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  Field Notes From

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From Author

David Quammen

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From Photographer

Nick Nichols

Unfiltered for authenticity, these accounts have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Across Africa on Foot

Field Notes From Photographer
Nick Nichols
My partner, Louis Sarno, went with me into the forest to photograph a group of Pygmies who had not been affected by what we call progress. On a dark moonless night, even absent of campfire, I witnessed a spirit dance. The people believe a successful hunt is ensured if they honor the conjured spirits of animal gods with dance and song. Pygmies slipped away from the forest camp, painted themselves with a phosphorescent fungus that grows on the forest floor, and emerged singing and dancing as if they were the animal spirits. It was impossible to photograph, for technical reasons, but it was mysterious and beautiful to see these people so involved in their culture and so unaffected by outside influences. Mike Fay is a pretty good pilot, but he had recently crash-landed when his small plane ran out of fuel. And he tends to be cavalier about that kind of thing. I went on the next flight with him after the accident. It’s dangerous enough to fly a small plane over forest, but when the engine started to choke and sputter I was certain I was going to die with this guy, one way or the other. We should have had two hours worth of extra fuel, but the plane ran out—again. Fortunately, the airstrip was in sight, and we made the landing. Occasionally gorillas and chimpanzees come together in certain fruit trees. I’ve wanted to get a shot of that for a long time. So we set up a platform in a tree next to a fig tree that was bulging with unripened fruit.
Meanwhile, my son was visiting and I wanted to be alone to walk with him. So we took off without a Pygmy to guide us and immediately got lost. We eventually tracked our way back after two days, and I got a message that the chimps had started eating the figs.
I thought I was too late, but the chimps had only been checking the fruit for ripeness and hadn’t started eating yet. So I ended up sitting in that tree for three weeks waiting for this rock-hard fruit to ripen.
Finally Christmas was approaching and I couldn’t stay any longer. On the last night, my assistant and I sat on the platform marveling at the beauty of the place. And as we were talking monkeys actually started coming into the tree. It was obvious that it was getting ripe, but I had to leave the next day. It was one of those situations where, no matter how well you plan, sometimes you just get nothing.

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