It takes a hardheaded person to walk 1,200 miles (1,931.2 kilometers) across west-central Africa, transecting all the wildest forests remaining between a northeastern corner of the Republic of the Congo and the Atlantic. It takes a harder head still to conceive of covering that terrain in a single, sustained, expeditionary trudge. There are rivers to be ferried orbridged, swamps to be waded, ravines to be crossed, vast thickets to be carved through by machete, and one tense national border, as well as some lesser impediments—thorny vines, biting flies, stinging ants, ticks, vipers, tent-eating termites, foot worms, not a few nervous elephants, and the occasional armed poacher. As though that weren't enough, there's a beautifully spooky forest about midway on the route that's believed to harbor the Ebola virus, cause of lethal epidemics in nearby villages within recent years. The logistical costs of an enterprise on this scale, counting high-tech data-gathering gizmos and aerial support, can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The human costs include fatigue, hunger, loneliness, tedium, some diseases less mysterious than Ebola, and the inescapable nuisance of infected feet. It takes an obdurate self-confidence to begin such a journey, let alone finish it. It takes an unquenchable curiosity and a monomaniacal sense of purpose.
J. Michael Fay, an American ecologist employed (on a long tether) by the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, is as obdurate and purposeful as they come.* But even for him there arrived a moment, after eight months of walking, when it looked as if the whole adventure would end sadly. One of his forest crew, a young Bambendjellé Pygmy named Mouko, lay fevering on the verge of death. Hepatitis was taking him down fast.
Mouko's illness was only the latest travail. Within recent days Fay had been forced to backtrack around an impassable swamp. His 12 Bambendjellé crewmen, even the healthy ones, were exhausted and ready to quit. That border crossing, which loomed just ahead, had begun to appear politically problematic—no Gabonese visas for a gang of Congolese Pygmies. And then a Muslim trader went missing between villages along one of the few human footpaths with which Fay's route converged; as authorities reacted to the disappearance, Fay began dreading the prospect that he and his feral band might come under suspicion and be sidetracked for questioning. Suspending the march to nurse Mouko, he found himself stuck in a village with bad water. He was running short of food, with not even enough pocket money to buy local bananas. The Megatransect was in megatrouble.
If Mouko dies, Fay thought, it's probably time to roll up the tents and capitulate. He would abandon his dream of amassing a great multidimensional filament of forest-survey data, continuous both in space and in time. He would stop recording all those little particulars—the relative freshness of every pile of elephant dung, the location of every chimp nest and aardvark burrow, the species and girth of every big tree—in the latest of his many yellow notebooks. He would stop walking. Human exigencies would preempt methodological imperatives and vaulting aspirations. If Mouko dies, he figured, I'll drop everything and take the body home.
Even from the start, in late September of 1999, it looked like a daunting endeavor—far too arduous and demented to tempt an ordinary tropical ecologist, let alone a normal human being. But Fay isn't ordinary. By his standards, the first three months of walking were a lark. Then the going got sticky.
Having crossed Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park and a stunning wedge of pristine forest known as the Goualougo Triangle, having hiked south through the trail-gridded timber concessions and boomtown logging camps of the lower Ndoki watershed, Fay and his team angled west, toward a zone of wilderness between the Sangha and the Lengoué Rivers, both of which drain south to the main stem of the Congo. What was out there? No villages, no roads. On the national map it was just a smear of green. Fay traveled along elephant trails when possible, and when there were none, he bushwhacked, directing his point man to cut a compass-line path by machete.
A strong-armed and equable Pygmy named Mambeleme had laid permanent claim to the point-man job. Behind him walked Fay with his yellow notebook and video camera, followed closely by Yves Constant Madzou, the young Congolese biologist serving as his scientific apprentice. Farther back, beyond earshot so as not to spook animals, came the noisier and more heavily burdened entourage—12 Pygmy porters and a Bakwele Bantu named Jean Gouomoth, nicknamed Fafa, Fay's all-purpose expedition sergeant and camp cook. They had proceeded that way for many weeks, in a good rhythm, making reasonable distance for reasonable exertion, when gradually they found themselves submerged in a swale of vegetation unlike anything Fay had ever seen.
Trained as a botanist long before he did his doctoral dissertation on gorillas, Fay describes it as "a solid sea of Marantaceae"—the family Marantaceae constituting a group of herbaceous tropical plants that includes gangly species such as Haumania liebrechtsiana, which can grow into stultifying thickets, denser than sugar cane, denser than grass, dense as the fur on a duck dog. The Marantaceae brake that Fay and his team had now entered, just east of the Sangha, stretched westward for God-knew-how-far. Fay himself, with a GPS unit and a half-decent map but no godlike perspective, knew not. All he could do was point Mambeleme into the stuff, like a human Weedwacker, and fall in behind.
Sometimes they moved only 60 steps an hour. During one ten-hour day they made less than a mile. The green stems stood 15 feet high (4.6 meters), with multiple branches groping crosswise and upward, big leaves turned greedily toward the sun. "It's an environment which is completely claustrophobic," Fay says later, from the comfort of retrospect. "It's like digging a tunnel except there is sunlight." The cut stems scratched at their bare arms and legs. Sizable trees, offering shade, harboring monkeys, were few. Flowing water was rare, and each afternoon they searched urgently for some drink-able sump beside which to camp. When they did stop, it took an hour of further cutting just to clear space for the tents.
On the march Fay spent much of his time bent at the waist, crouching through Mambeleme's tunnel. He learned to summon a Zen-like state of self-control, patience, humility. The alternative was to start hating every stem of this Marantaceae hell, regretting he ever blundered into it—and along that route a person might go completely nuts. Mambeleme and the other Pygmies had their own form of Zen-like accommodation. "Eyali djamba," they would say. "Njamba, eyaliboyé." That's the forest. That's the way it is.
But this wasn't the real forest, woody and canopied and diverse, that Mike Fay had set out to explore. It was something else, an awesome expanse of reedy sameness. Later he named it the Green Abyss.
They reached the Sangha River, crossed in borrowed pirogues, then plunged westward into more of the same stuff. Fay had flown this whole route in his Cessna, scouting it carefully, but even at low elevation he hadn't grasped the difficulty of getting through on foot. Villagers on the Sangha, whose own hunting and fishing explorations had taught them to steer clear of that trackless mess, warned him: "It's impossible; you cannot do it. You will fail. You will be back here soon." Fay's response was: "We have maps. We have a compass, and we have strong white-man medicine. We will make it." He was right. But it took ten miserable weeks. Having spent New Year's Eve in the Green Abyss, he wouldn't emerge until early March.
"We drank swamp water for three weeks in a row. We did not see any flowing water for almost a month," Fay recalls. "Miraculously, we only had one night where we had to drink water out of a mudhole." It was an old termite mound, excavated by an aardvark or some other insectivore and lately filled with rain water. The water was thick with suspended clay, grayish brown like latte but tasting more like milk of magnesia. Food was another problem, since their most recent rendezvous with Fay's logistic-support man, an ever reliable Japanese ecologist named Tomo Nishihara, had been back at the Sangha; they were now days behind schedule and would be on starveling rations long before they reached the next resupply point. So by satellite phone Fay and Tomo arranged an airdrop: 20-kilogram (44.1 pound) bags of manioc and 50-can cases of sardines dumped without parachutes from a low-flying plane. The drop was a success, despite one parcel's ripping open on a tree limb, leaving a plume of powdered manioc to sift down like snow and 50 sardine cans mooshed together like a crashed Corvair. They binged on the open sardines, then resumed walking.
Other problems were less easily solved. There were tensions and deep glooms. There were days that passed into weeks not just without flowing water but without civil conversation. Not everyone on the team found his own variant of Njamba, eyaliboyé. By the time they reached the Lengoué River, Yves Madzou had had enough, and Fay had had enough of his enoughness. By mutual agreement Yves left the Megatransect to pursue, as the saying goes, other interests. He was human, after all.
Fay was Fay. He marched on.
After six months Fay and his crew paused for rest and resupply at a field camp called Ekania, on the upper Mambili River, within another spectacular area of Congolese landscape, Odzala National Park. Odzala is noted for its big populations of forest elephants and gorillas, which show themselves in small meadowy clearings known as bais, sparsely polka-dotting the forest. Mineral salts, edible sedges, and other toothsome vegetation at the bais attract not just elephants and gorillas but also forest buffalo, sitatungas, bongo, and red river hogs, sometimes in large groups. Of course Fay wanted to visit the bais, which he had scouted by plane but never explored on foot; he also wanted to take the measure of the forest around them.
Odzala's elephants suffered heavily from poaching during the late 1980s and early 1990s, until a conservation program known as ECOFAC, funded by the European Commission, assumed responsibility for managing the park, with a stringent campaign of guard patrols and a guard post on the lower Mambili to choke off the ivory traffic coming down-river. Access deep into Odzala along the Mambili, a chocolaty stream whose upper reaches are narrow and strained by many fallen trees, is still allowed for innocent travelers not carrying tusks. That's how Tomo brought the resupply crates up to Ekania. It was a ten-hour trip by motorized dugout from the nearest grass airstrip, and on this occasion I traveled with him.
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 (9-14 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.
At daybreak on Day 188 we were at the bai, watching 18 elephants in the fresh light of dawn as they drank and groped for minerals in the stream. Some distance from the others stood an ancient female, emaciated, failing, her skull and pelvic bones draped starkly with slack gray skin. Amid the herd was a massive bull, who swept his raised trunk back and forth like a periscope, tasting the air vigilantly for unwelcome scents. He caught ours. There was a subtle shift in mood, then the bull initiated a deliberate, wary leave-taking. One elephant after another waded off toward the far side of the bai, disappearing there into the trees. By sun-up they were gone.
By midday so were we, walking on.
From the upper Mambili, Fay planned to ascend toward an escarpment that forms the divide between the Congo River basin and a lesser system, the Ogooué, which drains to the Atlantic through Gabon. I would peel off again on Day 195, using another resupply rendezvous with Tomo as my chance to exit. As it happened, Tomo needed three boatmen and a chain saw to get his load of supplies that far up the snag-choked Mambili, but going back downriver would be easier, and we figured to reach the airstrip in two days.
On the morning before my departure, Fafa was laid flat by a malarial fever, so Fay himself oversaw the sorting and packing of new supplies: sacks of manioc and rice and sugar, cans of peanut butter and sardines, bundles of salted fish, big plastic canisters of pepper and dried onions, cooking oil, granola bars, freeze-dried meats, cigarettes for the crew, many double-A batteries, a fresh stack of colorful plastic bowls, and one package of seaweed, recommended by Tomo as a complement to the salted fish. Finally the packs were ready, the tents struck; Fafa rallied from his fever, and I walked along behind Fay and Mambeleme for an hour that afternoon.
Fay and I had agreed where I'd rejoin him next: at an extraordinary set of granite domes, known as inselbergs (or "island mountains"), that rise up like stony gumdrops from a forest in northeastern Gabon. The forest, called Minkébé, is ecologically rich but microbially menacing; many months earlier, as we knelt over my map on the floor of an office at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., this was where Fay had written "Ebola region" in red ink. "We'll meet you on the other side of the continental divide," he told me cheerily now. "On our way to the Atlantic Ocean."
Backtracking on the trail to catch Tomo's boat, I shook hands with Kossa-Kossa, Fafa, and each of the Pygmy crew, thanking them for their good company and support. I was fascinated by these rough-and-ready Pygmies, whom Fay had somehow cajoled and bullied across hundreds of miles, leading them so far from their home forest into an alien landscape, an alien realm of experiences. They had been challenged beyond imagining, stressed fearfully, but so far they hadn't broken; they put me in mind of the sort of Portuguese seamen, uneducated, trusting, adaptable, who must have sailed with Ferdinand Magellan. By way of farewell, I told them in bad Lingala: "Na kotala yo, na sanza mibalé." I'll see you in two months.
I was wrong. It would be three months before Fay reached the inselbergs, an interval encompassing some of his most hellish times since the Green Abyss. And when I did rejoin him there, Mambeleme and all the others would be gone.
Fay and his team followed the escarpment northward along its crest, a great uplifted rim that may have once marked the bank of anancient body of water. Kossa-Kossa left the troop, as planned, to return to his real-life duties. The others shifted direction again, heading into a thumb of territory where the Republic of the Congo obtrudes westward against Gabon. They struck toward the Ouaga River and found it defended by a huge swamp, which at first seemed passable but grew uglier as they committed themselves deeper. By insidious degrees, it became a nightmare of raffia palms and giant pandanus standing in four feet of black water and mud, the long pandanus leaves armed with rows of what Fay recalls as "horrid, cat-claw spines." He and the crew spent two nights there in a small cluster of trees, among which they built elevated log platforms to hold their tents above the muck. Pushing forward, Fay saw the route get worse: deeper water, no trees, only more raffia and cat-claw pandanus, five days' distance of such slogging still ahead, with a chance that any rainstorm would raise the water and trap them. Finally he ordered retreat, a rare thing for Fay, and resigned himself to a long detour through a zone for which he had no map.
After circumventing the Ouaga swamp, they converged with a human trail, a simple forest footpath that serves as an important highway linking villages in that northwestern Congo thumb. The footpath brought them to a village called Poumba, where they picked up two pieces of bad news: The Gabonese border crossing would be difficult at best, due to festering discord between local authorities on the two sides, and a Muslim trader who dealt in gold and ivory had vanished along the footpath under circumstances suggesting foul play. From a certain perspective (one that the local gendarmerie might well embrace) the trader's disappearance coincided suggestively with another bit of odd news—a white man with an entourage of Pygmies had materialized from the forest on a transcontinental stroll to count aardvark burrows and elephant dung (so he claimed) and making fast tracks for the Gabonese border. It could look very suspicious, Fay knew. He felt both eager to move and reluctant to seem panicky. Added to those concerns was another, seemingly minor. For the third time in two weeks one of the Pygmies, Mouko this time, was suffering malaria. But a dose of Quinimax would fix that, Fay thought.
Over the next few days Mouko got weaker. He couldn't lug his pack. At times he couldn't even walk and had to be carried. Evidently it was hepatitis, not malaria, since his urine was dark, the Quinimax brought no improvement, and his eyes were going yellow. Fay slowed the pace and took a turn carrying Mouko's pack. Hiding his uncertainty, he wondered what to do. All the Pygmies think Mouko is going to die now, he wrote in his notebook on Day 241. Mouko seemed languid as well as sick, with little will to live, while the others had already turned fatalistic about his death. Fay himself became Mouko's chief nurse. He scolded the crew against sharing Mouko's manioc, using his plate, making cuts on his back to bleed him, and various other careless or well-meant practices that could spread the infection. To the notebook, Fay confided: I am so sick and tired of being the parent of 13 children, it is too much. Thank god I never had children—way too much of a burden. Solo is the way to go—depend on yourself only. The trouble in a group like this is it's like you're an organism. If one part of you is sick or lost the whole organism suffers. For another ten days after that entry, Mouko's survival remained in doubt.
They pushed toward Garabinzam, a village near the west end of the footpath, on a navigable tributary of the Ivindo River, which drains into Gabon. On the last day of walking to Garabinzam, the team covered nine miles (14.5 kilometers), Kati carrying Mouko piggyback for most of the way. That evening, Fay wrote: I need to ship these boys home. You can just tell they are haggard, totally worn out. No matter how good they were they are just going to go down one by one. I would love to keep my friends but I would be betraying them if I made them stay on any longer—it would be unjust.
Several days later, he departed from his line of march—and from all his resolutions about continuity—to evacuate Mouko downriver by boat. They'd try for a village at the Ivindo confluence, on the Gabonese side; from there, if Mouko survived, he could be moved to a hospital in the town of Makokou. Fafa would meanwhile escort the others back to their home forest, hundreds of miles east, sparing them from the onward trudge and the unwelcoming border. Fay himself would pick up the hike in Gabon. One stretch of the planned route would remain unwalked—roughly 25 miles (40.2 kilometers), from Garabinzam overland to the border—a rankling gap in the data set, a blemish on the grand enterprise, and a token (this is my view, not his) of Fay's humanity.
Left Garabinzam, all is well, he wrote briskly on May 24, 2000, which in Megatransect numeration was Day 248. But also: Pygmies didn't say goodbye.
Mouko survived and went home. Starting from scratch, Fay gathered a new crew from the villages and gold-mining camps of the upper Ivindo region. He found an able young Baka Pygmy named Bebe, with good ears for wildlife and a strong machete arm, who emerged before long as his new point man; he found a new cook and eight other forest-tough Pygmy and Bantu men; he found energy, even enthusiasm, to continue. They set off on a long arc through the Minkébé forest, targeting various points of interest, most dramatic of which were the inselbergs. That's where I next see Fay, on Day 292, when I step out of a chartered helicopter that has landed precariously on one of the smaller mounds.
Skin browner, hair longer and whiter, he looks otherwise unchanged. Same pair of river shorts, same sandals, same dry little smile. I have brought him three pounds of freshly ground dark-roast coffee and a copy of Michael Herr's Dispatches, another of the Vietnam War memoirs that he finds fascinating. If he's pleased to see me, for the company, for the coffee, he gives no sign.
At once he begins talking about data. He's been seeing some interesting trends. For instance, the gorillas. It's true, he says—picking up a discussion from months earlier—that there's a notable absence of gorillas in the Minkébé forest. Since crossing the border, he hasn't heard a single chest-beat display and has seen only one pile of gorilla dung. Back in Odzala National Park, over a similar stretch, he'd have counted three or four hundred dung piles. Elephants are abundant; duikers and monkeys and pigs, abundant. But the gorillas are missing. He suspects they were wiped out by Ebola.
The Minkébé forest block, encompassing more than 12,500 square miles (32,374.9 square kilometers) of northeastern Gabon, represents one of the great zones of wilderness remaining in central Africa. Much of it stands threatened by logging operations (in the near or midterm future), bush meat extraction such as inevitably accompanies logging, and elephant poaching for ivory. But the Gabonese government has recently taken the admirable step of designating a sizable fraction (2,169 square miles (5,617.7 square kilometers)) of that block as Minkébé Reserve, a protected area; and now, in addition, three large adjacent parcels are being considered for possible inclusion. The Gabonese Ministry of Water and Forests, with technical help and gentle coaxing from the World Wildlife Fund, has been studying the farsighted idea that an enlarged Minkébé Reserve might be valuable not just in ecological terms but also in economic ones for its role in the sequestration of carbon. With greenhouse gases and climate change becoming ever more conspicuous as a global concern, maybe other nations and interested parties might soon be willing to compensate Gabon—so goes the logic—for maintaining vast, uncombusted carbon storehouses such as Minkébé.
But before the reserve extension can be approved, on-the-ground assessments must be made. So in the past several years a small group of scientists and forest workers made reconnaissance expeditions into Minkébé—both the original reserve and the proposed extension. They found spectacular zones of forest and swamp, stunning inselbergs, networks of streams, all rich with species and virtually untouched by human presence. They also found—as Mike Fay has been finding—a near-total absence of gorillas and chimpanzees.
It wasn't always so. In 1984 two scientists named Caroline Tutin and Michel Fernandez published a paper in the American Journal of Primatology describing their census of gorilla and chimpanzee populations throughout Gabon. Using a combination of field transects, habitat analysis, and cautious extrapolation, Tutin and Fernandez estimated that at least 4,171 gorillas lived within the Minkébé sector, representing a modest but significant population density. Something seems to have happened between 1984 and now.
It may have happened abruptly in the mid-1990s, when three Ebola epidemics burned through villages and gold camps at the Minkébé periphery, killing dozens of humans. One of those outbreaks occurred in early 1996 at a village called Mayibout II, on the upper Ivindo River. It began with a chimpanzee carcass, found dead in the forest and brought to the village as food. Eighteen people who helped with the skinning, the butchering, the handling of the chimp flesh became sick. Suffering variously from fever, headache, and bloody diarrhea, they were evacuated downriver to the Makokou hospital. Four of them died quickly. A fifth escaped from the hospital, went back to Mayibout II, and died there.
These numbers and facts come from a report published three years later, by Dr. Alain-Jean Georges and a long list of co-authors, in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Although the raw chimp flesh had been infectious, the cooked meat evidently had not; no one got sick, the Georges paper asserted, simply from eating it. But once the disease broke out, there were some secondary cases, one human victim infecting another. By early March, according to the World Health Organization, 37 people had fallen ill, of whom 21 died, for a fatality rate of 57 percent. Then it was over, as abruptly as it started. Around the same time, according to later accounts, dead gorillas were seen in the forest too.
Mike Fay isn't the only knowledgeable person inclined to connect Minkébé's apparent gorilla depauperation with Ebola. Down in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, I heard the same idea from a lanky Dutchman named Bas Huijbregts, associated with the World Wildlife Fund's Minkébé Project, who made some of those reconnaissance hikes through the Minkébé forest, gathering both quantified field data and anecdotal testimony. Gorilla nests, he reported, were drastically less abundant than they had been a decade earlier. About the gorillas themselves, he said: "If you talk to all the fishermen, hunters, gold miners, they all have a similar story. Before there were many—and then they started dying off." The apparent population collapse, not just of gorillas but of chimps too, seemed to coincide with the human epidemics. In a hunting camp just north of the Gabonese border someone showed Huijbregts the grave of a man who, so it was said, had died after eating flesh from a gorilla he'd found dead in the forest.
I spoke also with Sally Lahm, an American ecologist who has worked in the region for almost 20 years, studying wildlife and wildlife-human interactions. Lahm has focused especially on the mining camps of the upper Ivindo, where gold comes as precious flecks from buried stream sediments and protein comes as bush meat from the forest. Her study, plus the epidemic events of the mid-1990s, have led her toward Ebola. When the third outbreak occurred, at a logging camp southwest of Minkébé, she went there with several medical people from the Makokou hospital and played a double role, as both nurse and researcher.
"I'm scared to death of Ebola, because I've seen what it can do," Lahm told me. "I've seen it kill people—up close." Fearful or not, she's engrossed by the scientific questions. Where does Ebola lurk between outbreaks? What species in the forest—a small mammal? an insect?—serves as its reservoir host? How does its ecology intersect the ecology of hunters, villagers, and miners? So far, nobody knows.
"It's not a purely human disease," Lahm said. "Humans are the last in the chain of events. I think we should be looking at it as a wildlife-human disease." Besides doing systematic field research, she has gathered testimony from hunters, gold miners, survivors of Mayibout II. She has also made field collections of tissue from a whole range of reservoir-candidate species, shipping her specimens off to a virology institute in South Africa for analysis. And she has grown suspicious of one particular species that may be the main transfer agent between the reservoir host and humans—but she declined to tell me what species that is. She needs to do further work, she explained, before further talk.
On the evening of Day 299, at Fay's campfire, I hear more on this subject from one of his crewmen, an affable French-speaking Bantu named Thony M'Both. Mayibout deux? Yes, he was there; he recalls the epidemic well. Yes, it began with the chimpanzee. Some boys had gone hunting with their dogs; they were after porcupine, and they found the chimp, already dead. No, they didn't claim they had killed it. The body was rotting, belly swollen, anyone could tell. Many people helped butcher and cook it. Cook it how? In a normal African sauce. All who ate the meat or touched it got sick, according to Thony. Vomiting and diarrhea. Eleven victims were taken downriver to the hospital—only that many, since there wasn't enough fuel to carry everyone. Eighteen stayed in the village, died there, were buried there. Doctors came up from Franceville (in southern Gabon, site of a medical research institute) wearing their white suits and helmets, but so far as Thony could see, they didn't save anyone. His friend Sophiano Etouck lost six family members, including his sister-in-law and three nieces. Sophiano (another of Fay's crew, also here at the campfire) held one niece in his arms as she died, yet he didn't get sick. Nor did Thony himself. He hadn't partaken of the chimp stew. He doesn't eat chimpanzee or gorilla, Thony avers, implying that's by scruple. Nowadays in Mayibout II, however, nobody eats chimpanzee. All the boys who went porcupine hunting that day, they all died, yes. The dogs? No, the dogs didn't die.
The campfire chatter around us has stilled. Sophiano himself, a severe-looking Bantu gold miner with a bodybuilder's physique, a black goatee, a sweet disposition, and an anguished stutter, sits quietly while Thony tells the tale.
I ask one final question: Had he ever before seen such a disease? I'm remembering what I've read about horrible, chain-reaction Ebola episodes, with victims bleeding profusely, organ shutdown, chaos and desperate efforts to nurse or mop up, leading only to further infection. "No," Thony answers blandly. "This was the first time."
Thony's body count differs from the careful report in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, so do some other particulars, yet his eyewitness testimony seems utterly real. He's as scared of Ebola as anybody. If he were inventing, he wouldn't invent the chimpanzee's swollen belly. Added to it all, though, is one fact or factoid that he let drop on the first evening I met him—a detail so garish, so perfectly dramatic, that even having heard it from his lips I'm unsure whether to take it literally. Around the same time as the Mayibout epidemic, Thony told me, he and Sophiano saw a whole pile of gorillas, 13 of them, lying dead in the forest.
Anecdotal testimony, even from eyewitnesses, tends to be shimmery, inexact, unreli-able. To say 13 dead gorillas might actually mean a dozen, or lots, too many for a startled brain to count. To say I saw them might mean exactly that or possibly less. My friend saw them, he's unimpeachable. Or maybe: I heard about it on pretty good authority.
Scientific data are something else. They don't shimmer with poetic hyperbole and ambivalence. They are particulate, quantifiable, firm. Fastidiously gathered, rigorously sorted, they can reveal emergent meanings. This is why Mike Fay is walking across central Africa with a little yellow notebook.
After two weeks of bushwhacking through Ebola's backyard, we emerge from the forest onto a red laterite road. Blinking against the sunlight, we find ourselves in a village called Minkouala, at which the dependable Tomo soon arrives with more supplies. Day 307 ends with us camped in a banana grove behind the house of a local official, flanked by a garbage dump and a gas-engine generator. The crew has been given an evening's furlough, and half of them have caught rides into Makokou to chase women and get drunk. By morning one of the Pygmies will be in jail, having expensively busted up a bar, and Fay will be facing a new round of political hassles, personnel crises, and minor ransom demands, a category of inescapable chores he finds far less agreeable than walking through swamp. But somehow he will get the crew moving again. He'll plunge away from the red road, diving back into the universe of green. Meanwhile he spends hours in his tent, collating the latest harvest of data on a laptop.
Within the past 14 days, he informs me, we have stepped across 997 piles of elephant dung and not a single dung pile from a gorilla. We have heard zero gorilla chest-beat displays. We have seen zero sprigs of Marantaceae chewed by gorilla teeth and discarded. These are numbers representing as good a measure as now exists of the mystery of Minkébé.
Measuring the mystery is a crucial first step; solving it is another matter.
I make my departure along the laterite road and then by Cessna from the Makokou airstrip. The pilot who has come to chauffeur me is a young Frenchman named Nicolas Kozon, the same fellow who circled the Green Abyss at low altitude while Tomo tossed bombs of manioc and sardines to Fay and the others below. As we point ourselves toward Libreville now, the road and the villages disappear quickly, leaving Nicolas and me with a limitless vista of green. Below us, around us in all directions to the
horizon, there's only canopy and more canopy, magisterial and abstract.
Nicolas is both puzzled and amused by the epic daffiness of the Megatransect, and through our crackly headsets we discuss it. I describe the daily routine, the distances made, the swamps crossed, and what Fay faces from here onward. He'll visit the big waterfalls of the Ivindo River, I say, then turn westward. He'll cross the railroad line and two more roads, but otherwise he'll keep to the forest, following his plotted route, staying as far as possible from human settlements. He can do that all the way to the ocean. He'll cross the Lopé Reserve, yes, and then a big block of little-known terrain around the Massif du Chaillu. Another four months of walking, if all goes well. He's skinny but looks strong. He'll cross the Gamba complex of defunct hunting areas and faunal reserves along the coast, south of Port-Gentil, and break out onto the beach. He expects to get there in late November, I say.
With a flicker of smile, Nicolas asks: "And then will he swim to America?"