<< Back to Feature Page
End of the Line: Megatransect Part 3
By David Quammen
On the 453rd day of his punishing, obsessional, 15-month hike across the forests of central Africa, J. Michael Fay stood on the east bank of a body of water, gazing west. It was not the Atlantic Ocean. That goal, the seacoast of southwestern Gabon, the finish line to his trek, was still 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) away. And now his path was blocked by a final obstruction, not the most daunting he'd faced but nonetheless serious: this blackwater sump, a zone of intermittently flooded forest converted to finger lake by the seasonal rains. Soaked leaf litter and other detritus had yielded the usual tannin-rich tea, and so the water's sleek surface was dark as buffed ebony, punctuated sparsely by large trees, their roots and buttresses submerged. Submerged how deeply? Fay didn't know. Eighty yards out, the flooded forest gave way to a flooded thicket, a tangle of dense, scrubby vegetation with low branches and prop roots interlaced like mangroves, forming a barrier to vision and, maybe, to any imaginable mode of human passage. How far through the thicket to dry land? That, also, Fay didn't know.
"This is the moment of truth, I think," he said.
If it's only waist-deep, I said, with vapid good cheer, we could easily wade across.
"If it stays no deeper than shoulder," he corrected me, "we can make it." But he wasn't optimistic.
Fay took the machete of his point man, Emile Bebe, the young Baka Pygmy who had cut trail for him across hundreds of miles of Gabon. Slipping off his pack, wearing only his usual amphibious outfit (river sandals and river shorts), Fay waded out alone, probing the dark water ahead of him with a long stick. Bebe, two other walking companions—photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols, and a videographer from National Geographic Television, Phil Allen—and I stood watching him go. Quickly he was waist-deep, chest-deep, armpit-deep, groping with his feet against sudden drops, seeking the shallowest route. Then there was just a little head and two skinny arms vanishing into the thicket. I climbed onto a woody loop of liana against the base of a tree, putting me six feet above the water and better positioned to listen, if not to see. I was concerned for him out there alone because of the crocodiles—not just Crocodylus niloticus but also a smaller species found hereabouts, Osteolaemus tetraspis, commonly known as the dwarf crocodile yet not to be taken too lightly. Of course my concern was futile, I realized, since from this distance, perched like a parrot on a trapeze, I couldn't give any timely help if a croc did grab him. I heard the whack of the machete. I heard fits of cursing, which alternated oddly with what sounded like bursts of semidemented song. We waited. He was gone for a half hour, 40 minutes, longer.
Meanwhile, the rest of the traveling crew—two other Baka Pygmies and seven Bantu men, all carrying heavy packs of camp gear and scientific equipment and food, plus a middle-aged Gabonese forestry technician named Augustin Moungazi, whose role was to census trees—caught up and joined us at the water's edge. Where's the boss? they asked. Somewhere out there. The crewmen cast their eyes across the black lake with varying gradations of weariness and dread. Most of them had worked with Fay seven months now, since he crossed into Gabon from the Republic of the Congo, and they had been through such moments before. In the way they shrugged off their packs, uncricked their shoulders, inspected the route forward with leery scowls, they seemed to be saying: Oy, what manner of muddling travail gets us around this obstacle? It looked bad, but they had seen worse.
After nearly an hour I climbed down from my perch. Bebe smoked another cigarette. Nick aimed his Leica at anything remotely interesting. We swatted at filaria flies. We ate our crackers, nuts, and other piddling snacks representing lunch. We wondered silently whether Mike Fay would ever come back and, if not, how we'd find our way out of this forest without our mad leader. Then we heard shouts.
Fay had reached landfall beyond the thicket and returned just far enough to holler instructions. Mainly he was calling to the crewmen, in French, through the wattle of vegetation and the heavy equatorial air. Admittedly my French is lousy, Nick's and Phil's even worse, so we were befuddled; yet the Francophone crewmen appeared befuddled too. If we could just understand what Mike was saying, all of us, we would gladly comply. But to my ears, he sounded like a bilious colonel of the French Foreign Legion screaming orders at new recruits through a mattress.
He had been right, in some sense, when he called it a moment of truth. Whereas Fay had come to study the forest, I had come to study him, and adversity is a great illuminator of true character. But then again, truth?—it's a quicksilver commodity, not so easily gathered as data. The moment was still unfolding, and so far there was more confusion than illumination. Did he want us to come or to stay? If we should come, then how? Should we cut logs and build a raft, or just swim for it? The voice from the thicket seemed to convey almost nothing but purblind certainty and impatience. Was he mustering his troops for a final heroic lurch? Or, stressed by the long months of walking and the burden of forcing discipline on a group of freely hired men, by the nearness of the end, by his own ambivalence about reaching it, was he having a meltdown?
Days after this episode in the black lake, I would still be asking myself those questions. I would still be puzzling over the matter of J. Michael Fay and the complicated, provocative subject of leadership.
It was both the logic and the momentum of Fay's grand enterprise, which he had labeled the Megatransect, that had brought him and his entourage to this point of exigency on the 453rd morning. The logic was that he would walk a zigzag route from the northeastern corner of the Republic of the Congo to the southwestern coast of Gabon, a distance of at least 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers), passing dead center through certain vast blocks of roadless and uninhabited forest, gathering data on vegetation, wildlife, and forest condition as he went. The forest blocks, lying contiguous to one another, could be seen as gobbets of raw meat on Africa's last great kebab of tropical wilderness. Fay's route of travel was to be the skewer.
The momentum derived from 452 days of footslog persistence, including many swamps mucked across and creeks forded, many resupply problems, many hungry nights, many nervous elephants with half a notion to make Fay himself a kebab, many hours of campfire laughter and bonhomie with the crew, many explosions of anger, many points at which it seemed almost impossible for Fay and his comrades to go on, after which they went on. Fay's logic insisted that this gargantuan survey transect be continuous and unbroken, both in space and in time. There had already occurred one unavoidable gap, back in northwestern Congo just short of the Gabonese border, when he departed from his plotted line to evacuate a Pygmy crewman named Mouko, who was verging on death from hepatitis.* Although that short unwalked stretch—about 18 miles (29 kilometers), which he called the Mouko Gap—continued to nag Fay with a slight sense of incompleteness, he had put it behind him, marching on. By now his momentum included so many miles traversed (more like 2,000 (3,218.7 kilometers), in fact, than the 1,200 (1,931 kilometers) originally planned), and so many crises passed, that it was unthinkable to be balked again, this time within 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) of the beach.
The logic of the enterprise had been laid out to the National Geographic Society (his main sponsor) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (his employer) in a 48-page prospectus, with the forest blocks and his route sketched onto a multicolored map. The blocks as he had delineated them numbered 13, beginning with the Nouabalé-Ndoki block in northeastern Congo and ranging southwestward from there. Last in the chain was the Gamba block, a cluster of faunal reserves and defunct hunting areas along the Atlantic coast that are now being organized by the Gabonese government, with help from the World Wildlife Fund, into a complex of protected areas intended to preserve good habitat for elephants, hippos, dwarf crocodiles, and other sensitive species all the way to the beach.
Each of these blocks abuts another, and each is circumscribed by human impact (a road, a rail line, a string of villages along a river) but—this is the crucial part—virtually free of such impact at its interior. Although some armchair experts find it hard to believe, there are still sizable patches of African forest not currently occupied by human beings. Fay's concept was to travel by foot with a small support crew through these forest blocks and to measure in multiple dimensions the relationship between such absence of human impact and the ecological richness of the forest.
He described this data-gathering mission as a "reconnaissance survey," to distinguish it from the more formalized procedure known as a line-transect survey, wherein a field biologist walks and rewalks a short, straight path through the forest, gathering accretions of standardized data with each passage. Instead of cutting a ruler-straight corridor, Fay had elected to use a "path of least resistance" approach, letting the contours and obstacles
of the landscape nudge him this way and that against his general compass bearing, and to make a single 1,200-mile (1,931 kilometer) walk instead of, say, 1,200 one-mile (1,931 kilometer) laps up and down a familiar snippet of trail. "The path of least resistance has the advantage of leaving the forest intact after passage, a significantly increased sample size because of increased speed, and considerably reduced observer fatigue," he had written in the prospectus. During my own time on the trail with him, totaling eight weeks divided into four stretches, I sometimes recollected the irony of that phrase, "the path of least resistance." It sounded lazily sybaritic, whereas here we were, clambering through still another tropical brier patch and then waddling across still another floodplain of sucking mud.
Now again on the morning of Day 453, as I squinted toward that thicket across the black lake, somewhere amid which Fay was hacking branches and yodeling orders, I had cause to wonder: This is the path of least resistance? Thank God we didn't come the hard way.
Like an unnerving omen of things to follow, Day 453 had begun with leeches. We had spent the night at Leech Pond Camp, thus dubbed by me (I named all the camps, for mnemonic purposes) when Fay returned from his bath and reported that ten leeches had gotten to him while he was rinsing. Leeches in moderation are no big deal, since they don't hurt and don't generally cause infection or carry disease. But the leeches that greeted us in the pond on the 453rd morning were beyond moderation. They swam up like schools of grunion and hooked their thirsty little maws to our ankles and calves, a half dozen here, a half dozen there, resisting slimily as we tried to pull them off. We had leeches under our sandal straps, leeches between our toes, leeches racing to every open sore. Good grief, what had they lived on before we arrived?
Hopping from foot to foot in the shallows, we deleeched ourselves while Bebe, also dancing and snatching at his feet between machete strokes, felled a small tree to bridge the pond's deeper trough. Then we tightroped across, deleeched again on solid ground, and went on.
Within a few minutes we heard monkeys jumping through the canopy. Fay did his usual trick, a whistling imitation of the crowned eagle that provoked raucous alarm calls (kaa-ko! kaa-ko!) from the monkeys, allowing him to identify them: Cercocebus torquatus torquatus, the red-capped mangabey, locally known as the kako. He scribbled the exact time and the species name into his notebook, then took a five-minute sampling of their vocalizations on digital audio. Earlier he had mentioned that this mangabey species, with its unmistakable carroty crew cut, was native only to forests near the Atlantic coast; back farther inland, while crossing Congo and eastern Gabon, he had seen plenty of gray-cheeked mangabeys but none of the red-capped. Now here they were, offering a welcome signal that we had entered the coastal zone.
After an hour of easy walking along elephant trails, we found ourselves blocked by another dark pond. "Bad news, boys," said Fay. It looked as though the rainy-season waters were still up, he explained, suggesting that there might be many such fingers of flooded forest between us and the coast. "If that's the case, we ain't gonna get through." But with a little scouting we found a fallen-tree bridge across the deep part, and from there waded to dry land.
At the edge of the water stood another tree, a towering hulk with shaggy bark, gracefully tilted trunk, and wide-reaching buttresses. Fay's routine called for noting every major tree along the route, so this one went into his little book: Sacoglottis gabonensis, 1.5 meters (5 feet) diameter. Loggers generally ignore the species, he had said earlier, because its ropy, twisting trunks don't yield good lumber. The increasing abundance of Sacoglottis gabonensis was a further indicator that we were nearing the coast. Still another was Tieghemella africana, a tree of high value both to timber companies and to elephants. Known commercially as douka, it grows to magisterial sizes—six feet (1.8 meters) in diameter and crowning out through the canopy—with straight, clean trunks, offering lovely wood for the sawmill. It also produces big green fruits, globular and heavy, each filled with sweet-smelling, pumpkiny orange pulp—not bad but a little chalky, to my taste. Elephants travel considerable distances to scarf douka fruits when they're ripe and falling, and the well-worn elephant trails we'd been following ourselves seemed to run like traplines from one douka to another. Take away those mature, fruiting trees (by selective logging, for instance) and the local elephant population would lose part of its seasonal diet. But for now the grand old doukas were still here, showing evidence of recent attention (fresh elephant dung, gnaw marks in the bark), and so were the elephant trails. We hit another short stretch of good walking, then heard another group of monkeys.
This time, in response to the eagle whistle, there came a low, grunting chortle: chooga- chooga-chooga-chooga-chooga. Having heard it many times over the months, even I could recognize that as the alarm call of the gray-cheeked mangabey, Lophocebus albigena, an-other species dependent on fruiting trees. "It looks like the old gray-cheeks are gonna make it to the beach after all," Fay said. "That's cool. I was a little worried, 'cause we hadn't seen them for three or four days." The presence of Lophocebus albigena, overlapping here with its red-capped cousin, became another notebook entry. Then again we walked—westward, toward the beach—but only for five minutes, until the black lake stopped us cold.
The black lake: too wide to bridge and too long to bypass. According to Fay's map, it led northward into the Rembo Ngové floodplain, a riverine morass we didn't care to enter. So Fay had gone straight across, on his solitary probe, and was now out there somewhere in the thicket shouting back instructions. Jean-Paul Ango, one of the youngest and strongest of the crewmen, took his machete to a modest-sized tree, which fell pointlessly into the water near shore. That can't be the idea, I thought.
Impatient with this muddle, I waded out along Fay's route to see if I could find the shallow ridge on which he seemed to have walked. Quickly I was neck-deep. So I decided to swim. Another crewman, Thony M'Both, took the same notion at the same time, and we breaststroked across the black water on converging lines toward the thicket. Soon most of the crew had followed, some confidently, some reluctant to swim but more reluctant to be left behind. Strung out like a line of ducklings, they floundered variously with their waterproof packs, which were buoyant but too cumbersome to serve as water wings. Reaching the face of the thicket, Thony and I stopped. We treaded water. There seemed nowhere to go. I climbed up onto the buttresses of a half-drowned tree, and one by one the others did likewise. In a neighboring tree I noticed Jacques Bosse, a big square-shouldered Bantu whom Fay had hired out of a gold-digging camp in northeastern Gabon. With a forceful yank, Jacques hoisted up his pack, to the outside of which was tied a large cook pot. He tossed back his head and muttered disgustedly to the sky that this was no kind of work for a man. We were stuck there, treed and frazzled like cats in a Mississippi flood, when Fay came out of the thicket and resumed command.
His first act was to holler sternly at Emmanuel Yeye, the shyest of the Pygmies, for letting his pack soak in the water rather than pulling it up. This gave way to a scathing harangue against the whole crew. Fay derided them for their fecklessness, their incompetence, their childishness and stupidity and insubordination. It was all in French, but what I missed in vocabulary I could gather from tone. It went on and on.
Nick and I had each witnessed earlier episodes of such castigation, going back to the first days of the Megatransect and Fay's original crew of Bambendjellé Pygmies. We had seen it after the walk through Minkébé, when some of the current crewmen got drunk and disorderly at a resupply stop. We had seen it elsewhere. I had even begun to expect it (in my notes I called it, for shorthand, the Riot Act) as a calculated tactic, a self-conscious performance, that Fay used periodically to restore discipline and focus. But this time both Nick and I felt he was going too far. Fay said blistering things of the sort that only a drill sergeant, or an especially corrosive fifth-grade teacher, might utter. He ranted and scorned. He recited the crew's failings. "Ça me rend fou," he growled repeatedly. "It makes me crazy." Well, maybe so. At that moment, given our circumstances and the brave plunge these men had just taken, I thought that perhaps our brilliantly unorthodox Dr. Fay had indeed gone off his nut.
I was wrong. Later events and conversations with Fay, combined with what I knew of his personality and background, would convince me that this ultimate Riot Act tirade, as we all hung in trees above the black lake, was rational and carefully calibrated. Fay was stressed, yes, but still utterly in control. The deeper I scratched him, the more layers of ornery complexity and courageous bluntness I found. He wasn't always likable; sometimes he seemed piteously isolated; sometimes he seemed cynical and mechanistic about human relations; sometimes, just too demanding and harsh. But in my final judgment, reached slowly, Fay is a formidable man with a strong sense both of mission and of fairness.
"Chaos breaks out very quickly and very easily," he would tell me days afterward, in the quiet of a tent pitched on a sandy hillock overlooking the Atlantic surf. "You've got to be a complete and utter hard-ass. And I don't enjoy being a hard-ass. I do not have some kind of sadistic element in my mind that makes me enjoy dominating people. But if you accepted that responsibility. . . . " Thinking back over his 15 months of risky travail, he dropped the second-person pronoun and spoke plainly. "Everything was my responsibility. Anyone who died on the Megatransect, it would have been my responsibility."
Mouko had nearly died of hepatitis, and it was Fay who had nursed him until evacuation was possible. A crewman named Roger had almost drowned, tangled in his pack straps at a river crossing, when he larkishly flouted Fay's instructions. There had been several other close calls in water, and several other medical emergencies. "I take that very seriously," Fay said. "And I take the data collection very seriously." All along, he explained, he'd had three overriding goals: to finish the entire walk as originally conceived, to maintain an unbroken regimen of data gathering, and to get everyone through the experience alive. Democracy on the trail and his own popularity on any given day were not even secondary concerns.
The data would eventually be collated, cross-referenced, elaborately crunched and analyzed during the months of his follow-up work. Which forests seem to be richest in gorillas? How quickly do elephants recolonize an area where elephants have been poached? What's the linkage between logging roads and the presence or absence of duikers, forest hogs, cercopithecine monkeys? Everywhere, every which way, he wanted to ask and to answer: What are the correlations? He hoped that question would lead to another: What are the implications for wise management? Fay would write a report or a book, maybe both, and then also make it all available through a website.
"On this website people are going to see very clear patterns," he vowed, as we sat above the beach. "Nobody is going to be able to deny that there is something there." Referencing one slice of data to another would in some cases yield a high statistical correlation, and observers would say, "Wow! Look at this, man. Douka, elephant: correlation, point nine. That's pretty cool." Fay hoped they would, anyway. "Just seeing those patterns is going to make people realize that this is a viable methodology."
But before any such epiphanies could happen, he needed the data. It had to be continuous. It had to be rigorous. Toward that end, his organizational model for the Megatransect was unabashedly autocratic. During one milder fit of annoyance, provoked by a food shortage after some crewmen had evidently jettisoned provisions in order to lighten their packs, I heard Fay tell the men that if this were a military operation, they would all be in prison. "It's very much like a military situation," he said to me now. "I am the commander in chief on the Megatransect." That might sound radical to some ears, he acknowledged (or maybe "offensive" or "retrograde" are the words you want there, I thought), but to anyone who had shared the many months of daily effort and frequent peril, it would make perfect sense. There could only be one leader giving orders, and those orders had to be followed without malingering or debate, or else the whole effort would unravel and the three goals wouldn't be met.
Where did this military style come from? Fay himself is too young to have experienced Vietnam or the draft, too old to have signed on for the Persian Gulf war, and has never served in any branch of the armed forces. It's hard to imagine how he ever could have. Three or four months of basic training and regimentation would no doubt have aggravated his own insubordinate tendencies to a point of court-martial or discharge. But the lore of certain military operations intrigued him—Vietnam particularly, maybe because it was a jungle war and he's a jungle guy. The American fiasco there, he argued plausibly, reflected the plain fact that American troops weren't at home in the ecosystem. During my earlier visits I'd brought him some of the better Vietnam memoirs for trail reading—Peacock's Grizzly Years, Herr's Dispatches—which seemed to engross him for a few hours at night after his data-entry chores. He occasionally mentioned that if he weren't an ecologist, he might be tempted to find work as a war photographer. And he was fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which besides being an exploratory trek was a mission, under full discipline, of the United States Army.
Back at the start of the Megatransect, in the disheveled little library of a research camp in northeastern Congo that had served Fay in recent years as home, I'd found a dog-eared and heavily marked copy of Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's account of the life and character of Meriwether Lewis, as revealed most gloriously during his journey with Clark. That journey was, of course, America's own first and greatest megatransect. One passage in the Ambrose book, completely underlined by Fay, read: "Two years of study under Thomas Jefferson, followed by his crash course in Philadelphia, had made Lewis into exactly what Jefferson had hoped for in an explorer—a botanist with a good sense of what was known and what was unknown, a working vocabulary for description of flora and fauna, a mapmaker who could use celestial instruments properly, a scientist with keen powers of observation, all combined in a woodsman and an officer who could lead a party to the Pacific." Reading that, Fay must have felt a tingle of recognition.
Never mind the sad fact that Meriwether Lewis, addled by acclaim and alcohol after his big success, eventually killed himself. Fortunately for Fay, the parallel between him and Lewis isn't really so close. Lewis stepped into a mission that had been dreamed up by President Jefferson, whereas Fay himself, no one else, concocted this one. Lewis and Clark's enterprise was premised upon the goals of commercial exploitation and easy travel for traders, whereas Fay's Megatransect has a drastically different goal: protecting big areas of rich forest from reductive human impact. Fay has had a better scientific education than Meriwether Lewis, and unlike Lewis he seems unsusceptible to booze or self-doubt. Another advantage is that whereas Lewis headed off into a difficult sort of landscape he'd never before seen, Fay had 20 years' experience in various central African forests, making many lesser treks, before undertaking this most ambitious expedition.
Mike Fay first came to central Africa in 1980, after a stint doing botany up in Tunisia with a scientific affiliate of the U.S. Peace Corps. He signed for another stint on the understanding that he'd go to a new national park in the Central African Republic, near its borders with Chad and Sudan. The park, known as Manovo-Gounda St. Floris, was then just wishful lines on a map. The lines encircled an area rich with elephants, black rhinos, and other big mammals, a vast region of savanna over which the government exerted virtually no control. This was where Fay began to—what's the right phrase? Go AWOL? Step off the ranch? Disappear into nowhere for long periods?—let's say leaven his more focused scientific work with wildcat exploratory journeys. He had a Suzuki 125 trail bike from the Peace Corps, and, since the park's landscape was flat, he began putting the vehicle to unauthorized use.
"I decided that the way to really see that place was to take long traverses from one road to another, sometimes 70 or 80 kilometers (43-50 miles) across the places where no one had ever been." Too many field biologists, in his judgment, never venture far from their base camps. Fay rejected such tethering; he hungered to see the wider scope and the interstitial details. He would load the bike with extra fuel, a patch kit for flats, two weeks worth of food, and go.
The Suzuki was a convenience soon discarded. Beginning in the late 1980s, when he did his doctoral fieldwork on lowland gorillas, tracking them through the forest with a Pygmy mentor, Fay developed a habit of making his long, restless explorations by foot. He discovered that by adapting his body and his outfit (river sandals, one pair of shorts, and no shirt, since bare skin is more easily washed and dried than clothing) to local conditions, he could cross flooded forests, streams, boggy clearings, and swamps that most other people considered impassable. He also learned he could walk into a village or town virtually anywhere in central Africa and, within a day or two, hire a crew of men who were glad for the work of carrying bags and making camps. Employment was scarce, and he paid better than most. He learned how many men were required for transporting this much scientific equipment, that many tents, and enough food to sustain them all for, say, 20 or 25 days between points of supply. By trial and error he developed a style of personnel management that worked.
One element of that style was his imperious sense of command. Another was that he never asked any crewman to accept discomfort or risk that he wouldn't accept himself. The historian Plutarch, in his life of the Roman general Marius, wrote that "there is nothing a Roman soldier enjoys more than the sight of his commanding officer openly eating the same bread as him, or lying on a plain straw mattress, or lending a hand to dig a ditch or raise a palisade. What they admire in a leader is the willingness to share their danger and hardship, rather than the ability to win them honour and wealth, and they are more fond of officers who are prepared to make efforts alongside them than they are of those who let them take things easy." In Fay's case, it was manioc and salted fish, not bread; a roll-out pad on the forest floor, not a straw mattress; and a machete-cut corridor through a blackwater thicket, in lieu of a raised palisade.
When I asked him later about his blowup at the black lake, he conceded that "it certainly looked like I was pissed off, there's no doubt about it." And yet he hadn't been, he said. It was just another bit of tactical histrionics. From his perspective (though he was too discreet to say so), I had exacerbated the confusion myself when Thony and I triggered the group swim. He had intended to proceed methodically, but my impatience foiled that. "I was simply taking chaos and putting order into it. And the only way to do that is to say, at the top of your lungs, 'Everybody stop! Everyone who is here present stop! Do not move. Do not breathe. Stop. And I'm going to tell you what to do.'"
Fair enough, though I didn't wait to be told. I swam back to the east side of the lake, found my own waterproof pack where I'd left it, double-checked its seal for the sake of my notebook and binoculars, and swam out again to the thicket. By the time I got there, nudging the pack ahead of me like a water polo ball, the others had begun moving down Fay's corridor. The water here seemed to be eight or ten feet deep (two and a half to three meters). I fell in with Sophiano Etouck, one of the most stalwart of the crewmen, and Nick, who was managing somehow to dog-paddle along with his pack on his back and his Leica to his face like a snorkel mask. Sophiano led the way, swimming with his right arm and wielding a machete with his left. Every few yards he rose high in the water to whack a limb out of our path, then sank away beneath a boil of bubbles. When Sophiano first went under, and stayed under, Nick and I both worried that he had tangled himself in some vegetation; then, exuberant as an otter, he exploded back up to take another swing. I followed him for 50 yards (45.7 meters) through this watery tunnel of limbs and roots, a passable route that Fay had opened during his missing hour. Finally the thicket cleared, the water shallowed suddenly, and we climbed up a high bank onto firm ground.
While Nick and Phil examined their cameras for damage and their bodies for leeches, I dropped my pack and went back in the water to see if I could help with another load. After swimming down one blind alley, I found the tunnel again and retraced it to the east edge of the thicket. Fay was there, still perched in a tree, having meanwhile swum the lake to retrieve his own pack.
Now he was shepherding along the last of the crew. He knew, from experience, which of the men were steady swimmers and which needed assistance. He was giving instructions, but the strident moment had passed. In fact, he seemed subdued. I took the pack of Augustin, the botanist, who preferred climbing through the thicket to swimming under it, and Fay came behind all of us as sweeper. He even brought my sleeping pad, which had gotten unloaded during some emergency reshuffling of the packs and been temporarily stowed in a tree. He handed it back to me dry.
By 12:40 p.m. we stood on the west bank, wringing out our shirts (except for Fay, still shirtless), checking our packs for leakage, basking in the sunshine—rare sunshine!—that blessed us there through a canopy gap. Flush with nervous relief, we joked and relaxed. We were pleased with ourselves for having wiggled through what might be, we hoped, the last of the dire obstacles. Emmanuel lifted a sodden ten-pound bag of rice from his pack, letting the pale milky water drain out. Nick labeled rolls of film. Sophiano had a smoke. Fay, head down, quietly wrote in his yellow waterproof notebook.
And then, without comment, without any speech of further remonstrance let alone congratulations, Fay detached himself crisply from our breezy mood. He glanced at his wrist compass. He turned toward the forest and stabbed out his arm, giving the usual signal to Bebe: That way. Dutifully, Bebe stepped out and began blazing trail. Fay walked.
Snatching up my pack, holstering my notebook, I followed. I was startled by his brusqueness, but I wanted to stay at Fay's heels. Maybe, in the aftermath, he would loosen up and commit a personal revelation. Maybe he'd put his outburst in context. Or maybe he'd just encounter something interesting—a Gaboon viper, a gorilla, another crocodile—that I'd hate to miss. The rest of the party were left behind to think what they might think, to feel what they might feel, to gather themselves at their own pace.
At 1:11 p.m. on Day 453, Fay paused to record the next datum: elephant dung, old. Then again, without speaking, he walked. A hard man, a savvy leader, a flouter of pieties, a solitary soul, a conscientious scientist, a fierce partisan of tropical forest, a keen judge of human limits, he had work to do—not much work remaining now, but some. He couldn't celebrate yet. He was still three days from the beach.
At 12:39 p.m. on December 18, 2000, J. Michael Fay and his support team broke through the forest onto the beach at the Atlantic Ocean. "Wow," he said. "Wow." Then, matter of-factly, "This is just where I wanted to come out." It was Day 456 of the 2,000-mile (3,218.7 kilometers) Megatransect, an exploration of historic proportions. We will return to the story in a future issue, to report about the wealth of biological information Fay collected and how it is being used—and to keep track of Mike Fay himself.
After months of imagining the ocean, Fay's crew reaches the beach at 12:39 p.m. on day 456 of the expedition. "Going to the Atlantic was as exotic for the Baka Pygmies as it would be for an American to go to Saturn," Fay says. Coaxed to the water's edge, Jean-Jacques dips in a finger to see if this gigantic river, as he calls it, is as salty as he has been told. Then he retreats to safer ground. "To the Pygmies a place without fresh water was a place where humans could not live. They didn't want anything to do with it."
Eyes perched high on stalks allow ghost crabs to watch for predators even while scuttling through sea foam. After several false starts at digging a nest, a six-foot-long leatherback turtle lays her eggs at midnight. Five of the world's seven species of sea turtles come to this remote coast, making it one of Africa's most important sea turtle nesting grounds.
As wild a beach as any in Africa, Gabon's Petit-Loango Reserve encompasses swamps, savanna, rain forest, and Atlantic beaches. Left undisturbed by humans, hippopotamuses venture into the surf to mate, play, or merely commute from lagoon to savanna, getting a lift from the buoying water rather than toiling on land.
As Sophiano does a victory flip, Fay is overwhelmed by the journey's end. "We had come so far, for so long. It had become a way of life," he says. Reluctant to leave the place he so loves, Fay lingered on the beach for days. "I would gladly have turned back and done it all again."