Part I: Into the Forest
National Geographic, October 2000
Reprinted from Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature (2008), by permission of W.W. Norton
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 enwound 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 this 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 whisky-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’s command of the botanical diversity upon which big mammals depend is impressive—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 intermeshed 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 bird song 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 wracked 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.
Tusks length, about forty centimeters, Fay says. Maybe ten or twelve years old, he estimates. It goes into his notebook.
Mike Fay is a compact 43-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 up in Tunisia. He signed 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, where 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-Corp-issue Suzuki 125 trailbike 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 bushwhacker’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. “Voila. 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 wrap-around 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 on 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 seeing gorillas.
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 much effort trying to habituate certain gorilla groups to his presence. That was difficult, he found. But if a group of gorillas were 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 distance enough (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 elephant 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, browsing 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 the National Geographic magazine, for whom 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. His first glimpse of this bai back in 1990, Fay 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 thepremium 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 mid-afternoon 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 south 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 three hundred 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, German. “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 himself 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 audio tapes 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.