Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)
I. INTO THE FOREST
AT 11:22 ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 20, 1999, J. Michael Fay strode away from a small outpost and into the forest, in a remote northern zone of the Republic of Congo, setting off on a long and peculiarly ambitious hike. By his side was an aging Pygmy named Ndokanda, a companion to Fay from adventures past, armed now with a new machete and dubiously blessed with the honor of cutting trail. Nine other Pygmies marched after them, carrying dry bags of gear and food. Interspersed among that troop came still other folk—a camp boss and cook, various assistants, Michael (“Nick”) Nichols with his cameras, and me.
It was a hectic departure to what would eventually, weeks and months later, seem a quiet, solitary journey. Fay planned to walk across Central Africa, more than a thousand miles, possibly much more, on a carefully chosen route through untamed regions of rainforest and swamp, from northeastern Congo to the coast of Gabon. It would take him at least a year. He would receive resupply drops along the way, communicate as needed by satellite phone, and rest when necessary, but his plan was to stay out there the whole time, covering the full route in a single uninterrupted push. He would cross a northern stretch of the Congo River basin, then top over a divide and descend another major drainage, the Ogooué.
Any big enterprise needs a name, and Fay had chosen to call his the Megatransect—transect as in cutting a line, mega as in mega, a label that variously struck those in the know as amusing or (because survey transects in field biology are generally straight and involve statistically rigorous repetition) inappropriate. Fay is no sobersides, but amusement was not his intent. Behind this mad lark lay a serious purpose—to observe, to count, to measure, and from those observations and numbers to construct a portrait of great Central African forests before their greatness succumbs to the inexorable nibble of humanity. The measuring began now. One of Fay’s entourage, a bright young Congolese named Yves Constant Madzou, paused at the trailhead to tie the loose end of a string to a small tree.
I paused beside him, because I’d heard about the string and it intrigued me. In the technical lingo, it was a topofil. Its other end was wound on a conical spool inside a Fieldranger 6500, a device used by foresters for measuring distance along any walked route. The topofil pays out behind a walker while the machine counts traversed footage, much as a car’s odometer counts traversed miles. Each spool holds a six-kilometer length. Madzou carried a half-dozen extras, and somewhere among the expedition supplies were many more. Being biodegradable, the string would quickly disappear down the gullets of termites and other jungle digesters, I’d been told, but the numbers it delivered with such Hansel-and-Gretel simplicity would be accurate to the nearest twelve inches. You can’t get that precision from a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a map. Running the topofil each day from the red plastic box on his belt was to be one of Madzou’s assignments.
Now, as he stepped out after Fay in the first minutes of Day 1, the Fieldranger gurgled in a low, wheezy tone, like an asthmatic retriever catching its breath between ducks. Madzou trailed filament like a spider. The string hovered, chest-high, under tension. And I found it pungent to contemplate that if Fay’s expedition proceeds to its fulfillment, a thousand-mile length of string will go furling out through the equatorial jungle. That string seemed an emblem of all the oxymoronic combinations this enterprise embodies—high tech and low tech, vast scales and tiny ones, hardheaded calculation and loony daring, strength and fragility, glorious tropical wilderness and a mitigated smidgen of litter. As he walks, Fay will gather data in many dimensions by many means, including digital video camera, digital audio recorder, digital still camera, notebook and pencil, GPS, conductivity meter, thermohygrometer, handheld computer, digital caliper, and hand lens. The topofil will be a quaint but important complement to the rest.
Within less than an hour on the first day we’re shin-deep in mud, crossing the mucky perimeter of a creek. “Doesn’t take long for the swamps to kick in around here,” Fay says cheerily. He’s wearing his usual outfit for a jungle hike: river sandals, river shorts, a lightweight synthetic T-shirt that can be rinsed out each evening and worn again next day, and the day after, and every day after that until it disintegrates. River sandals are preferable to running shoes or tall rubber boots, he has found, because the forest terrain of northeastern Congo is flat and sumpy, its patches of solid ground interlaced with leaf-clotted spring seeps and blackwater creeks, each of them guarded by a corona of swamp. A determined traveler on a compass-line march is often obliged to wallow through sucking gumbo, cross a waist-deep channel of whiskey-dark water flowing gently over a bottom of white sand, wallow out through the muck zone on the far side, rinse off, and keep walking. Less determined travelers, in their Wellingtons and bush pants, just don’t get to the places where Fay goes.
He stops to enter a datum into his yellow Rite-in-the-Rain notebook: elephant dung, fresh. Blue-and-black swallowtail butterflies flash in sun shafts that penetrate the canopy. He notes some fallen fruits of the plant Vitex grandifolia. Trained as a botanist before he shifted focus to do his doctorate on western lowland gorillas, Fay has an impressive command of the botanical diversity on which big mammals depend—he seems familiar with every tree, vine, and herb. He knows the feeding habits of the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis, the smaller species of African elephant adapted to the woods and soggy clearings of the Congo basin) and the life cycles of the plants that produce the fruits it prefers. He can recognize, from stringy fecal evidence, when a chimpanzee has been eating rubber sap. He can identify an ambiguous tree by the smell of its inner bark. He sees the forest in its particulars and its connectedness. Now he bends pensively over a glob of civet shit. Then he makes another notation.
“Mmm. This is gonna be fun,” he says, and walks on.
Mike Fay isn’t the first half-crazed white man to set out trekking across the Congo basin. In a tradition that includes such Victorian-era explorers as David Livingstone, Verney Lovett Cameron, Savorgnan de Brazza, and Henry Morton Stanley, he’s merely the latest. Like Stanley and some of the others, he has a certain perverse gift for command, a level of personal force and psychological savvy that allows him to push a squad of men forward through difficult circumstances using a mix of inspirational goading, promised payment, sarcasm, imperiousness, threat, tactical sulking, and strong example. He’s a paradoxical fellow and therefore hard to ignore, a postmodern redneck who chews Red Man tobacco, disdains political correctness, knows a bit about tractor repair and a lot about software, and views the crowded, suburbanized landscape of modern America with cold loathing. Born in New Jersey, raised there and in Pasadena, he sees no going back; he’ll live out his life and die in Africa, he says. What makes him different from those legendary Victorian zealots is that he’s not traveling in service of God or empire or the personal enrichment of the king of Belgium. He does have sponsors, most notably the National Geographic Society, and also the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of New York, for which he’s a staff member on paid leave, but he’s certainly not laboring for the greater glory of them. His driving motive—or rather, the first and most public of his two driving motives—is conservation.
His immediate goal is to collect a huge body of diverse but inter-meshed information about the biological richness of the ecosystems he’ll walk through and about the degree of human presence and human impact. He’ll gather field notes on the abundance and freshness of elephant dung, leopard tracks, chimpanzee nests, and magisterial old-growth trees. He’ll make recordings of birdsong for later identification by experts. He’ll register precise longitude-latitude readings every twenty seconds throughout the walking day, with his Garmin GPS unit and the antenna duct-taped into his hat. He’ll collect rock samples, note soil types, listen for half a dozen different species of skrawking monkey. He’ll detect gorillas by smell and by the stems of freshly chewed Haumania dankelmaniana, a monocot vine they munch like celery. Beyond the immediate goal, his ultimate purpose is to systematize those data into an informational resource unlike any ever before assembled on such a scale—and to see that resource used wisely by the managers and the politicians who will make decisions about the fate of African landscapes. “It’s not a scientific endeavor, this project,” Fay acknowledges during one of our talks before departure. Nor is it a publicity stunt, he argues, answering an accusation that’s been raised. What he means to do, he explains, is to “quantify a stroll through the woods.”
Then there’s his second driving motive. He doesn’t voice it explicitly, but I will: Mike Fay is an untamable man who just loves to walk in the wilds.
Completing this marathon trek won’t be easy, not even for him. There are dire diseases, minor health hassles, political disruptions (such as the civil war that racked the Republic of Congo in 1997), and other mishaps that could stop him. He’s familiar with malaria, aware of filariasis and Ebola, and has found himself inconveniently susceptible to footworms, a form of parasite that can travel from elephant dung into exposed human feet, burrowing tunnels in a person’s toes, only to die there and fester. He’s aware that every scratch on an ankle or an arm in this feculent environment is a potential infection. He has tasted the giddy vulnerability of facing armed poachers unarmed, confiscating their meat, burning their huts, and wondering bemusedly why they didn’t just kill him. But the biggest challenge for Fay will come after all his walking.
Can he make good on the claim that this encyclopedia of field data will be useful? Can he satisfy the doubters that it isn’t just a stunt? Can he channel his personal odyssey into practical results for the conservation of African forests?
He’s very stubborn; maybe he can.
Suddenly, two kilometers on, Fay makes a vehement hand signal: stop. As we stand immobile and hushed, a young male elephant appears, walking straight toward us through the understory. Ndokanda slides prudently to the back of the file, knowing well that a forest elephant, nearsighted and excitable, is far more dangerous than, say, a hungry leopard or a runaway truck. Fay raises the video camera. The elephant, visually oblivious and upwind of our smell, keeps coming. The videotape rolls quietly. When the animal is just five yards from him and barely twice that from the rest of us, too close for anyone’s comfort, Fay says in a calm voice: “Hello.” The elephant spooks, whirls around, disappears with its ears flapping.
Tusk length, about forty centimeters, Fay says. Maybe ten or twelve years old, he estimates. It goes into his notebook.
Mike Fay is a compact forty-three-year-old American with a sharp chin and a lean, wobbly nose. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, with their round, smoky lenses, he bears a disquieting resemblance to the young Roman Polanski. Say something that’s doltish or disagreeable and he’ll gaze at you silently the way a heron gazes at a fish. But on the trail he’s good company, a man of humor and generous intellect. He sets a punishing pace, starting at daylight, never stopping for lunch or rest, but when there are field data to record in his yellow notebook, fortunately, he pauses often.
He first came to Central Africa in 1980, after a stint with the Smithsonian Peace Corps (a scientific variant of the U.S. Peace Corps) doing botany in Tunisia. He signed up for another stint on the understanding that he’d go to a new national park in the Central African Republic, near its borders with Chad and Sudan. The park, known as Manovo-Gounda St. Floris, was then just wishful lines on a map. The lines encircled an area rich with wildlife, in a region over which the CAR government exerted virtually no control. It was a savanna ecosystem, fertile and wild, supporting large populations of elephant, black rhino, giant eland, kudu, giraffe, roan antelope, and other big mammals. “A million hectares,” Fay tells me, “and you’re the only white man in those million hectares for eight months out of the year. It was like paradise on Earth.” Yet it wasn’t so paradisaical when Chadian and Sudanese poachers came to slaughter the elephants. Both his love for Central Africa and his ferocity as a conservationist seem to be rooted in that place and time.
It was at St. Floris too that Fay began to—what’s the right phrase? go AWOL? step off the ranch? disappear into nowhere for long periods?—let’s say leaven his more focused scientific work with wildcat exploratory journeys. Since the park’s landscape was open and flat, he put his Peace Corps–issue Suzuki 125 trail bike to some unauthorized use. “I decided that the way to really see that place was to take long traverses from one road to another, sometimes seventy or eighty kilometers, across the places where no one had ever been.” Too many field biologists, in his judgment, never venture more than a few kilometers from their base camps. Fay rejected such tethering; he hungered to see the wider scope and the interstitial details. He was restless. He would load the little bike with extra fuel, a patch kit for flats, two weeks’ worth of food, and go.
We leave camp just after dawn on Day 3 and follow the Mopo River downstream along a network of elephant trails. We’re a smaller group now, Nick Nichols and his assistant having backtracked to the start for other work, intending to rendezvous with Fay’s march some weeks later. Fay, Madzou, and I set out while the crew are still eating breakfast, giving us a relatively quiet first look at forest activity. Under a high canopy of Gilbertiodendron trees, the walking is easy. The understory is sparse, as it generally tends to be in these dominant stands of Gilbertiodendron, and well trampled by elephant traffic. Later, as we swing away from the river onto higher ground, the Gilbertiodendron gives way to a mixed forest, its canopy gaps delivering light to a clamorous undergrowth of brush, saplings, thorny vines, and woody lianas, through which we climb hunchbacked behind the day’s Pygmy point man. The thickest zones of such early-successional vegetation are known in local slang as kaka zamba, politely translated as “crappy forest.” Today it’s Bakembe, younger and stronger than Ndokanda, who cuts us a tunnel through the kaka.
The most devilish of the thorny vines is Haumania dankelmaniana, mentioned already as a favored gorilla food. Looping high and low throughout the understory, weaving kaka zamba into a tropical brier patch, forever finding chances to carve bloody scratches across unprotected ankles and toes, Haumania is the bush-whacker’s torment. Even a Congo-walker as seasoned as Fay has to spend much of his time looking down, stepping carefully, minimizing the toll on his feet. Of course Fay would be looking down anyway, because that’s where so much of the data is found—scat piles, footprints, territorial scrape marks, masticated stems, grouty tracks left by red river hogs nose-plowing through leaf litter, pangolin burrows, aardvark burrows, fallen leaves, fallen fruit. Fay’s GPS tells us where we are, while his map and our compasses tell us which way to go. There are no human trails in this forest, because there are no resident humans, few visitors, and no destinations.
Fay pauses over a pile of gorilla shit, recognizing seeds of Marantes glabra as a hint about this animal’s recent diet. Farther on, he notes the hole where a salt-hungry elephant has dug for minerals. Farther still, the print of a yellow-backed duiker, one of the larger forest antelopes. Each datum goes into the notebook, referenced to the minute of the day, which will be referenced in turn by his GPS to longitude and latitude at three decimal points of precision. Years from now, his intricate database will be capable of placing that very pile of gorilla shit at its exact dot in space-time, should anyone want to know.
When it comes time to ford the Mopo, Fay wades knee-deep into the channel with his video camera pressed to his face. Spotting a dark lump against the white sand, he gropes for it one-handed, still shooting. “Voilà. A palm nut.” He shows me the hard, rugose sphere, smaller than a walnut, light in weight but heavy with import. It’s probably quite old, he explains. He has found thousands like this in his years of wading the local rivers, and carbon-dating analysis of a sizable sample revealed them to be durable little subfossils, ranging back between 990 and 2,340 years. Presumably they wash into a stream like the Mopo after centuries of shallow burial in the soil nearby. What makes their presence mysterious is that this species of palm, Elaeis guineensis, is known mainly as an agricultural species, grown on plantations near traditional Bantu villages at the fringe of the forest and harvested for its oil. Elaeis guineensis seems to need cleared land, or at least gaps and edges, and to be incapable of competing in dense, mature forest. The abundance of ancient oil-palm nuts in the river channels suggests a striking possibility: that a vast population of early Bantu agriculturalists once occupied this now vacant and forested region. So goes Fay’s line of deduction, anyway. He hypothesizes that those proto-Bantus cut the forest, established palm plantations, discarded millions or billions of palm nuts in the process of extracting oil, and then vanished, as mysteriously as the Anasazi vanished from the American Southwest. Some scholars argue that natural climate change over the past three millennia might account for the coming and going of oil palms, the natural ebb and return of forest, but to Fay it doesn’t make sense. “What makes sense,” he says, “is that people moved in here, grew palm nuts, and then died out.” Died out? From what? He can only guess: maybe warfare, or a killer drought, or population overshoot leading to ecological collapse, or severe social breakdown resulting from some combination of such factors. Or maybe disease. Maybe an early version of AIDS or Ebola or bubonic plague emptied the region of people, more or less abruptly, allowing the forest to regrow. There’s no direct evidence for this cataclysmic depopulation, but it’s a theme that will recur throughout Fay’s hike. Meanwhile, he drops the palm nut into a Ziploc bag.
Just beyond the Mopo, we sneak up on a group of gorillas feeding placidly in a bai, a boggy clearing amid the forest. We approach within thirty yards of an oblivious female as she works her way through a salad of Hydrochoris stems. Fastidiously, she nips off the tender white bases, tossing the rest aside. Her face is long and tranquil, with dark eyes shaded beneath her protrusive brow. The hair on her head is red, Irish red, as it generally is among adult lowland gorillas. Her arms are huge, her hands big and careful. Leaving me behind, Fay skulks closer along the bai’s perimeter. When the female raises her head to look straight in his direction, the intensity of her stare seems to bring the whole forest to silence. For a minute or two she looks puzzled, wary, menacingly stern. Then she resumes eating. Fay gets the moment on zoom-lens video. Later he tells me that he froze every muscle while she glowered at him, not daring to lower the camera, not daring to move, while a tsetse fly sucked blood from his foot.
The video camera, with its soundtrack for verbal annotations and its date-and-time log, is becoming one of his favorite tools. He shoots footage of major trees, posing a Pygmy among the buttresses for scale. He shoots footage of monitor lizards and big unidentified spiders. He shoots footage, for the hell of it, of me floundering waist-deep in mud. Occasionally he does a slow 360-degree pan to show the wraparound texture of a patch of forest. And when I alert him that a leech has attached itself to one of the sores on his right ankle, he videos that. Then he hands me the camera while Madzou burns the leech off with a lighter, so that I can capture the operation from a better angle.
Just before noon he inspects another fresh mound of elephant dung, poking his finger through the mulchy gobs. Elephants in this forest eat a lot of fallen fruit, but just what’s on the menu lately? He picks out seeds of various shape and size, identifying each at a glance, reciting the Latin binomials as he tosses them into a pile: Panda oliosa, Tridesmos stemon, Antrocaryon klaineana, Duboskia macrocarpum, Tetropleura tetraptera, Drypetes gosweilieri, and what’s this other little thing, can’t remember, wait, wait…oh yeah, Treculia africana. As I squat beside him, impressed by his knowledge and scribbling the names, he adds: “Of course, this is where you get footworms, standing in elephant dung like this.”
We make camp along a tributary of the Mopo. The Pygmies erect a roof beam for the main tarp and a log bench for our ease before the campfire. According to the topofil, Madzou reports, our day’s progress has been 33,420 feet. Not a long walk, but a full one. After dark, as Fay and Madzou and I sit eating popcorn, there comes a weird, violent, whooshing noise that rises mystifyingly toward crescendo and then crests—as, whoa, an elephant charges through camp, like an invisible freight train with tusks. Sparks explode from the campfire as though someone had dropped in a Roman candle, and the Pygmies dive for safety. Then, as quickly, the elephant is gone. Anybody hurt? No. Dinner is served and the pachyderm in the kitchen is forgotten, just a minor distraction at the end of a typical day on the Megatransect.
Fay spent the late 1980s at a site in southern CAR, gathering data on the resident gorillas. He was particularly curious about their food choices (all gorillas are vegetarian, but their local diets reflect the plant availabilities of a given ecosystem) and their nesting behavior. The lowland gorilla, like the chimpanzee, is known to build sleeping nests from bent or interwoven branches, and with gorillas those nests are sometimes elaborate. Every gorilla above weaning age makes such a nest, simple or fancy, almost every night. By counting nests, therefore, a biologist can estimate gorilla population density; and from nest counts and other evidence left behind as the animals move, inferences can be drawn about group size, demographic composition, and social organization. In other words, a researcher can learn much without even seeinggorillas.
One of the methods Fay used was a standard line-transect survey, which involved cutting straight trails through his study area, creating a rectilinear grid, and then walking the trails repeatedly to count and plot nests. Fay’s study-site grid, spanning floodplain and lowland forest from the Sangha River to a smaller stream that ran parallel, was just 3.3 miles wide. He could march all through it, gathering data as he went, in a day. Another of his methods, which proved more congenial to his disposition, was what he labeled a “group follow.”
He hit upon this technique, from necessity, toward the end of his fieldwork period. The gorillas were skittish. They generally fled from any contact with humans—that is, mutual visibility or intrusive proximity. Earlier on, Fay had spent a lot of effort trying to habituate certain gorilla groups to his presence. That was difficult, he found. But if a group of gorillas was followed and not contacted, there was no need for habituation. He could stay near the group indefinitely—out of sight, beyond earshot—and leave them none the wiser while he collected data from their abandoned nests, their dung, and other residual clues. So he started to shadow them that way.
It required keen tracking skills. Fay enlisted those skills in the person of a brilliant Pygmy tracker named Mbutu Clement, a member of the Bambendjellé clan, who became his mentor and friend. With Mbutu’s guidance, he would follow a group of gorillas discreetly but persistently for all of one day or several, holding back at enough distance (several hundred yards) to keep them unaware of his presence. Among the clues Mbutu used were chewed-upon stems of Haumania dankelmaniana, the thorny creeper, which gorillas find toothsome. Because its tissue oxidizes quickly when exposed to air, a freshly gnawed stem of Haumania retains its whitish inner color for only about five minutes; after ten minutes, it has turned black. Fay and Mbutu tried to stay within the five-minute range of a gorilla group without being perceived. Such fastidious tracking allowed Fay to learn what the gorillas had been eating, how many nests they had built, how often they shat, and what their group size, ages, and gender composition might be, while minimizing the chance that he’d spook them.
Near the end of the study, in late 1988, he and Mbutu followed one group for twelve days, dawn to dark each day, resting and eating and walking in synchronic rhythm with the gorillas. From a reading of his eventual dissertation, it seems that “the twelve-day follow,” as he called it, was a high point in his academic fieldwork. It was also a foundational bit of experience for what he would later attempt in the Megatransect.
He returned to grad school in St. Louis meaning to write that dissertation, but after a few months he shoved it aside (not to be finished until eight years later) and flew back to Africa, seizing the irresistible distraction of more fieldwork. His new assignment was to do some surveys of forest elephants in northern Congo. He inherited this project from a biologist colleague who had developed the methodology, gotten the grant, and then found himself laid up with a broken back. Fay took over, choosing to focus the survey on three remote, difficult ecosystems: an area near the Gabonese border known as Odzala, a vast swampland to the east known as Likouala aux Herbes, and, farther north, a zone of trackless forest between the Nouabalé and Ndoki Rivers.
Teaming up with an adventuresome Congolese biologist named Marcellin Agnagna, Fay set himself the delectable (to him) task of traversing all three areas on foot. Elephant data would be the purpose and the result, but the bush travel would be its own reward. For the Odzala trek, they began at a town called Mbomo. “People were amazed that we were going to just walk from Mbomo to Tshembe, which in a straight line is like 130 Ks across the forest,” Fay recalls. “The villagers thought we were out of our minds.” A year later he returned for a second survey trek in the Nouabalé-Ndoki area, where he had found such a wonderland of undisturbed forest that it would eventually, after much determined but deft politicking by Fay and others, become one of Congo’s most treasured national parks. By 1994, Fay himself was director of this Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park project, on a management contract between the Republic of Congo government and the Wildlife Conservation Society. He based himself at a village called Bomassa, on the east bank of the upper Sangha River. Although his administrative duties had grown heavy and his political reach had lengthened, he still slid out for a two-or three-week reconnaissance hike whenever the necessity or the excuse arose. And soon after that he began to brainstorm about applying his leg-power approach on a whole different scale.
His widened perspective came literally from the sky: a hundred feet above the canopy in a Cessna 182. Back in St. Louis he had gotten pilot training, and by 1996 he had found grant money to buy the Cessna. He began flying low-altitude excursions over Congo, Gabon, and the neighboring countries, scanning the landscape as though it were a colorful map on his coffee table, taking himself down to the altitude of parrots and hornbills above areas no road had ever crossed. He logged a thousand hours. He saw the real texture of what was out there—the hidden bais where elephants gathered, the thick groves of Marantaceae vegetation representing bounteous gorilla food, the fishing settlements along small rivers, the poachers’ camps secreted in the outback, the Bantu villages, and the great zones of forest where neither settlements, camps, nor villages had yet arrived. “Everything came together because of the airplane,” Fay says. “It gave me the big picture.” The big picture as he soon sketched it was of a single grandiose hike, complemented with overflights for aerial videography, that would seek to embrace, sample, quantify, interconnect, and comprehend as much of the Central African forest as humanly possible. After more than a year of planning, enlisting collaborators (among whom Nick Nichols was crucial, for his great influence at National Geographic magazine, for which he was a staff photographer), gathering permissions from governments, selling his vision to sponsors, arranging logistical support, packing, and further flying, he parked the Cessna and started to walk.
On the afternoon of Day 5 we enter Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, crossing the Ndoki River in dugout canoes, then paddling up a deep blackwater channel through meadows of swaying Leersia grass and continuing onward by foot. We spend the last hour before sunset walking through a rainstorm so heavy it fills the trail with a cement-colored flood. On Day 7 we skirt the perimeter of Mbeli Bai, a large clearing much frequented by elephants and gorillas. Fay’s first glimpse of this bai back in 1990, he tells me, was an ugly experience: He found six elephant carcasses, some with their tusks already hacked out, others left to rot until the extraction would be easier. The park hadn’t yet been decreed, and poaching was rampant. In recent years the situation is much improved. The park has also brought protection to giant trees of the species most valued for timber, such as Entandrophragma cylindricum, informally known as sapelli, one of the premium African mahoganies. Pointing to a big sapelli, he says, “There’s something you wouldn’t see on the other side of the river”—that is, west of the park, where selective logging has already combed away the most formidable trees. Later he notes a mighty specimen of Peracopsis alata, far more valuable even than sapelli. A log of Peracopsis that size is like standing gold, Fay says, worth about $30,000 coming out of the sawmill. Spotting another, he changes his metaphor: “If sapelli is the bread-and butter-around here, Peracopsis is the caviar.”
We linger through midafternoon with a group of eerily brash chimpanzees, which have gathered at close range to watch us. The chimps hoot and gabble and grunt, perching in trees just overhead, sending down pungent but unmalicious showers of urine, scratching, cooing, thrashing the vines excitedly, ogling us with intense curiosity. One female holds an infant with an amber face and huge, back-lit orange ears, neither mother nor baby showing any fear. A young chimp researcher named Dave Morgan, who has joined us for this leg of the hike, counts eleven individuals, including one with a distinctively notched left earlobe.
It’s a mesmerizing encounter, both for us and for them, but after two hours with the chimps we push on, then find ourselves running out of daylight long before we’ve reached a suitable campsite. None of us wants a night without water. We grope forward in the dark, wearing headlamps now, cutting and twisting through kaka zamba, finally stumbling into a sumpy, uneven area beside a muddy trickle, and Fay declares that this will do. Early next morning we hear chimps again, calling near camp. With Morgan’s help, we realize that it’s probably the group from yesterday, having tracked us and bedded nearby. Camp-following chimps? Aren’t they supposed to be terrified of humans, who commonly hunt and eat chimpanzees throughout Central Africa? The sense of weird and unearthly comity only increases when, on Day 8, we cross into an area known as the Goualougo Triangle.
At 4:15 that morning I’m awake in my tent, preparing for the day’s walk by duct-taping over the sores and raw spots on my toes, ankles, and heels. To travel the way Mike Fay travels is hard on the feet, even hard on his feet, not because of the distance he walks but because of where and how. After a week of crossing swamps and stream channels behind him, I’ve long since converted to Fay’s notion of the optimal trail outfit—river sandals, shorts, one T-shirt that can be rinsed and dried. But the problem of foot care remains, partly because of the unavoidable cuts, stubs, and slashes inflicted by the Haumania dankelmaniana vine and other hazards, and partly because the sandy mud of Congolese swamps has an effect like sandpaper socks, chafing the skin away wherever a sandal strap binds against the foot. So I’ve adopted the practice of painting my feet with iodine every morning and night, and (at the suggestion of another tough Congo trekker, a colleague of Fay’s named Steve Blake) using duct tape to cover the old sores and protect against new ones. The stuff holds amazingly well through a day of swamp-slogging, and although peeling off the first batch isn’t fun, removal becomes easier on later evenings when there’s no more hair on your feet. Since I’ve got a small roll of supple green tape as well as a larger roll of the traditional (but stiffer, less comfortable) silver, I even find myself patterning the colors—green crosses over the tops of the feet, green on the heels, silver on the toes: a fashion statement. If my supplies of iodine and tape can be stretched for another ten days and my mental balance doesn’t tip much further, I’ll be fine.
At 4:30 A.M. I hear Dave Morgan, awake now in the tent beside mine, beginning to duct-tape his feet.
Over breakfast, Fay himself asks to borrow my tape for a few patches on his toes and heels. I give him the silver, selfishly hoarding the green. Then again we walk.
Demarcated by the Goualougo River on one side, the Ndoki River on another, the Goualougo Triangle is a wedge-shaped area extending southward from the southern boundary of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. In other words, it’s ecologically continuous with the park but not part of it statutorily, and isolated from the wider world by the two rivers. Having already made our Ndoki crossing, we enter on solid ground from the park.
The Triangle embraces roughly 300 square kilometers of primary forest, including much excellent chimpanzee habitat, a warren of elephant trails, and an untold number of big sapelli trees, all encompassed within a logging concession held by a company called Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), the largest surviving timber enterprise in northeastern Congo. With two sawmills, a shipyard, a community hospital, and logging crews in the forest, CIB employs about 1,200 people, mostly in the towns of Kabo and Pokola, along the Sangha River. Although the company has shown willingness to collaborate with WCS on management of a peripheral zone south of the park, especially toward restricting the commercial trade in bushmeat (wild species killed for food) coming out of the forest, tension now seems to be gathering around the issue of the Goualougo Triangle. Mike Fay originally hoped to see that wedge of precious landscape included in the park, but when the boundaries were drawn, in 1993, the Goualougo was lined out. About the same time, CIB acquired the concession from another logging company that went into receivership. After a half-decade of benign inattention, CIB now wants to move toward logging the Goualougo, or at least to conduct an on-the-ground assessment of the timber resource and the costs of extracting it. That assessment—a prospection, in the jargon of Francophone forestry—will put a price tag on the Triangle. Meanwhile the company, in a spirit that mixes cooperation with hardheaded bargaining, has invited WCS to do a parallel prospection, theirs to assess the area’s biological value. Weeks after returning from the Congo, I hear CIB’s position on the Goualougo put by the company’s president, Dr. Hinrich Stoll. “You cannot just say, ‘Forget about it, it is completely protected,’” he tells me by phone from his office in Bremen, Germany. “We all want to know how much it is worth.” Once its worth has been gauged, both in economic and in biological terms, also in social ones, then perhaps the international community of conservationists and donors will see fit to compensate his company—yes, and the working people of Pokola and Kabo, Dr. Stoll stresses—for what they’re being asked to give up.
But that talk of compensation, of balancing value against value, of ransoming some of the world’s last ingenuous chimpanzees, comes later. As I stroll through the Goualougo with Fay, he turns the day into a walking seminar in forest botany, instructing me or quizzing Madzou and Morgan on the identity of this tree or that. Here’s an Entandrophragma utile, slightly more valuable but far less common than its congeneric Entandrophragma cylindricum. Its fruits resemble blackish yams festooned with wiry little roots, not to be confused with the banana-shaped fruit of another Entandrophragma species, candoliae. And here’s still another, Entandrophragma angolense. What about that tree there—what is it, Morgan? he demands. Um, an Entandrophragma? Wrong, Fay says, that one’s Gambaya lacourtiana. Of course to me these are all just huge hulking boles, thirty feet around, rising to crowns in the canopy so high that I can’t even see the shapes of their leaves. Morgan and Madzou are earnest students. Fay is a stern but effective teacher, sardonic one moment, lucid and helpful the next, drawing tirelessly on his own encyclopedic knowledge and his love for the living architecture of the forest. Now he directs Morgan’s attention to the fine, fissured, unflaky bark of Gambaya lacourtiana, which is not to be confused with the more subtly fissured bark of Combretodendron macrocarpum, which is not to be confused with…a pile of lumber awaiting shipment from Kabo.
The good news from Day 8 is that Fay finds no Peracopsis alata, no standing gold, no caviar, at least along this line of march in the Goualougo Triangle. The bad news is that there’s an abundance of Entandrophragma, CIB’s bread-and-butter. By the time the prospection team arrives to confirm or modify those impressions, Fay will be somewhere else, continuing his own singular sort of prospection at his own pace and scale.
From the Goualougo Triangle we make our way upstream along the Goualougo River, crossing back into the park. On the evening of Day 11 we’re settled near an idyllic little bathing hole, a knee-deep pool with a sand bottom and a fallen log nearby that makes a good shelf for my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Peeling away my duct-tape socks after a gentle soak underwater, I feel exquisite relief. I wash my feet carefully, the rest of my body quickly, and then, given the luxury of deep clear water, my hair. I rinse my shorts and T-shirt, wring them, put them back on. It’s been a good day, enlivened by another two-hour encounter with a group of fearless chimps. For dinner there’ll be a pasty concoction known as foufou, made from manioc flour and topped with some kind of sauce, plus maybe a handful of dried apricots for dessert. Then a night’s blissful sleep on the ground; then fresh duct tape; then another day’s walk. Having fallen into his rhythm, I’ve begun to see why Mike Fay loves this perverse, unrelenting forest so dearly.
Seated beside the campfire, Fay puts Neosporin antiseptic on his ragged toes. Several footworms have burrowed in there and died, mortally disappointed that he wasn’t an elephant. The ointment, as he smears it around, mixes with stray splatters of mud to make an unguent gray glaze. No, he affirms, there’s no escaping foot hassles out here. You’ve just got to keep up the maintenance and try to avoid infection. When necessary, you stop walking for a few days. Lay up, rest. Let them heal. Wait it out.
So he says. I can scarcely imagine what Fay’s feet might have to look like before he resigns himself to that.
At the end of Day 13 we make camp on a thickly forested bench above the headwaters of the Goualougo, which up here is just a step-across stream. Our distance traversed since morning, as measured by the Fieldranger, is 42,691 feet. Our position is 2E26.297 north by 16E36.809 east, which means little to me but much to the great continuum of data. This particular day, alas and hoorah, has been my final one of walking with Fay, at least for now. (The plan is that I’ll return months later to share other legs of the hike.) Tomorrow I’ll point myself toward civilization, retracing our trail of string and machete cuts to the Sangha River. Morgan and three of the Pygmies will accompany me.
And Fay? He’ll continue northeastward to the rendezvous with Nick, then loop down again through Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park before heading out across the CIB logging concessions and the other variously tracked and untracked forests of Central Africa. The Megatransect has only begun: thirteen days gone, roughly four hundred to go. Many field notes remain to be taken, many video-and audiotapes to be filled, much data to be entered in the computers, many kilometers of topofil to unroll. Then will come the challenge of making it all matter—collation, analysis, politics. When he reaches the seacoast of Gabon, Fay has told me, he’ll probably wish he could just turn around and start walking back.
II. THE GREEN ABYSS
It takes a hardheaded person to walk 2,000 miles across west-central Africa, transecting all the wildest forests remaining between a northeastern corner of the Republic of Congo and the Atlantic. It takes a harder head still to conceive of covering that terrain in a single, sustained, expeditionary trudge. There are rivers to be ferried or bridged, swamps to be waded, ravines to be crossed, vast thickets to be carved through by machete, and one tense national border, as well as some lesser impediments—thorny vines, biting flies, stinging ants, ticks, vipers, tent-eating termites, and the occasional armed poacher. As though that weren’t enough, there’s a beautifully spooky forest about midway on the route that’s believed to harbor Ebola virus, the cause of lethal epidemics in nearby villages within recent years. The logistical costs of an enterprise on this scale, counting high-tech data-gathering gizmos and aerial support, can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The human costs include fatigue, hunger, loneliness, tedium, some diseases less mysterious than Ebola, and the inescapable nuisance of infected feet. It takes an obdurate self-confidence to begin such a journey, let alone finish. It takes an unquenchable curiosity and a monomaniacal sense of purpose.
J. Michael Fay is as obdurate and purposeful as they come. But even for him there arrived a moment, after eight months of walking, when it looked as if the whole venture would end sadly. One of his forest crew, a young Bambendjellé Pygmy named Mouko, lay fevering on the verge of death. Hepatitis was taking him down fast.
Mouko’s illness was only the latest travail. Within recent days Fay had been forced to backtrack around an impassable swamp. His twelve Bambendjellé crewmen, even the healthy ones, were exhausted and ready to quit. That border crossing, which loomed just ahead, had begun to appear politically problematic—no Gabonese visas to be had for a gang of Congolese Pygmies. And then a certain Muslim trader went missing between villages along one of the few human footpaths with which Fay’s route converged; as authorities reacted to the man’s disappearance, Fay began dreading the prospect that he and his feral band might come under suspicion and be sidetracked for interrogation. Suspending the march to nurse Mouko, he found himself stuck in a village with bad water. He was running short of food, with not even enough pocket money to buy local bananas. The Megatransect was in megatrouble.
If Mouko dies, Fay thought, it’s probably time to roll up the tents and capitulate. He would abandon his dream of amassing a great multidimensional filament of forest-survey data, continuous both in space and in time. He would stop recording all those little particulars—the relative freshness of every pile of elephant dung, the location of every chimp nest and aardvark burrow, the species and girth of every big tree—in the latest of his many yellow notebooks. He would stop walking. Human exigencies would preempt methodological imperatives and vaulting aspirations. If Mouko dies, he figured, I’ll drop everything and take the body home.
Even from the start, in late September of last year, it looked like a daunting endeavor, far too arduous and demented to tempt an ordinary tropical biologist, let alone a normal human being. But Fay isn’t ordinary. By his standards, the first three months of walking were a lark. Then the going got sticky.
Having crossed Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park and that stunning wedge of pristine forest known as the Goualougo Triangle, having hiked south through the trail-gridded timber concessions and boomtown logging camps of the lower Ndoki watershed, Fay and his team angled west, toward a zone of wilderness between the Sangha and the Lengoué Rivers, both of which drain south to the main stem of the Congo River. What was out there? No villages, no roads. On the national map it was just a smear of green. Fay traveled along elephant trails when possible, and when there were none, he bushwhacked, directing his point man to cut a compass-line path by machete.
A strong-armed and equable Pygmy named Mambeleme had laid permanent claim to the point-man job. Behind him walked Fay with his yellow notebook and video camera, followed closely by Yves Constant Madzou, the young Congolese biologist serving as his scientific apprentice. Farther back, beyond earshot so as not to spook animals, came the noisier and more heavily burdened entourage—twelve Pygmy porters and a Bakwele Bantu named Jean Gouomoth, nicknamed Fafa, Fay’s all-purpose expedition sergeant and camp cook. They had proceeded that way for many weeks, in a good rhythm, making reasonable distance for reasonable exertion, when gradually they found themselves submerged in a swale of vegetation unlike anything Fay had ever seen.
Trained as a botanist long before he did his doctoral dissertation on gorillas, Fay describes it as “a solid sea of Marantaceae”—the family Marantaceae constituting a group of herbaceous tropical plants that includes gangly species such as Haumania dankelmaniana, the thorny ankle-ripping nuisance, and its near cousin Haumania liebrechtsiana, a more vertically inclined plant that can grow into stultifying thickets, denser than sugarcane, denser than grass, dense as the fur on a duck dog. The Marantaceae brake that Fay and his team had now entered, just east of the Sangha River, stretched westward for God only knew how far. Fay himself, with a GPS unit and a half-decent map but no godlike perspective, knew not. All he could do was point Mambeleme into the stuff, like a human Weedwacker, and fall in behind.
Sometimes they moved only sixty steps an hour. During one ten-hour day they made less than a mile. The green stems stood fifteen feet high, with multiple branches groping crosswise and upward, big leaves turned greedily toward the sun. “It’s an environment which is completely claustrophobic,” Fay says later, from the comfort of retrospect. “It’s like digging a tunnel, except there is sunlight.” The cut stems scratched at their bare arms and legs. Sizable trees, offering shade, harboring monkeys, were few. Flowing water was rare, and each afternoon they searched urgently for some drinkable sump beside which to camp. When they did stop, it took an hour of further cutting just to clear space for the tents.
On the march, Fay spent much of his time bent at the waist, crouching through Mambeleme’s tunnel. He learned to summon a Zenlike state of self-control, patience, humility. The alternative was to start hating every stem of this Marantaceae hell, regretting he had ever blundered into it—and along that route a person might go completely nuts. Mambeleme and the other Pygmies had their own form of Zenlike accommodation. “Eyali djama,” they would say. “Njamba eyaliboyé.” That’s the forest. That’s the way it is.
But this wasn’t the real forest, woody and canopied and diverse, that Mike Fay had set out to explore. It was something else, an awesome expanse of reedy sameness. Later he named it the Green Abyss.
They reached the Sangha River, crossed in borrowed pirogues, then plunged westward into more of the same stuff. Fay had flown this whole route in his Cessna, scouting it carefully, but even at low elevation he hadn’t grasped the difficulty of getting through on foot. Villagers on the Sangha, whose own hunting and fishing explorations had taught them to steer clear of that trackless mess, warned him: “It’s impossible. You cannot do it. You will fail. You will be back here soon.” Fay’s response was: “We have maps. We have a compass, and we have strong white-man medicine. We will make it.” He was right. But it took ten miserable weeks. Having spent New Year’s Eve in the Green Abyss, he wouldn’t emerge until early March.
“We drank swamp water for three weeks in a row. We did not see any flowing water for almost a month,” Fay recalls. “Miraculously, we only had one night where we had to drink water out of a mud-hole.” It was an old termite mound, excavated by an aardvark or some other insectivore and lately filled with rainwater. The water was thick with suspended clay, grayish brown like latte but tasting more like milk of magnesia.
Food was another problem, since their most recent rendezvous with Fay’s logistical support man, an ever-reliable Japanese ecologist named Tomo Nishihara, had been back at the Sangha; they were now days behind schedule and would be on starveling rations long before they reached the next resupply point. So by satellite phone Fay and Tomo arranged an airdrop: twenty-kilogram bags of manioc and fifty-can cases of sardines dumped without parachutes from a low-flying plane. The drop was a success, despite one parcel’s ripping open on a tree limb, leaving a plume of powdered manioc to sift down like snow and fifty sardine cans mooshed together like a crashed Corvair. The men binged on the open sardines, then resumed walking.
Other problems were less easily solved. There were tensions and deep glooms. There were days that passed into weeks not just without flowing water but without civil conversation. Not everyone on the team found his own variant of Njamba eyaliboyé. By the time they reached the Lengoué River, Yves Madzou had had enough, and Fay had had enough of his enoughness. By mutual agreement, Yves left the Megatransect to pursue, as the saying goes, other interests. He was human, after all.
Fay was Fay. He marched on.
After six months, Fay and his crew paused for rest and resupply at a field camp called Ekania, on the upper Mambili River, within another spectacular area of Congolese landscape, Odzala National Park. Odzala is noted for its big populations of forest elephants and gorillas, which show themselves in the small meadowy clearings known as bais, sparsely polka-dotting the forest. Mineral salts, edible sedges, and other toothsome vegetation at a bai attract not just elephants and gorillas but also forest buffalo, sitatungas, bongos, and red river hogs, sometimes in large groups. Of course Fay wanted to visit the bais, which he had scouted by plane but never explored on foot; he also wanted to take the measure of the forest around them.
Odzala’s elephants suffered heavily from poaching during the late 1980s and early ’90s, until a conservation program known as ECOFAC, funded by the European Commission, assumed responsibility for managing the park, with a stringent campaign of guard patrols and a guard post on the lower Mambili to choke off the ivory traffic coming downriver. Access deep into Odzala along the Mambili, a chocolaty stream whose upper reaches are narrow and strained by many fallen trees, is still allowed for innocent travelers not carrying tusks. That’s how Tomo brought the resupply crates up to Ekania. It was a ten-hour trip by motorized dugout from the nearest grass airstrip, and on this occasion I traveled with him.
Fay, bare-chested and walnut brown, with a wilder mane of graying hair than I remembered, stood on a thatched veranda taking video of us as we docked. Without pulling the camera from his eye, he waved. I can’t remember if I waved back; more likely I saluted. He had begun to remind me of a half-mad, half-brilliant military commander gone AWOL into wars of his own choosing, with an army of tattered acolytes attending him slavishly—rather like Brando’s version of Conrad’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, only much skinnier.
It was the first time I’d seen Fay since Day 13 of the Megatransect, back in October, when I split off from his forest trek and walked out to a road. Now his shoulder bones stood up like the knobbled back of a wooden chair, suggesting that he’d lost twenty or thirty pounds. But his legs were the legs of a marathoner. The quiet, clinical smile still lurked behind his wire glasses. Greeting him again here on Day 182, many hundreds of miles deep in the equatorial outback, I felt like Stanley addressing Dr. Livingstone.
“Every day that I walk,” Fay volunteered, “I’m just happier that I did the Megatransect.” He said “did” rather than “am doing,” I noticed, though in fact he was only halfway along. Why? Because the advance planning and selling phase had been the most onerous part, I suspected, after which the actual walk felt like raking in a poker-game pot. Aside from a chest cold and a few footworm infections, and notwithstanding the weight loss, he had stayed healthy. His body seemed to have reached some sort of equilibrium with the rigors of the forest, he said; his feet, I saw, were marked with pinkish scar tissue and pale sandal-strap bands against the weathered brown. No malaria flare-ups, no yellow fever. Just as important, he was having fun—most of the time, anyway. He described his ten weeks in the Green Abyss, making clear that that passage, far from fun, had been “the most trying thing I’ve ever done in my life.” But now he was in Odzala, lovely Odzala, where the bongo and the buffalo roam. He had a new field companion to help with the botany, a jovial Congolese man named Gregoire Kossa-Kossa, forest-hardy and consummately knowledgeable, on loan from the Ministry of Forestry and Fishing. Fafa, his crew boss and cook, had grown into a larger role, which included data-gathering chores earlier handled by Yves. And his point man, Mambeleme, now with a buffed-out right arm and a machete so often sharpened that it was almost used up, had proven himself a champion among trail-cutters. The rest of Fay’s crew, including the brothers Kati and Mouko, had suffered badly from that chest cold they all caught during a village stop but now seemed fine. Mouko’s more serious illness, along with other tribulations, was yet to come.
Meanwhile Fay’s own data gathering had continued, providing some new and significant impressions of Odzala National Park. For instance, one day in a remote floodplain forest, Fay, along with Mambeleme and Kossa-Kossa, had sighted a black colobus monkey, the first report of that rare species within the park. In the famed bais of Odzala he saw plenty of elephants, as he had expected, but during his long cross-country traverses between one bai and another he found a notable absence of elephant trails and dung, suggesting that a person shouldn’t extrapolate from those bais to an assumption of overall elephant abundance. His elephant-sign tallies, recorded methodically in the current yellow notebook, would complement observations of elephant distribution made by ECOFAC researchers.
Maybe those notebooks would yield other insights too. Maybe the Megatransect wasn’t just an athletic publicity stunt, as his critics had claimed. It occurred to me as an intriguing possibility, not for the first time, that maybe Mike Fay wasn’t as crazy as he looked.
After a few days at Ekania we set off toward the Mambili headwaters and a large bai called Maya North, near which was another ECOFAC field camp used by elephant researchers and visiting film crews. The usual route to Maya North camp was upriver along the Mambili, traveling some hours by motorized dugout to a point where ECOFAC workers had cut a good trail. We came the back way, bushwhacking on an overland diagonal. That evening, as we sat by the campfire trading chitchat with several Congolese camp workers, the talk turned to boat travel on the upper Mambili. Well, we didn’t use a boat, Fay mentioned. You didn’t? they wondered. Then how did you get here? We walked, Fay said. Walked? All the way from Ekania? There’s no trail. True but irrelevant, Fay said.
At daybreak on Day 188 we were at the bai, watching eighteen elephants in the fresh light of dawn as they drank and groped for minerals in the stream. Some distance from the others stood an ancient female, emaciated, failing, her skull and pelvic bones draped starkly with slack gray skin. Amid the herd was a massive bull, who swept his raised trunk back and forth like a periscope, tasting the air vigilantly for unwelcome scents. He caught ours. There was a subtle shift in mood, then the bull initiated a deliberate, wary leave-taking. One elephant after another waded off toward the far side of the bai, disappearing into the trees. By sunup they were gone.
By midday so we were, walking on.
From the upper Mambili, Fay planned to ascend toward an escarpment that forms the divide between the Congo River basin and a lesser system, the Ogooué, which drains to the Atlantic through Gabon. I would peel off again on Day 195, using another resupply rendezvous with Tomo as my chance to exit. As it happened, Tomo needed three boatmen and a chainsaw to get his load of supplies that far up the snag-choked Mambili, but going back downriver would be easier, and we figured to reach the airstrip in two days.
On the morning of the day of my departure, Fafa was laid flat by a malarial fever, so Fay himself oversaw the sorting and packing of new supplies: sacks of manioc and rice and sugar, cans of peanut butter and sardines, bundles of salted fish, big plastic canisters of pepper and dried onions, cooking oil, granola bars, freeze-dried meats, cigarettes for the crew, many double-A batteries, a fresh stack of colorful plastic bowls, and one package of seaweed, recommended by Tomo as a complement to the salted fish. Finally the packs were ready, the tents struck; Fafa rallied from his fever, and I walked along behind Fay and Mambeleme into the early afternoon.
Fay and I had agreed where I would rejoin him next: at an extraordinary set of granite domes, known as inselbergs (“island mountains”), that rise up like huge stony gumdrops from a forest in northeastern Gabon. The forest, called Minkébé, is ecologically rich but microbially menacing; many months earlier, as we had knelt over my map on the floor of an office at the National Geographic Society in Washington, this was where Fay had written “Ebola region” in red ink. “We’ll meet you on the other side of the continental divide,” he told me cheerily now. “On our way to the Atlantic Ocean.”
Backtracking on the trail to catch Tomo’s boat, I shook hands with Kossa-Kossa, Fafa, and each of the Pygmy crew, thanking them for their good company and support. I was fascinated by these rough-and-ready Bambendjellés, whom Fay had somehow cajoled and bullied across hundreds of miles, leading them so far from their home forest into an alien landscape, an alien realm of experiences. They had been challenged beyond imagining, stressed fearfully, but so far they hadn’t broken; they put me in mind of the sort of Portuguese seamen, uneducated, trusting, adaptable, who must have sailed with Ferdinand Magellan. By way of farewell, I told them in bad Lingala: “Na kotala yo, na sanza mibalé.” I’ll see you in two months.
I was wrong. It would be three months before Fay reached the inselbergs, an interval encompassing some of his most hellish times since the Green Abyss. And when I did rejoin him there, Mambeleme and all the others would be gone.
Fay and his team followed the escarpment northward along its crest, a great uplifted rim that may have once marked the bank of an ancient body of water. Kossa-Kossa left the troop, as planned, to return to his real-life duties. The others shifted direction again, heading into a thumb of territory where the Republic of Congo obtrudes westward against Gabon. They struck toward the Ouaga River and found it defended by a huge swamp, which at first seemed passable but grew uglier as they committed themselves deeper. By insidious degrees, it became a nightmare of raffia palms and giant pandanus standing in four feet of black water and mud, the long pandanus leaves armed with rows of what Fay recalls as “horrid cat-claw spines.” He and the crew spent two nights there in a small cluster of trees, among which they built elevated log platforms to hold their tents above the muck. Pushing forward, Fay saw the route get worse: deeper water, no trees, only more raffia and cat-claw pandanus, and five days’ distance of such slogging still ahead, with a chance that any rainstorm would raise the water and trap them. Finally he ordered retreat, a rare thing for Fay, and resigned himself to a long detour through a zone for which he had no map.
After circumventing the Ouaga swamp, they converged with a human trail, a simple forest footpath that serves as an important highway linking villages in that northwestern Congo thumb. The footpath took them to a village called Poumba, where they picked up two pieces of bad news: that the Gabonese border crossing would be difficult at best, due to festering discord between local authorities on the two sides, and that a Muslim trader who dealt in gold and ivory had vanished along the footpath under circumstances suggesting foul play. From a certain perspective (one that the local gendarmerie might well embrace), the trader’s disappearance coincided suspiciously with another bit of odd news: that a white man with an entourage of Pygmies had materialized from the forest on a transcontinental stroll to count aardvark burrows and elephant dung (so he claimed) and was making fast tracks for the Gabonese border. It could look very incriminating, Fay knew. He felt both eager to move and reluctant to seem panicky. Added to those concerns was another, seemingly minor. For the third time in two weeks one of the Pygmies, Mouko this time, seemed to be suffering from malaria. But a dose of Quinimax would fix that, Fay thought.
Over the next few days Mouko got weaker. He couldn’t lug his pack. At times he couldn’t even walk and had to be carried. Evidently it was hepatitis, not malaria, since his urine was dark, the Quinimax brought no improvement, and his eyes were going yellow. Fay slowed the pace and took a turn carrying Mouko’s pack. Hiding his uncertainty, he wondered what to do. All the Pygmies think Mouko is going to die now, he wrote in his notebook on Day241. Mouko seemed languid as well as sick, with little will to live, while the others had already turned fatalistic about his death. Fay became Mouko’s chief nurse. He scolded the crew for sharing Mouko’s manioc, using his plate, making cuts on his back to bleed him, and various other careless or well-meant practices that could spread the infection. To the notebook, Fay confided: I am so sick and tired of being the parent of 13 children, it is too much. Thank god I never had children—way too much of a burden. Solo is the way to go—depend on yourself only. The trouble in a group like this is it’s like you’re an organism. If one part of you is sick or lost the whole organism suffers. For another ten days after that entry, Mouko’s survival remained in doubt.
They pushed toward Garabinzam, a village near the west end of the footpath, on a navigable tributary of the Ivindo River, which drains into Gabon. On the last day of walking to Garabinzam, the team covered nine miles, Kati carrying his brother Mouko piggyback for most of the way. That evening, Fay wrote: I need to ship these boys home. You can just tell they are haggard, totally worn out. No matter how good they were they are just going to go down one by one. I would love to keep my friends but I would be betraying them if I made them stay on any longer—it would be unjust.
Several days later, he departed from his line of march—and from all his resolutions about continuity—to evacuate Mouko downriver by boat. They would try for a village at the Ivindo confluence, on the Gabonese side; from there, if Mouko survived, he could be moved to a hospital in the town of Makokou. Fafa would meanwhile escort the others back to their home forest, hundreds of miles east, sparing them from the onward trudge and the unwelcoming border. Fay himself would pick up the hike in Gabon. One stretch of the planned route would remain unwalked—roughly eighteen miles, from Garabinzam overland to the border—as a rankling gap in the data set, a blemish on the grand enterprise, and a token (this is my view, not his) of Fay’s humanity.
Left Garabinzam, all is well, he wrote briskly on May 24, 2000, which in Megatransect numeration was Day 248. But he also wrote, almost plaintively: Pygmies didn’t say goodbye.
Mouko survived and went home. Starting from scratch, Fay gathered a new crew from the villages and gold-mining camps of the upper Ivindo region. He found an able young Pygmy named Bebe, with good ears for wildlife and a strong machete arm, who emerged before long as his new point man; he found a new cook and eight other forest-tough Pygmy and Bantu men; he found energy, even enthusiasm, to continue. They set off on a long arc through the Minkébé forest, targeting various points of interest, most dramatic of which were the inselbergs. That’s where I next see Fay, on Day 292, when Tomo and I step out of a chartered helicopter that has landed precariously on one of the smaller mounds.
Skin browner, hair longer and whiter, Fay looks otherwise unchanged. Same pair of river shorts, same sandals, same dry little smile. I have brought him three pounds of freshly ground coffee and a copy of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, another of the Vietnam war memoirs that he finds fascinating. If he’s pleased to see me, for the company, for the coffee, he gives no sign.
At once he begins talking about data. He has been finding some interesting trends. For instance, regarding the gorillas. It’s true, he says, picking up a discussion from months earlier, that there’s a notable absence of gorillas in the Minkébé forest. Since crossing the border, he hasn’t heard a single chest-beat display and he has seen only one pile of gorilla dung. Back in Odzala National Park, over a similar stretch, he would have counted three or four hundred dung piles.* Elephants are abundant; duikers and monkeys and pigs, abundant. But the gorillas are missing. He suspects they were wiped out by Ebola.
The Minkébé forest block, encompassing more than 12,500 square miles of northeastern Gabon, represents one of the great zones of wilderness remaining in Central Africa. Much of it stands threatened by logging operations, bushmeat extraction such as inevitably accompanies logging, and elephant poaching for ivory. But the Gabonese government has recently taken the admirable step of designating a sizable fraction (2,169 square miles) of that block as the Minkébé Reserve, a protected area; and now, in addition, three large adjacent parcels are being considered for possible inclusion.* The Gabonese Ministry of Water and Forests, with technical help and gentle coaxing from the World Wildlife Fund, has been studying the farsighted idea that an enlarged Minkébé Reserve might be valuable not just in ecological terms but also in economic ones for its role in the sequestration of carbon. With greenhouse gases and climate change becoming ever more conspicuous as a global concern, maybe other nations and interested parties might soon be willing to compensate Gabon—so goes the logic—for maintaining vast uncombusted carbon storehouses such as Minkébé.
But before the reserve extension can be approved, on-the-ground assessments must be made. So in the past several years a small group of scientists and forest workers made reconnaissance expeditions into Minkébé—both the original reserve and the proposed extension. They found spectacular zones of forest and swamp, stunning inselbergs, networks of streams, all rich with species and virtually untouched by human presence. They also found—as Mike Fay has been finding—a nearly total absence of gorillas and chimpanzees.
It wasn’t always so. In 1984 a paper appeared in the American Journal of Primatology, by Caroline Tutin and Michel Fernandez, in which the authors described their census of gorilla and chimpanzee populations throughout Gabon. Using a combination of field transects, habitat analysis, and cautious extrapolation, Tutin and Fernandez estimated that at least 4,171 gorillas lived within the Minkébé sector, representing a modest but significant population density. Something seems to have happened to those apes between 1984 and now.
It may have happened abruptly in the mid-1990s, when three Ebola epidemics burned through villages and gold camps at the Minkébé periphery, killing dozens of humans. One of those outbreaks occurred in early 1996 at a village called Mayibout 2, on the upper Ivindo River. It began with a chimpanzee carcass, found dead in the forest and brought to the village as food. Eighteen people who helped with the skinning, the butchering, and the handling of the chimp flesh became sick. Suffering variously from fever, headache, and bloody diarrhea, they were evacuated downriver to the Makokou hospital. Four of them died quickly. A fifth escaped from the hospital, went back to Mayibout 2, and died there. That victim was buried in the traditional way—ceremonies were performed, and no special precautions were taken against infection.
This bare record of facts and numbers comes from a report published three years later, by Dr. Alain-Jean Georges and a long list of coauthors, in a special supplement to The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Although the raw chimp flesh had been infectious, the cooked meat evidently hadn’t been; no one got sick, the Georges paper asserted, simply from eating it. But once the outbreak began, there were some secondary cases, one human victim infecting another, and the disease spread from Mayibout 2 to a couple villages nearby, Mayibout 1 and Mvadi. By early March, thirty-one people had fallen ill, of whom twenty-one died, for a mortality rate of almost 68 percent. Then it was over, as abruptly as it started. Around the same time, according to later accounts, dead gorillas were seen in the forest.
Mike Fay isn’t the only person inclined to connect Minkébé’s shortage of gorillas with Ebola virus. Down in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, I heard the same idea from a lanky Dutchman named Bas Huijbregts, associated with the World Wildlife Fund’s Minkébé Project, who made some of those reconnaissance hikes through the Minkébé forest, gathering both quantified field data and anecdotal testimony. Gorilla nests, Huijbregts reported, were drastically less abundant than they had been a decade earlier. About the gorillas themselves, he said: “If you talk to all the fishermen, hunters, gold miners, they all have a similar story. Before there were many—and then they started dying off.” The apparent population collapse, not just of gorillas but of chimps too, seemed to coincide with the human epidemics. In a hunting camp just north of the Gabonese border, someone showed Huijbregts the grave of a man who, so it was said, had died after eating flesh from a gorilla he had found dead in the forest.
I spoke also with Sally Lahm, an American ecologist who has worked in the region for almost twenty years. Lahm has focused especially on the mining camps of the upper Ivindo, where gold comes as precious flecks from buried stream sediments and protein comes as bushmeat from the forest. Her studies of wildlife and its uses by humans, plus the epidemic events of the mid-1990s, have led her toward the subject of Ebola. When the third outbreak occurred, at a logging camp southwest of Minkébé, she went there with several medical people from the Makokou hospital and played a double role, as both nurse and researcher.
“I’m scared to death of Ebola, because I’ve seen what it can do,” Lahm told me. “I’ve seen it kill people—up close.” Fearful or not, she is engrossed by the scientific questions. Where does Ebola lurk between outbreaks? What species in the forest—a small mammal? an insect?—serves as its reservoir host? How does its ecology intersect the ecology of hunters, villagers, miners? So far, nobody knows.
“It’s not a purely human disease,” Lahm said. “Humans are the last in the chain of events. I think we should be looking at it as a wildlife-human disease.” Besides doing systematic field research, she has gathered testimony from hunters, gold miners, survivors of Mayibout 2. She has also made field collections of tissue from a whole range of reservoir-candidate species, shipping her specimens off to a virology institute in South Africa for analysis. And she has grown suspicious of one particular species that may be the main transfer agent between the reservoir host and humans, but she declined to tell me what species that is. She needs to do further work, she explained, before further talk.
On the evening of Day 299, at Fay’s campfire, I hear more on this subject from one of his crewmen, an affable French-speaking Bantu named Thony M’both. Mayibout deux? Yes, he was there; he recalls the epidemic well. Yes, it began with the chimpanzee. Some boys had gone hunting with their dogs; they were after porcupine, and they found the chimp, already dead. No, they didn’t claim they had killed it. The body was rotten, belly swelling, anyone could tell. Many people helped butcher and cook it. Cook it how? In a normal African sauce. All who ate the meat or touched it got sick, according to Thony. Vomiting and diarrhea. Eleven victims were taken downriver to the hospital—only that many, since there wasn’t enough fuel to carry everyone. Eighteen stayed in the village, died there, were buried there. Doctors came up from Franceville (in southern Gabon, site of a medical research institute) wearing their white suits and helmets, but so far as Thony could see, they didn’t save anyone. His friend Sophiano Etouck lost six family members, including his sister-in-law and three nieces. Sophiano (another of Fay’s crew, also here at the campfire) held one niece in his arms as she died, yet he didn’t get sick. Nor did Thony himself. He hadn’t partaken of the chimp stew. He doesn’t eat chimpanzee or gorilla, Thony avers, implying that’s by culinary scruple, not from fear of infection. Nowadays in Mayibout 2, however, nobody eats chimpanzee. All the boys who went porcupine hunting that day, they all died, yes. The dogs? No, the dogs didn’t die.
The campfire chatter around us has stilled. Sophiano himself, a severe-looking Bantu gold miner with a bodybuilder’s physique, a black goatee, a sweet disposition, and an anguished stutter, sits quietly while Thony tells the tale.
I ask one final question: Had you ever before seen such a disease? I’m remembering what I’ve read about the horrible, chain-reaction Ebola episodes, with victims bleeding profusely, organ shutdown, chaotic hospital conditions, and desperate efforts to nurse or mop up, leading only to further infection. “No,” Thony answers blandly. “This was the first time.”
Thony’s body count differs from the careful report in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, so do some other particulars, yet his eyewitness testimony seems utterly real. He’s as scared of Ebola as anybody. If he were inventing, he wouldn’t invent the chimpanzee’s swollen belly. Added to it all, though, is one fact or factoid that he let drop on the first evening I met him—a detail so garish, so perfectly dramatic, that even having heard it from his lips, I’m unsure whether to take it literally. Around the same time as the Mayibout epidemic, Thony told me, he and Sophiano saw a whole pile of gorillas, thirteen of them, lying dead in the forest.
Anecdotal testimony, even from eyewitnesses, tends to be shimmery, inexact, unreliable. To say thirteen dead gorillas might actually mean a dozen, or lots, too many for a startled brain to count. To say I saw them might mean exactly that or possibly less. My friend saw them, he’s unimpeachable. Or maybe I heard about it on pretty good authority.
Scientific data are something else. They don’t shimmer with poetic hyperbole and ambivalence. They are particulate, quantifiable, firm. Fastidiously gathered, rigorously sorted, they can reveal emergent meanings. This is why Mike Fay is walking across Central Africa with a little yellow notebook.
After two weeks of bushwhacking through Ebola’s backyard, we emerge from the forest onto a red laterite road. Blinking against the sunlight, we find ourselves in a village called Minkoula, at which the dependable Tomo soon arrives with more supplies. Day 307 ends with us camped in a banana grove behind the house of a local official, flanked by a garbage dump and a gas-engine generator. The crew has been given an evening’s furlough, and half of them have caught rides into Makokou to chase women and get drunk. By morning one of the Pygmies will be in jail, having expensively busted up a bar, and Fay will be facing a new round of political hassles, personnel crises, and minor ransom demands, a category of inescapable chores he finds far less agreeable than walking through swamp. But somehow he will get the crew moving again. He’ll plunge away from the red road, diving back into the universe of green. Meanwhile he spends hours in his tent, collating the latest harvest of data on his laptop.
Within the past fourteen days, he informs me, we have stepped across 997 piles of elephant dung and not a single dung pile from a gorilla. We have heard zero gorilla chest-beat displays. We have seen zero sprigs of Marantaceae chewed by gorilla teeth and discarded. These are numbers representing as good a measure as now exists of the mystery of Minkébé.
Measuring that mystery is a crucial first step; solving it is another matter.
I make my departure along the laterite road and then by Cessna from the Makokou airstrip. The pilot who has come to chauffeur me is a young Frenchman named Nicolas Kozon, the same fellow who circled the Green Abyss at low altitude while Tomo tossed bombs of manioc and sardines to Fay and the others below. Now, as we rise from the runway, climb further, and point ourselves toward Libreville, the road and the villages disappear quickly, leaving Nicolas and me with a limitless vista of green. Below us, around us in all directions to the horizon, there is only forest canopy, and more canopy, magisterial and abstract.
Nicolas is both puzzled and amused by the epic daffiness of the Megatransect, and through our crackly headsets we discuss it. I describe the daily routine, the distances made, the swamps crossed, and what Fay faces from here onward. He’ll visit the big waterfalls of the Ivindo River, I say, then turn westward. He’ll cross the railroad line and two more roads, but otherwise he’ll keep to the forest, following his plotted route, staying as far as possible from human settlements. He can do that all the way to the ocean. He’ll cross the Lopé Reserve, yes, and then a big block of little-known terrain around the Massif du Chaillu. Another four months of walking, if all goes well. He’s skinny but looks strong. He’ll cross the Gamba complex of defunct hunting areas and faunal reserves along the coast, south of Port-Gentil, and break out onto the beach. He expects to get there in late November, I say.
With a flicker of smile, Nicolas asks: “And then will he swim to America?”
III. END OF THE LINE
On the 453rd day of his punishing, obsessional, fifteen-month hike across the forests of Central Africa, J. Michael Fay stood on the east bank of a body of water, gazing west. It was not the Atlantic Ocean. That goal, the seacoast of southwestern Gabon, the finish line to his trek, was still twenty miles away. And now his path was blocked by a final obstruction, not the most daunting he’d faced but nonetheless serious: this blackwater sump, a zone of intermittently flooded forest converted to finger lake by the seasonal rains. Soaked leaf litter and other detritus had yielded the usual tannin-rich tea, and so the water’s sleek surface was as dark as buffed ebony, punctuated sparsely by large trees, their roots and buttresses submerged. Submerged how deeply? Fay didn’t know. Eighty yards out, the flooded forest gave way to a flooded thicket, a tangle of dense, scrubby vegetation with low branches and prop roots interlaced like mangroves, forming a barrier to vision and maybe to any imaginable mode of human passage. How far through the thicket to dry land? That also Fay didn’t know.
“This is the moment of truth, I think,” he said.
If it’s only waist-deep, I said, with vapid good cheer, we could easily wade across.
“If it stays no deeper than shoulder,” he corrected me, “we can make it.” But he wasn’t optimistic.
Fay took the machete of his point man, Emile Bebe, the young Baka Pygmy who had cut trail for him across hundreds of miles of Gabon. Slipping off his pack, wearing only his usual amphibious outfit (river sandals and river shorts), Fay waded out alone, probing the dark water ahead of him with a long stick. Bebe, two other walking companions—the photographer Nick Nichols and a videographer from National Geographic Television, Phil Allen—and I stood watching him go. Soon he was waist-deep, chest-deep, then armpit-deep, groping with his feet against sudden drops, seeking the shallowest route. Then there was just a little head and two skinny arms vanishing into the thicket. I climbed onto a woody loop of liana against the base of a tree, putting me six feet above the water and better positioned to listen, if not to see. I was concerned for him out there alone because of the crocodiles—not just Crocodylous niloticus, the fearsome Nile croc, but also a smaller species found hereabouts, Osteolaemus tetraspis, commonly known as the dwarf crocodile yet not to be taken too lightly. Of course my concern was futile, I realized, since from this distance, perched like a parrot on a trapeze, I couldn’t give any timely help if a crocodile did grab him. I heard the whack of the machete. I heard fits of cursing, which alternated oddly with what sounded like bursts of demented song. We waited. He was gone for a half-hour, forty minutes, longer.
Meanwhile the rest of the traveling crew—two other Baka Pygmies and seven Bantu men, all carrying heavy packs of camp gear and scientific equipment and food, plus a middle-aged Gabonese forestry technician named Augustin Moungazi, whose role was to census trees—caught up and joined us at the water’s edge. Where’s the boss? they asked. Somewhere out there. The crewmen cast their eyes across the black lake with varying gradations of weariness and dread. Most of them had worked with Fay seven months now, since he had crossed into Gabon from the Republic of Congo, and they had been through such moments before. In the way they shrugged off their packs, uncricked their shoulders, inspected the route forward with leery scowls, they seemed to be saying: Oy, what manner of muddling travail gets us around this obstacle? It looked bad, but they had seen worse.
After nearly an hour I climbed down from my perch. Bebe smoked another cigarette. Nick aimed his Leica at anything remotely interesting. We swatted at filaria flies. We ate our crackers, nuts, and other piddling snacks representing lunch. We wondered silently whether Mike Fay would ever come back and, if not, how we’d find our way out of this forest without our mad leader. Then we heard shouts.
Fay had reached landfall beyond the thicket and returned just far enough to holler instructions. Mainly he was calling to the crewmen, in French, through the wattle of vegetation and the heavy equatorial air. Admittedly my French is lousy, Nick’s and Phil’s even worse, so we were befuddled; yet the Francophone crewmen appeared befuddled too. If we could just understand what Mike was saying, all of us, we would gladly comply. But to my ears he sounded like a bilious colonel of the French Foreign Legion screaming orders at new recruits through a mattress.
He had been right, in some sense, when he called it a moment of truth. Whereas Fay had come to study the forest, I had come to study Fay, and adversity is a great illuminator of true character. But then again, truth?—it’s a quicksilver commodity, not so easily gathered as data. The moment was still unfolding, and so far there was more confusion than illumination. Did he want us to come or to stay? If we should come, then how? Should we cut logs and build a raft or just swim for it? The voice from the thicket seemed to convey almost nothing but purblind certainty and impatience. Was he mustering his troops for a final heroic lurch? Or, stressed by the long months of walking and the burden of forcing discipline on a group of freely hired men, by the nearness of the end, by his own ambivalence about reaching it, was he having a meltdown?
Days after this episode in the black lake, I would still be asking myself those questions. I would still be puzzling over the matter of J. Michael Fay and the complicated, provocative subject of leadership.
It was both the logic and the momentum of Fay’s grand enterprise, which he had labeled the Megatransect, that had brought him and his entourage to this point of exigency on the 453rd morning. The logic was that he would walk a zigzag route from the northeastern corner of the Republic of Congo to the southwestern coast of Gabon, a distance of at least 1,200 miles, passing dead center through vast blocks of roadless and uninhabited forest, gathering data on vegetation, wildlife, and forest conditions as he went. The forest blocks, lying contiguous to one another, could be seen as gobbets of raw meat on Africa’s last great kebab of tropical wilderness. Fay’s route was to be the skewer.
The momentum derived from 452 days of footslog persistence, including many swamps mucked across and creeks forded, many resupply problems, many hungry nights, many nervous elephants with half a notion to make Fay himself a kebab, many hours of campfire laughter and bonhomie with the crew, many explosions of anger, many points at which it seemed almost impossible for Fay and his comrades to go on, after which they went on. Fay’s logic insisted that this gargantuan transect be continuous and unbroken, both in space and in time. There had already occurred the one unavoidable gap, back in northwestern Congo just short of the Gabon border, when he departed from his plotted line to evacuate Mouko, who was verging on death from hepatitis. Although that short unwalked stretch—about eighteen miles, which he called the Mouko Gap—continued to nag Fay with a slight sense of incompleteness, he had put it behind him, marching on. By now his momentum included so many miles traversed (more like 2,000, in fact, than the 1,200 originally foreseen) and so many crises passed that it was unthinkable to be balked again, this time within twenty miles of the beach.
The logic of the enterprise had been laid out to the National Geographic Society (his main sponsor) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (his employer) in a forty-eight-page prospectus, with the forest blocks and his route sketched onto a multicolored map. The blocks as he had delineated them numbered thirteen, beginning with the Nouabalé-Ndoki block in northwestern Congo and ranging southwestward from there. Last in the chain was the Gamba block, a cluster of faunal reserves and defunct hunting areas along the Atlantic coast that are now being organized by the Gabonese government, with help from the World Wildlife Fund, into a complex of protected areas intended to preserve good habitat for elephants, hippos, dwarf crocodiles, and other sensitive species all the way to the beach.
Each of these blocks abuts another, and each is circumscribed by human impact (a road, a rail line, a string of villages along a river) but—this is the crucial part—virtually free of such impact at its interior. Although some armchair experts find it hard to believe, there are still sizable patches of African forest not currently occupied by human beings. Fay’s concept was to travel by foot with a small support crew through these forest blocks and to measure in multiple dimensions the relationship between such absence of human impact and the ecological richness of the forest.
He described this data-gathering mission as a “reconnaissance survey,” to distinguish it from the more formalized procedure known as the line-transect survey, wherein a field biologist walks and rewalks a short, straight path through the forest, gathering accretions of standardized data with each passage. Instead of cutting a ruler-straight corridor, Fay had elected to use a “path of least resistance” approach, letting the contours and obstacles of the landscape nudge him this way and that against his general compass bearing, and to make a single 1,200-mile walk instead of, say, 1,200 one-mile laps up and down a familiar snippet of trail. “The path of least resistance has the advantage of leaving the forest intact after passage, a significantly increased sample size because of increased speed, and considerably reduced observer fatigue,” he had written in the prospectus. During my own time on the trail with him, totaling eight weeks divided into four stretches, I sometimes recollected the irony of that phrase, “the path of least resistance.” It sounded lazily sybaritic, whereas here we were, clambering through still another tropical brier patch and then waddling across still another floodplain of sucking mud.
Now again on the morning of Day 453, as I squinted toward that thicket across the black lake, somewhere amid which Fay was hacking branches and yodeling orders, I had cause to wonder: This is the path of least resistance? Thank God we didn’t come the hard way.
Like an unnerving omen of things to follow, Day 453 had begun with leeches. We had spent the night at Leech Pond Camp, thus dubbed by me (I named all the camps, for mnemonic purposes) when Fay returned from his evening bath and reported that ten leeches had gotten to him while he was rinsing. Leeches in moderation are no big deal, since they don’t hurt and don’t generally cause infection or carry disease. But the leeches that greeted us in the camp pond on the 453rd morning were beyond moderation. They swam up like schools of grunion and hooked their thirsty little maws to our ankles and calves, a half-dozen here, a half-dozen there, resisting slimily as we tried to pull them off. We had leeches under our sandal straps, leeches between our toes, leeches racing to every open sore. Good grief, what had they lived on before we arrived?
Hopping from foot to foot in the shallows, we deleeched ourselves while Bebe, also dancing and snatching at his feet between machete strokes, felled a small tree to bridge the pond’s deeper trough. Then we tightroped across, deleeched again on solid ground, and went on.
Within a few minutes we heard monkeys jumping through the canopy. Fay did his usual trick, a whistling imitation of the crowned eagle, which provoked raucous alarm calls (kaa-ko! kaa-ko!) from the monkeys, allowing him to identify them: Cercocebus torquatus torquatus, the red-capped mangabey, locally known as the kako. He scribbled the exact time and the species name into his notebook, then took a five-minute sampling of their vocalizations on digital audio. Earlier he had mentioned that this mangabey, with its unmistakable flaming hairdo, was native only to forests near the Atlantic coast; farther inland, months ago, while crossing Congo and eastern Gabon, he had seen plenty of gray-cheeked mangabeys but none of the red-capped. Now here they were, offering a welcome signal that we had entered the coastal zone.
After an hour of easy walking along elephant trails, we found ourselves blocked by another dark pond. “Bad news, boys,” said Fay. It looked as though the rainy-season waters were still up, he explained, which foreboded that there might be many such fingers of flooded forest between us and the coast. “If that’s the case, we ain’t gonna get through.” But with a little scouting we found a fallen-tree bridge across the deep part and from there waded to dry land.
At the edge of the water stood another tree, a towering hulk with shaggy bark, a gracefully tilted trunk, and wide-reaching buttresses. Fay’s routine called for noting every major tree along the route, so this one went into his little book: Sacoglottis gabonensis, 1.5 meters diameter near the base. Loggers generally ignore the species, he had said earlier, because its ropy, twisting trunks don’t yield good lumber. The increasing abundance of Sacoglottis gabonensis was a further indicator that we were nearing the ocean. Still another was Tieghemella africana, a tree of high value both to timber companies and to elephants. Known commercially as douka, it grows to magisterial sizes—six feet in diameter and crowning out through the canopy—with straight, clean trunks, offering lovely wood for the sawmill. It also produces big green fruits, globular and heavy, each filled with sweet-smelling, pump-kiny orange pulp—not bad, but a little chalky to my taste. Elephants travel considerable distances to scarf douka fruits when they’re ripe and falling, and the well-worn elephant trails we had been following seemed to run like traplines from one douka to another. Take away those mature, fruiting trees (by selective logging, for instance) and the local elephant population would lose part of its seasonal diet. But for now the grand old doukas were still here, showing evidence of recent attention (fresh elephant dung, gnaw marks in the bark), and so were the elephant trails. We hit another short stretch of good walking, then heard another group of monkeys.
This time, in response to the eagle whistle, there came a low, grunting chortle: chooga-chooga-chooga-chooga-chooga. Having heard it many times over the months, even I could recognize that as the alarm call of the gray-cheeked mangabey, Lophocebus albigena, another species dependent on fruiting trees. “It looks like the old gray-cheeks are gonna make it to the beach after all,” Fay said. “That’s cool. I was a little worried, ’cause we hadn’t seen them for three or four days.” The presence of Lophocebus albigena, overlapping here with its red-capped cousin, became another notebook entry. Then again we walked—westward, toward the beach—but only for five minutes, until the black lake stopped us cold.
The black lake: too wide to bridge and too long to bypass. According to Fay’s map, it led northward into the Rembo Ngové floodplain, a riverine morass we didn’t care to enter. So Fay had gone straight across, on his solitary probe, and was now out there somewhere in the thicket, shouting back instructions. Jean-Paul Ango, one of the youngest and strongest of the crewmen, took his machete to a modest-sized tree, which fell pointlessly into the water near shore. That can’t be the idea, I thought.
Impatient with this muddle, I waded out along Fay’s route to see if I could find the shallowly submerged ridge on which he seemed to have walked. Quickly I was neck-deep. So I decided to swim. Another crewman, Thony M’both, the man who told tales of Ebola at Mayibout 2, took the same notion at the same time, and we breaststroked across the black water on converging lines toward the thicket. Soon most of the crew had followed, some confidently, some reluctant to swim but more reluctant to be left behind. Strung out like a line of ducklings, they floundered variously with their waterproof packs, which were buoyant but too cumbersome to serve as water wings. Reaching the face of the thicket, Thony and I stopped. We treaded water. There seemed nowhere to go. I climbed up into the buttresses of a half-drowned tree, and one by one the others did likewise. In a neighboring tree I noticed Jacques Bosse, a big square-shouldered Bantu whom Fay had hired out of that gold-digging camp in northeastern Gabon. With a forceful yank, Jacques hoisted up his pack, to the outside of which was tied a large cook pot. He tossed back his head and muttered disgustedly to the sky that this was no kind of work for a man. We were stuck there, treed and frazzled like cats in a Mississippi flood, when Fay came out of the thicket and resumed command.
His first act was to holler sternly at Emmanuel Yeye, the shyest of the Pygmies, for letting his pack soak in the water rather than pulling it up. This gave way to a scathing harangue against the whole crew. Fay derided them for their fecklessness, their incompetence, their childishness and stupidity and insubordination. It was all in French, but what I missed in vocabulary I could gather from tone. It went on and on.
Nick and I had each witnessed earlier episodes of such castigation, going back to the first days of the Megatransect and Fay’s Congo crew of Bambendjellé Pygmies. We had seen it after the walk through Minkébé, when some of the current crewmen got drunk and disorderly during their furlough at a resupply stop. We had seen it elsewhere. I had even begun to expect it (in my notes I called it, for shorthand, the Riot Act) as a calculated, self-conscious performance that Fay used periodically to restore discipline and focus. But this time both Nick and I felt he was going too far. Fay said blistering things of the sort that only a drill sergeant, an abusive father, or an especially caustic seventh-grade gym teacher might utter. He ranted and scorned. He recited the crew’s failings. “Ça me rend fou,” he growled repeatedly. “It makes me crazy.” Well, maybe so. At that moment, given our circumstances and the brave plunge these men had just taken, I thought that perhaps our brilliantly unorthodox Dr. Fay had indeed gone off his nut.
I was wrong. Later events and conversations with Fay, combined with what I knew of his personality and background, would convince me that this ultimate Riot Act tirade, as we all hung in trees above the black lake, was rational and carefully calibrated. Fay was stressed, yes, but still utterly in control. The deeper I scratched him, the more layers of ornery complexity and courageous bluntness I found. He wasn’t always likable; sometimes he seemed piteously isolated; sometimes he seemed cynical and mechanistic about human relations; sometimes just too demanding and harsh. But in my final judgment, reached slowly, Fay is a formidable man with a strong sense both of mission and of fairness.
“Chaos breaks out very quickly and very easily,” he would tell me days afterward, in the quiet of a tent pitched on a sandy hillock overlooking the Atlantic surf. “You’ve got to be a complete and utter hard-ass. And I don’t enjoy being a hard-ass. I do not have some kind of sadistic element in my mind that makes me enjoy dominating people. But if you accepted that responsibility…” Thinking back over his fifteen months of risky travail, he dropped the second-person pronoun and spoke plainly. “Everything was my responsibility. Anyone who died on the Megatransect, it would have been my responsibility.”
Mouko had nearly died of hepatitis, and it was Fay who nursed him until evacuation was possible. A crewman named Roger had almost drowned, tangled in his pack straps at a river crossing, when he larkishly flouted Fay’s instructions. There had been several other close calls in water, and several other medical emergencies. “I take that very seriously,” Fay said. “And I take the data collection very seriously.” All along, he explained, he’d had three overriding goals: to finish the entire walk as originally conceived, to maintain an unbroken regimen of data-gathering, and to get everyone through the experience alive. Democracy on the trail and his own popularity on any given day were not even secondary concerns.
The data would eventually be collated, cross-referenced, elaborately crunched and analyzed during the months of his follow-up work. Which forests seem to be richest in gorillas? How quickly do elephants recolonize an area where elephants have been poached? What’s the linkage between logging roads and the presence or absence of duikers, forest hogs, cercopithecine monkeys? Everywhere, every which way, he wanted to ask and to answer: What are the correlations? He hoped that question would lead to another: What are the implications for wise management? Fay would write a report or a book, maybe both, and then also make it all available through a Web site.
“On this Web site people are going to see very clear patterns,” he vowed as we sat above the beach. “Nobody is going to be able to deny that there is something there.” Referencing one slice of data to another would in some cases yield high statistical correlation, and observers (so he imagined, supplying their words) would say, “Wow! Look at this, man. Douka, elephant: correlation, point nine.” He meant that the degree of congruence between douka trees and elephant trails might be .9, of a possible 1.0. “That’s pretty cool.” Fay hoped, anyway, that observers would find such a relationship and offer such a response. “Just seeing those patterns is going to make people realize that this is a viable methodology.”
But before any such epiphanies could happen, he needed the data. They had to be continuous. They had to be rigorous. Toward that end, his organizational model for the Megatransect was unabashedly autocratic. During one milder fit of annoyance, provoked by a food shortage after some crewmen had evidently jettisoned provisions in order to lighten their packs, I heard Fay tell the men that if this were a military operation, they would all be in prison. “It’s very much like a military operation,” he said to me now. “I am the commander in chief on the Megatransect.” That might sound “radical” to some ears, he acknowledged (or maybe “offensive” or “retrograde” are the words you want there, I thought), but to anyone who had shared the many months of daily effort and frequent peril, it would make perfect sense. There could be only one leader giving orders, and those orders had to be followed without malingering or debate, or else the whole effort would unravel and the three goals wouldn’t be met.
Where did this military style come from? Fay is too young to have experienced Vietnam or the draft, too old to have signed on for the first Iraq war, and has never served in any branch of the armed forces. It’s hard to imagine how he ever could have. Three or four months of basic training and regimentation would no doubt have aggravated his own insubordinate tendencies to the point of court-martial or discharge. But the lore of certain military operations intrigued him—Vietnam particularly, maybe because it was a jungle war and he’s a jungle guy. The American fiasco there, I once heard him argue, reflected the plain fact that American troops weren’t at home in the ecosystem. (Undoubtedly that had been part of it, along with several millennia’s worth of cultural differences and political history, plus a few other factors.) During my earlier visits to the line of march, I had brought him some of the better Vietnam memoirs for trail reading—Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years, Michael Herr’s Dispatches—which seemed to engross him for a few hours at night after his data-entry chores. He occasionally mentioned that if he weren’t an ecologist, he might be tempted to find work as a war photographer. And he was fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which besides being an exploratory trek was a mission, under full discipline, of the United States Army.
Back at the start of the Megatransect, in the disheveled little library of his cabin in Bomassa, the research camp in northeastern Congo that had served Fay in recent years as a base, I had found his own dog-eared and heavily marked copy of Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s account of the life and character of Meriwether Lewis, as revealed most gloriously during his journey with Clark. That journey was, of course, America’s own first and greatest Megatransect. One passage in the Ambrose book, completely underlined by Fay, caught my eye: “Two years of study under Thomas Jefferson, followed by his crash course in Philadelphia, had made Lewis into exactly what Jefferson had hoped for in an explorer—a botanist with a good sense of what was known and what was unknown [and] a working vocabulary for description of flora and fauna, a mapmaker who could use celestial instruments properly, a scientist with keen powers of observation, all combined in a woodsman and an officer who could lead a party to the Pacific.” A botanist, a woodsman, a leader. Reading that, Fay must have felt some tingle of identification.
Never mind the sad fact that Meriwether Lewis, addled by acclaim and alcohol after his big success, eventually killed himself. Fortunately for Fay, the parallel between him and Lewis isn’t really so close. Lewis stepped into a mission that had been dreamed up by President Jefferson, whereas Fay himself, no one else, concocted this one. Lewis and Clark’s enterprise was premised upon the goals of commercial exploitation and easy travel for traders, whereas Fay’s Megatransect has a drastically different goal: protecting big areas of rich forest from reductive human impact. Fay has had a better scientific education than Meriwether Lewis, and unlike Lewis, he seems not very susceptible to booze or self-doubt. Another advantage is that whereas Lewis headed off into a difficult sort of landscape he’d never seen before, Fay had twenty years’ experience in various Central African forests.
He knew the ecosystems from bottom to top—from the plants to the elephants and the gorillas. Equally important, he knew how to walk through this world. Beginning in the late 1980s, when he did his doctoral fieldwork on lowland gorillas in the Central African Republic, tracking them through the forest with his Pygmy mentor, Mbutu Clement, Fay developed the habit of making long, restless explorations by foot. The little Suzuki trail bike that he had used during his Peace Corps days, up in the savanna country near the border with Chad, was no longer useful and no longer necessary. He discovered that by adapting his body and his outfit (river sandals, one pair of shorts, and no shirt, since bare skin is more easily washed and dried than clothing) to local conditions, he could cross flooded forests, streams, boggy clearings, and swamps that most other people considered impassable. He also learned that he could walk into a village or town anywhere in Central Africa and, within a day or two, hire a crew of men who were glad for the work of carrying bags and making camps. Employment was scarce, and he paid better than most. He learned how many men were required for transporting this much scientific equipment, that many tents, and enough food to sustain them all for, say, twenty or twenty-five days between points of resupply. By trial and error he developed a style of personnel management that worked.
One element of that style was his imperious sense of command. Another was that he never asked anyone to accept discomfort or risk that he wouldn’t accept himself. The historian Plutarch, in his life of the Roman general Marius, wrote that “there is nothing a Roman soldier enjoys more than the sight of his commanding officer openly eating the same bread as him, or lying on a plain straw mattress, or lending a hand to dig a ditch or raise a palisade. What they admire in a leader is the willingness to share their danger and hardship, rather than the ability to win them honour and wealth, and they are more fond of officers who are prepared to make efforts alongside them than they are of those who let them take things easy.” In Fay’s case, it was manioc and salted fish, not bread; a roll-out pad on the forest floor, not a straw mattress; and a machete-cut corridor through a blackwater thicket in lieu of a raised palisade.
When I asked him later about his blowup at the black lake, he conceded that “it certainly looked like I was pissed off, there’s no doubt about it.” And yet he hadn’t been, he said. It was just another bit of tactical histrionics. From his perspective (though he was too discreet to say so), I had exacerbated the confusion myself when Thony and I triggered the group swim. He had intended to proceed methodically, but my impatience foiled that. “I was simply taking chaos and putting order into it. And the only way to do that is to say, at the top of your lungs, ‘Everybody stop! Everyone who is here present, stop! Do not move. Do not breathe. Stop. And I’m going to tell you what to do.’”
Fair enough, though as the moment had unfolded, I didn’t wait to be told. I swam back to the east side of the lake, found my own waterproof pack where I had left it, double-checked its seal for the sake of my notebook and binoculars, and swam out again to the thicket. By the time I got there, nudging the pack ahead of me like a water polo ball, the others had begun moving down Fay’s hacked-out corridor. The water here seemed to be eight or ten feet deep. I fell in behind Sophiano Etouck, the most stalwart of the crewmen, and Nick, who was managing somehow to dogpaddle along with his pack on his back and his Leica to his face like a snorkel mask. God love him, Nick even now was shooting. Sophiano led the way, swimming with his right arm and wielding a machete with his left. Every few yards he rose high in the water to whack a limb out of our path, then sank away beneath a boil of bubbles. When Sophiano first went under and stayed under, Nick and I both worried that he had tangled himself in some vegetation; then, exuberant as an otter, he exploded back up to take another swing. I followed him for fifty yards through this watery tunnel of limbs and roots, a passable route that Fay had opened during his missing hour. Finally the thicket cleared, the water shallowed suddenly, and we climbed up a high bank onto firm ground.
While Nick and Phil examined their cameras for damage and their bodies for leeches, I dropped my pack and went back in the water to see if I could help with another load. After swimming down one blind alley, I found the tunnel again and retraced it to the east edge of the thicket. Fay was there, still perched in a tree, having meanwhile swum the lake to retrieve his own pack.
Now he was shepherding along the last of the crew. He knew from experience which of the men were steady swimmers and which needed assistance. He was giving instructions, but the strident moment had passed. In fact, he seemed subdued. I took the pack of Augustin, the botanist, who preferred climbing through the thicket to swimming under it, and Fay came behind all of us as sweeper. He even brought my sleeping pad, which had gotten unpacked during some emergency reshuffling of the loads and been temporarily stowed in a tree. He handed it back to me dry.
By 12:40 P.M. we stood on the west bank, wringing out our shirts (except for Fay, still shirtless), checking our packs for leakage, basking in the sunshine—rare sunshine!—that blessed us there through a canopy gap. Flush with nervous relief, we joked and relaxed. We were pleased with ourselves for having wiggled through what might be, we hoped, the last of the dire obstacles. Emmanuel lifted a sodden ten-pound bag of rice from his pack, letting the pale milky water drain out. Nick labeled rolls of film. Sophiano had a smoke. Fay, head down, quietly wrote in his yellow waterproof notebook.
And then, without comment, without any speech of further remonstrance, let alone congratulations, Fay detached himself crisply from our breezy mood. He glanced at his wrist compass. He turned toward the forest and stabbed out his arm, giving the usual signal to Bebe: That way. Dutifully, Bebe stepped out and began cutting trail. Fay walked.
Snatching up my pack, holstering my notebook, I followed. I was startled by his brusqueness, but I wanted to stay at Fay’s heels. Maybe in the aftermath he would loosen up and commit a personal revelation. Maybe he’d put his outburst in context. Or maybe he’d just encounter something interesting—a Gaboon viper, a gorilla, a dwarf crocodile—that I’d hate to miss. The rest of the party were left behind to think what they might think, to feel what they might feel, to gather themselves at their own pace.
At 1:11 P.M. on Day 453, Fay paused to record the next datum: elephant dung, old. Then again, without speaking, he walked. A hard man, a savvy leader, a flouter of pieties, a solitary soul, a conscientious scientist, a fierce partisan of tropical forest, a keen judge of human limits, he had work to do—not much work remaining now, but some. He couldn’t celebrate yet. He was still three days from the beach.