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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 Photographer
Michael Nichols
I was hidden in a blind in Odzala National Park when five young lowland gorillas came into the clearing. They were alone, with no mother or father. I thought they might be a natural orphan group, the adults having died of natural causes and left these little guys wandering around like a street gang. The three younger ones spotted me and sat down to watch me. They weren’t afraid, unlike the adult gorillas who had seen the blind go up and kept their distance. The two older orphans were so involved in eating the undisturbed grass near my blind that they didn’t notice I was there.
It was getting dark, so I spoke to them as I got up to leave. The older gorillas shot into the woods screaming, but the younger trio just sat there. A few days later the gang returned, but now there were four more older juveniles. I allowed myself to imagine that somehow the little ones communicated to the others that they should come see this strange structure where someone was hiding.
It was a beautiful moment when I realized the young gorillas weren’t afraid of me, an indication that they had never been hunted.
In 1998, when Mike Fay showed me the planned route for the Megatransect, we flew a small plane over a beautiful waterfall and granite mountains, called inselbergs, in the middle of the jungle.
During the journey’s second leg, I wanted to return for more aerials. Ordinarily, it’s too dangerous for a small plane to fly over those particular features. I could photograph much easier from the more stable platform of a helicopter. But with weather so unpredictable and logistics so difficult, I doubted I could even get a helicopter to come out. Finally, I took a single-engine plane and photographed the mountains and waterfall in two afternoons.
Months passed, and I was having a hard time getting more aerial shots. So at great cost I hired a helicopter to take me up, but every time I got in that helicopter, it was cloudy or raining. I didn’t get any pictures from it. I was so upset that it was a while before I realized that the pictures I had taken months before filled the need. Great photographs often come with no relationship to the effort or cost.
Odzala’s elephants fear humans because they were heavily hunted until 1995. So the only way to get pictures was to sneak up on them. I thought if I took a boat, turned the motor off, and floated in early in the morning, I’d run into elephants.
We spotted an elephant feeding with its head underwater, so we planned to paddle up to it to get the pictures. But just as we got close, the elephant raised its head, trumpeted, and charged our boat. The man in front should have kept his head and paddled backward so we could escape, but he freaked out, knocked me back, and hit my assistant—who was filming for TV—as he scrambled toward the back of the boat. He put us all at risk, so I reacted by cursing: “Blankety blank! What are you gonna do in the back of the boat?” At the same time, the African guy in back cursed him in a tribal language, saying the exact same thing.
The elephant went away, but it was funny to realize that cursing is the same all over. It was even funnier that my assistant got it all on videotape.

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