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Views of Africa
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Video: Africa Megaflyover
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Watch photographer George Steinmetz in action in his ultralight.
George Steinmetz


Listen to conservationalist Mike Fay describe his Africa Megaflyover.
Megaflyover
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Views of Africa

By David Quammen
Photographs by George Steinmetz

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Set in stark opposition to the dark peaks of Aïr, these are mountains of a much different sort—granular, graceful, silky textured, shaded gently in tones of tan and pale salmon, erected and sculpted into pyramid peaks and razor-edge ridges, swaybacks and rippling slopes, by the winds that have blown them in, grain by grain, across 150 flat miles (240 kilometers) from northeastern Niger. Arakao, it turns out, is nothing more than a name for the spot to which those winds deliver their cargo, almost as though they're whistling down a tunnel. Hitting the mountains at a very particular point—the partial cone of an ancient volcano—they swirl, scatter, and lose hold. The sands fall. The dunes rise, some up to 900 feet (300 meters). And here they linger, bunched and tall, majestic and delicate and dynamic, continually sliding away and continually rebuilt.

With his stylus, Fay taps a laconic note into his lap Tablet: "mountains of luscious sand." His vertical photos will say that and more.

Mario drops one wing, and we circle out over the desert. Gaping back, we see the dunes with their shadows and edges in bright silhouette before the mountains. Light against dark, smooth against jagged, from this angle they seem to be pouring down slowly from the highlands like a glacier of sand. We circle again. Three separate GPS units—two for Fay's system, one for the plane—trace our loop. The door camera goes click click click. With a second camera, at the opened window, Fay takes handheld shots. Desert wind fills the cockpit. And I begin, when Ascani isn't jabbing my ribs, to shape an inchoate thought: mountains of sand, mountains of data. Metaphor is unscientific, I know, but then again I'm not a scientist.

Here we have nothing but tiny particles, assembled by a persistent force, yet the collective effect is momentous and grand. As for Fay? He's trying to create his own Arakao.

Today is our tenth day of survey flying in Niger, and the 187th day since Fay and his chief pilot, Peter Ragg, departed from an airfield in South Africa on this latest breakneck adventure in ecological reconnaissance, loosely labeled the Megaflyover, for its parallels with Fay's Mega-transect. (See October 2000, March 2001, and August 2001.) No, the jungle boy hasn't gone soft. Traveling by bush plane rather than on foot, covering hundreds of miles a day rather than half a dozen, sitting dry in the sky rather than slogging through blackwater swamps and thorny thickets, doesn't actually represent a change toward safety and comfort. It merely adds scope.

Whereas the Megatransect was a single long hike across some of the wildest remaining forests of central Africa, the Megaflyover is a zigzaggy marathon of low-altitude flights tracing cloverleaf patterns over much of the continent, from Cape Town to Tangier. Despite the differences in mode of travel and geographic reach, the Megaflyover has a similar purpose: to gather abundant, incremental, and systematized data on the state of wild landscapes and the trends of human-caused transformation. Fay's motive isn't idle curiosity. His aerial enterprise is closely linked with—and to some extent inspired by—a major initiative of the Wildlife Conservation Society, known as the Human Footprint project. That project, which involves an ambitious program of multidimensional mapping to show gradients of wildness and human impacts around the world, is intended to help WCS target conservation efforts. Fay himself, a restless individualist with a surprisingly good nose for politics, wants nothing less than to change the way the world perceives and uses ecosystems and natural resources—starting with perceptions in Washington, D.C. The ultimate goal of his Africa Megaflyover, he says, is to convince "the powers that be, in particular the U.S. Congress," that integrating natural resource management into American foreign policy is "a very, very smart thing to do. And a good investment."

Wherever humans live at high population densities, making unsustainable demands on natural systems, he notes, you eventually see ecological breakdown, unmet needs, and tensions that lead toward conflict. Look at Darfur. Look at Rwanda. Look at Zimbabwe. Get beyond the headlines, beyond the tribal and racial animosities, to the resource disputes that underlie them. He's a collector of small facts who likes to think big, and his current line of thinking involves the strategic security issues inextricably linked with water, soil, mineral deposits, flora, fauna, and ecological health. To that end, he conceived the Megaflyover. As a pilot himself, he recognized the value of low-altitude flying to illuminate the realities of land use. A bush plane shows you patterns you'll never perceive from the ground, while allowing flexibly targeted coverage ("Let's circle that spot again") and the capture of fine details you can't get from a satellite. A modified Cessna 182 was the logical tool. Africa, the continent he knows and loves best after 25 years of working there, was the logical place.

Of course Africa isn't really a place; it's a million places. Its history is as deep as Precambrian bedrock, its landscapes more diverse than those of any other continent on the planet. Nowadays it encompasses 47 countries (not counting Madagascar and other islands), hundreds of tribal and ethnic entities, a total population of 900 million humans. It can also be parsed into 104 terrestrial ecoregions (according to another mapping project, this one done by the World Wildlife Fund), each unique in its physical and climatic features and harboring a distinct plant and animal community. Those ecoregions in many cases transcend national boundaries. They range from the Succulent Karoo, in western South Africa and Namibia, to the Saharan Halophytics in northern Algeria. They also include the Western Congolian Swamp Forests, the Itigi-Sumbu Thicket, the Angolan Miombo Woodlands, and many exotic-sounding others. Within or near all these ecoregions live people, at greater and lesser concentrations, whose most elemental struggles and aspirations transcend ecological boundaries as well as national ones, thrumming steadily like the bass notes of a symphony.

Anyone who listens can detect those notes. Africans want better and fuller employment. They want food security and education for their children. They want good governance, free of oppression and corruption. They want fair, sensible arrangements for the management of wild landscapes and natural resources—arrangements chosen and controlled by Africans. They want peace. They're proud to be African as well as proud to be Dogon or Fang or Tuareg or Samburu or Tutsi, to be Kenyan or Ghanaian or Gabonese. Directly or indirectly, they suffer from the widespread ravages of AIDS, the pressures of population growth, and the broadly ramifying crush of poverty. Old-fashioned colonialism is mostly gone, but its thefts and damages haven't been well rectified. Increasing urbanization brings rural people toward new enticements, new opportunities, but also toward new disappointments and miseries. In worst-case situations (such as the current crisis in Sudan's Darfur region) political and ethnic conflicts combine with severe natural circumstances to produce masses of refugees, famine, state-condoned persecution, a culture of bloody lawlessness, and even genocide.

Along with the human struggles come human impacts. Although some areas of landscape are less heavily inhabited than they might be, others are overburdened, eroded, blighted by the presence and demands of too many people. Because the African landmass is so large, climate change may affect its interior regions disproportionally, bringing considerably higher temperatures, worse droughts and floods, increased desertification, and new patterns of disease. Poaching wildlife, both for subsistence and commercially, is an old problem but still serious. Timber harvesting, even when done selectively, often brings workers who empty a forest of its fauna for bush meat. War is bad for gorillas and other living things.

None of these concerns is unique to Africa, but given what's at stake, the African particulars deserve special attention from the rest of the world. Africa's glories and successes deserve special attention too. Despite all travails, African peoples produce magnificent art, graceful cultures, terrific music, great works of the mind, and astonishing acts of political and moral courage. Imperialist rhetoric once branded it the "dark continent," but that was blind and stupid, not just wrong. It's bright with variety, tribulation, and joy.

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