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Watch photographer George Steinmetz in action in his ultralight.
George Steinmetz

Listen to conservationalist Mike Fay describe his Africa Megaflyover.
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Views of Africa @ National Geographic Magazine
By David Quammen
Photographs by George Steinmetz
Armed with two small planes and infinite determination, explorer and conservationist J. Michael Fay set out to create an unprecedented record of human impact on the land.

Just north of the old caravan town of Agadez, in central Niger, stretches the Aïr Massif, a vast range of cinder gray highlands standing up from the Sahara like a coal barge afloat on an ocean of cream. The peaks and plateaus of the Aïr have been shaped over time from a complicated mixture of rock types—including magmatic ring dikes, granitic intrusions, Paleozoic sandstone, and recent flows of lava—but the overall impression they convey can be captured without geologic jargon: big mountains, arid and dark and steep. Their gulches (koris, in the local terminology) are water carved but, in dry season, brim only with sand. Old hoof trails, scratched across high ledges, suggest that once this was good habitat for Barbary sheep, Ammotragus lervia, a hardy species now extinct or endangered across most of its North African range. Maybe the habitat is still good, but the sheep seem to have been hunted out. There are no paved roads and few settlements amid these mountains. Apart from four-by-four tracks up the larger koris, the main signs of human presence are igloo-like rock piles sparsely polka-dotting the foothills. Each dot is an ancient grave. The graves are remote, inconspicuous, mostly unopened by pillagers, and best seen from a low-flying plane. That's how J. Michael Fay sees them, on a mild December morning, as an heirloom Cessna 182 carrying him and three others approaches the northeastern edge of the massif.

The Cessna, showing call letters G-OWCS, is painted scarlet and specially equipped for collecting data. The call letters honor Fay's employer, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has supported his varied African labors for 20 years. The plane looks like a toy, or an enameled piñata, but it bears serious purposes, not candy. With a young Austrian pilot named Mario Scherer at the controls, and Fay in the right seat amid a rat's nest of custom-rigged digital hardware and cables, it caresses the topography, circling here, dipping a wing there, rising nervily through high notches to put peaks close at eye level on each side. Mounted in its right door is a high-resolution digital camera that, automatically every 20 seconds, takes a vertical shot of the ground. The photos, each tagged with GPS data registering exact time, latitude, longitude, and altitude, are uploaded into a Hewlett-Packard Tablet computer on Fay's lap, through which he can add notes. A similar Tablet, scrolling out a map along the plane's flight line, rests under his left elbow. There is no in-flight movie. Fay's attention flicks constantly, tirelessly, between the computer screens and the terrain passing below. He wears headphones and a scruffy gray beard.

The plane's interior is as spacious as a Volkswagen bug. Behind the two seats is an 80-liter (20-gallons) auxiliary gas tank, like a riser of welded aluminum, useful for long flights over jungle or desert and as a bum-rest for anyone rash enough to crawl aboard as a passenger. Jammed beside me on this fool's bench sits a man named Maurice Ascani, small but excitable, claiming little space for his buttocks but much for his personality.

Ascani is a French-born Nigerien with a blunt manner, a deep commitment to Niger's wildlife, and a strong resemblance to the actor Roy Scheider. He serves as communications officer of a local conservation group called SOS Faune du Niger. Having traveled the country's Saharan outback for more than 30 years, taking photographs, making friends among the desert tribes, observing the fauna, watching some of the most magnificent species (such as the Barbary sheep and a big spiral-horned antelope, the addax) suffer decline, he is well qualified for his role this week as Fay's expert local guide and collaborator. Experience hasn't jaded Ascani. He cranes at his window to ogle the mountains as though glimpsing them for the first time. Occasionally he elbows me to appreciate something—"Voyez!"—on his side, or he lurches forward to holler advice at the pilot. One difference between him and us three, besides his disinclination to sit still, is that Ascani knows what to expect as the Cessna nears a certain point known as Arakao.

That point lies at latitude 18° 55´ N, longitude 9° 34´ E. My map shows it merely as a small floating label along the east face of the mountains, but Ascani has seen the place firsthand. He has been on the ground at Arakao. He has shot some dramatic images. If he shifts with anticipation as we draw close, I fail to notice, shifting my own sore rump on the aluminum tank.

Then suddenly we're there. Looking eastward toward the open desert, we see an amazing spectacle: dunes, towering dunes, piled up along the massif's eastern face, like a herd of khaki dinosaurs stopped by a giant stone wall.

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