my mouth as An Ni told us the Ivercen injection was, “Really bad.” That what we thought were small puncture wounds were deep, and already badly infected.
Using a syringe without a needle, Dr. Andi flushed them with hydrogen peroxide, then applied a lurid green anti-inflammatory gel. The wintergreen whiff of ‘boy’s changing room’ would permeate our life for the next month.
An Ni explained, “Dogs’ skin is loose, so the teeth can go in deeply behind the skin. With the temperatures above 30°C, wounds soon get infected. Doctor doesn’t want to give antibiotics in case it reacts with Ivercen.”
Initially, we had thought Kai was uninjured after the attack. It made us realise that even in a country where rabies is not rife, a dog bite is always an emergency.
Dr. Andi and An Ni were lovely, and so gentle with Kai. They were both horrified by what the ‘vet’ in Vlorë had done. An Ni translated,
“He didn’t even shave off the fur or clean the wound!”
He hadn’t asked when we had last dosed Kai with anti parasitics, either. Fortunately, it was a few weeks before, so the Ivercen shouldn’t react too badly.
I desperately sought reassurance. The location of the bite was the only good news. An Ni said,
“He was lucky the dog didn’t grab him lower down, where his organs are. Is there blood in his urine?”
“We haven’t seen him pee. He ate breakfast, had a drink and we’ve seen him poo.”
Kai could have died, either from the injection or his wounds becoming infected. The Dr. Andi and An Ni had done the best they could. They made a follow up appointment at 3 p.m. the following day.
There was no question of returning to the beach. We had to keep Kai’s wounds clean, dry, and sand free, and none of us could stomach being back in a place where such a terrible thing had happened. For us, Dalan Beach will forever be paradise lost. I had taken some beautiful photographs of the beach, but couldn’t bear to look at them.
We repaired to a tranquil park up next to a lake. It was clean – with no sand and no other dogs, so we could all relax. It was near the Animal Hospital in case complications developed with the Ivercen injection. When Kai finally had a pee, he did not pass any blood.
It was a small relief. Now, all we could do was wait and hope that Cavalier Poodles were a breed unaffected by Ivercen.
Photo 51 allowed scientists to unravel the secret of life. In its own way, my photo of a bottle of Ivercen had done the same for Kai.
Even so, it would be a very long twenty-four hours.
Thank you so much to my friend, the gorgeous Fiona Burnett, and her partner, M, for late night veterinary advice from panicky puppy parents. xx
Following this incident, I realised the importance of not taking for granted access to reliable veterinary treatment. I have compiled a comprehensive guide to taking dogs to Albania – including a list of professional veterinary practitioners. Travel With Dogs to Albania – What You Need To Know
As a gesture of gratitude, I also support Animal Veterinar Hospital‘s charitable work. The vets provide their work and expertise free of charge, but need money for food and medicine for animals brought in, and the twenty or so rescue dogs who live there permanently. If you would like to improve the lot of animals in Albania, any donation, however small, is always welcome – a little goes a long way in Albania.
You can make a donation via Paypal on firstname.lastname@example.org or using the bank transfer details given below. Any amount would be much appreciated!
For more information, see Animal Charities & Volunteering in Albania.
- Dr Rosalind Franklin and Photo 51 by Robin Stott, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- Photo 51 Explanation MagentaGreen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- Neil A. Armstrong, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Hand with Rings by Wilhelm Röntgen., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- View from the Window at Le Gras by Nicéphore Niépce, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Later that day, I saw this quote:
I needed this.