On Assignment

On Assignment
Across Africa’s Wilds
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.


Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

The Megatransect Route

Click to enlarge >>

By David Quammen Photographs by Michael Nichols

Pushing through the heart of the African jungle, ecologist Michael Fay continues his unprecedented trek.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

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 knobbed back of a wooden chair, suggesting he’d lost 20 or 30 pounds [9 or 14 kilograms]. 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, and the actual walk felt like raking in a poker-game pot. Aside from a chest cold and a few foot-worm 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 it was almost used up, had proved 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.

Meanwhile his 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 record of that rare species within the park. In the famed bais of Odzala he saw plenty of elephants, as he’d 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 themselves.

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 the 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.

The Clearing
VIDEO Michael Nichols describes six weeks photographing wildlife in an isolated glade deep in the Congolese jungle. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
Real Player   WinMedia

The Trek
VIDEO Nichols discusses his adventures crossing the Congo. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
Real Player   WinMedia

We offer this forum board in Spanish and English. Surveying Africa’s wildlife on foot has its dangers. Are such pursuits worth the risks? Tell us why.

Les ofrecemos este forum en español y en inglés. Estudiar la vida silvestre africana a pie puede ser peligroso. ¿Valen la pena estos proyectos dado los riesgos? Díganos por que.

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 its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Some ants in Africa are carnivorous. Driver ants perform daily raids in swarms that resemble labyrinths of thick black rope. As they advance across the forest floor they engulf everything in their path. Colonies can be composed of up to 22 million workers. When they capture prey, it is thought that they act together as one “animal” with millions of mouths. Using the powerful bite and shearing action of their mandibles, they have been known to feast on one of the world’s largest serpents, the African python, when it lies powerless digesting its food.

—Nora Gallagher

Funded by the European Commission, ECOFAC directs conservation initiatives in central African forests, including the management of Odzala National Park in the Republic of the Congo.

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

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Fact Sheet
A concise history and description of the deadly Ebola virus.

Global Forest Watch
An international data and mapping network providing in-depth information on the status of the world’s frontier forests.

Lingala Words and Phrases
Learn a couple of phrases in the language spoken by Mike Fay’s first crew from the Congo.

Africa South of the Sahara
Megasite with links to Africa-related Internet resources on news, environment, language, culture, and government. Indexed by country and topic.


Estes, Richard. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals: including hoofed mammals, carnivores, primates. University of California Press, 1990.

Georges, Alain-Jean, et al. “Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Outbreaks in Gabon, 1994-1997: Epidemiologic and Health Control Issues,” Journal of Infectious Diseases (Vol. 179, Supplement 1, 1999), 65-75. Part of a special issue devoted to research on Ebola also available online at www.journals.uchicago.edu/JID/journal/contents/v179nS1.html.

Global Forest Watch. A First Look at Logging in Gabon. World Resources Institute, 2000. Also available online at www.globalforestwatch.org.

Totten, Michael. Getting It Right: Emerging Markets for Storing Carbon in Forests. Forest Trends/World Resources Institute, 1999. Also available online at www.forest-trends.org or www.wri.org.

Tutin, C.E.G. and M. Fernandez. “Nationwide Census of Gorilla (Gorilla g. gorilla) and Chimpanzee (Pan t. troglodytes) Populations in Gabon,” American Journal of Primatology (Vol. 6, 1984), 313-36.


Finkel. Michael. “Crazy in the Congo,” National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2000), 120-128, 136-139.

Quammen, David. “Megatransect: Across 1,200 Miles of Untamed Africa on Foot,” National Geographic (October 2000), 2-29.

Nichols, Nick. “Congo Masquerade,” National Geographic Adventure (Winter 1999), 118-120.

Adler, Tina. “Second Chances,” National Geographic World (September 1999), 6-10.

Forest Primeval. National Geographic Videos, 1996.

Chadwick, Douglas H. “Ndoki—Last Place on Earth,” National Geographic (July 1995), 2-45.

Putman, John J. “Yesterday’s Congo, Today’s Zaire,” National Geographic (March 1973), 398-432.

Thaw, Margaret S. and Lawrence Copley. “Trans-Africa Safari,” National Geographic (September 1938), 327-364.


© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead