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  Field Notes From
Megatransect II

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From Author

David Quammen

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From Photographer

Michael Nichols

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Nichols (top) and John E. Brown III

image: spider
Across Africa’s Wilds

Field Notes From Author
David Quammen
I happen to like snakes, so one of the highlights of this leg of walking was coming across three vipers in the course of 24 hours. We spotted one in our camp and the others on the path we were following.
Gabonese vipers are among the most poisonous—and the most beautiful—snakes in the world. They’re very stubby, but when they bask or lurk for prey, they flatten out until they are about five or ten times as wide as they are thick, like pancake batter. They blend in fiendishly well with the golden-brown leaf litter on the forest floor.
The snakes stayed calm while we ogled them and took photographs. Then we went around them and left them in peace. For me, seeing these creatures was like gazing at a resplendent quetzal or an especially gorgeous cockatoo.
After traveling all day on Christmas Eve from Gabon to my home in Montana, I felt tired but otherwise fine. I was due for my annual physical and when I saw my doctor, I happened to mention that I had been running a fever for 24 hours. He ordered blood tests, and when the results came back he put me in the hospital on an antibiotic IV drip. My white cell count was extremely high, he told me, which suggested that I had a bacterial infection in my blood.Within 24 hours I suffered through severe chills alternating with sweats, and my temperature went up to 105.6°F (40.8°C). I shivered so badly that I had trouble breathing. Then the fever peaked and fell down to 95°F (35°C). By the next evening I was fine, so the doctor let me go home. The official diagnosis is that it was a mystery fever. As we were walking through the forest, a rain shower interrupted a stretch of relatively dry days. The precipitation brought out a heavy concentration of millipedes. We saw close to 100 of these 8-inch-long (20-centimeter-long) creatures in a single day. They’re oxblood brown, shiny, and completely harmless, but for some reason our Gabonese crew were wary of them. I didn’t know if they thought they would be bitten, or if millipedes were connected somehow to their spiritual beliefs. They were careful not to step on one.
We were sitting near our campfire when a millipede crawled near our feet. I picked it up and gently tossed it away from the fire. That set the Gabonese guys off. They cringed and averted their eyes. I wasn’t sure if they pitied me for being so foolhardy, or if they were disgusted that I had violated some sort of taboo. I never did find out why they were so put off by millipedes.

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