Crossing the Heart of Africa
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By David Quammen Photographs by Michael Nichols

A conservationist sets out to survey 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) of African jungle the old-fashioned way—on foot—in the first of a three-part series of articles.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Suddenly, a mile and a quarter 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 leopard. 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 15 feet (4.6 meters) 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 tail streaming high.

Tusk length, about 40 centimeters, Fay says. Maybe ten or twelve years old, he estimates. It goes into his notebook.

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, hungry or not, 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.


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 a hundred feet of an oblivious female as she works her way through a salad of Hydrocharis stems, nipping off the tender white bases, tossing the rest aside. Her face is long and tranquil, with dark eyes shaded beneath the protrusive brow. The hair on her head is red, Irish red, as it often 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 during those seconds she glowered at him, not daring to lower the camera, not daring to move, while a tsetse fly sucked blood from his foot.

For field reports from Mike Fay, video, and more go to Congo Trek.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Conjuring up images of impenetrable jungle, exotic wildlife, and, of course, rain, the Congo region has at once baffled, terrorized, and intrigued outsiders. One legend that encapsulates the spirit of the Congo is the tale of Mokélé-mbembé. Stories say that this mysterious creature lives in the vicinity of Lac Télé, photographed in the October issue. The animal is said to measure more than 30 feet (9 meters) long, with a long neck and tail. Sketches drawn in the dirt by locals resemble a brontosaurus (or, more correctly, an apatosaurus). Though numerous expeditions have attempted to find this beast, it has proved as elusive as Scotland’s famed Loch Ness Monster.

National Geographic Outpost
Follow Michael Fay and his team as they continue their arduous trek through the tropical forest to the coast of Gabon. Dispatches from the field include audio and video.

Wildlife Conservation Society
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, co-sponsor of the Megatransect, runs conservation projects in 52 countries.

Gorillas Online
Here you will find a complete natural history of gorillas.

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
This comprehensive site includes species databases for flora and fauna by nation.

Cryptozoological Realms
This site is devoted to the cryptozoological creature rumored to be the last living dinosaur.


Levinson, David, ed. Encyclopedia of World Cultures—Africa and the Middle East. Vol. IX. G.K. Hall & Co., 1995.

McLynn, Frank. Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa. Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Sarno, Louis. Song from the Forest—My Life among the Ba-Banjelle Pygmies. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.


Finkel, Michael. “Crazy in the Congo.” National Geographic Adventure, Mar./Apr. 2000, 120-128, 136-139.

McRae, Michael. “Central Africa’s Orphan Gorillas: Will They Survive in the Wild?” National Geographic, Feb. 2000, 84-97.

Belt, Don. “Forest Elephants.” National Geographic, Feb. 1999, 100-113.

“Baka: People of the Forest.” National Geographic Television, 1988.

Bailey, Robert. “The Efe: Archers of the African Rain Forest.” National Geographic, Nov. 1989.


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