On Assignment

On Assignment

Pressing to the End
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

zoom in

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>

Click to ZOOM IN >>


In the Home Stretch

Click to enlarge >>

By David Quammen Photographs by Michael Nichols

Blackwater swamps give way to hippos in the surf as ecologist J. Michael Fay reaches Gabon’s Atlantic coast, concluding his 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) survey of central Africa’s forest treasures.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

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 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 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, another 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.

Sights and Sounds
Retrace the steps of the 15-month-long Megatransect across Africa in this special multimedia presentation.

VIDEO Ecologist J. Michael Fay discusses the challenges of leading an expedition that pushed men to the breaking point. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Listen to the full interview with Michael Fay and photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols as they recount the highlights and hardships that drove them through the jungle.

How much of a nation’s forested land should be designated as protected areas compared with the amount leased for logging? Share your thoughts.

Online Extra
Ecologist J. Michael Fay puts out an urgent call to establish a national park in Gabon to protect a newly discovered clearing—and the wildlife that thrives there—from logging.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

What’s your definition of a “protected” forest? In the countries where Mike Fay has been working, even those forests labeled “protected” aren’t necessarily off-limits to loggers. Several logging concessions (government-issued permits to cut trees) are located within “protected” areas of Gabon, and logging is occurring in those areas today. But hope is on the horizon: The governments of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo have agreed to strive to designate 10 percent of their forests as national parks in which logging would not be allowed. Gabon currently has no national parks, but many areas are being evaluated. One proposal—based partly on data collected by the Megatransect project—has been submitted for the country’s first national park. Read more about it in Online Extra.

—Mary Jennings

Congo Trek
Follow Michael Fay and his team as they continue their arduous trek through the tropical forest to the coast of Gabon. Dispatches from the field include audio and video.

Megatransect I
Go back and relive the first leg of Mike Fay’s incredible journey in the October 2000 feature story, Megatransect.

Megatransect II
See the breathtaking photos from the Green Abyss and read about the many trials Mike Fay and his team faced in the tough middle section of the Megatransect in part two of the trilogy.

Wildlife Conservation Society
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, co-sponsor of the Megatransect, runs conservation projects in 52 countries.

Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)
The Worldwide Fund for Nature is one of the world’s largest independent organizations dedicated to the conservation of nature. WWF operates in over a hundred countries, supported by nearly five million people worldwide. Access the U.S. World Wildlife Fund website at

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants
This website reports on the efforts of CITES in measuring and recording current levels and trends of the illegal hunting of elephants in Africa and Asia.

African Mammals Databank
A geographic information systems (GIS) databank on the distribution and conservation of all the big and medium-sized mammals from across the African continent. It includes a total of 281 species belonging to 12 orders and 28 families.

Peace Corps
The Peace Corps places volunteers for two years in various countries throughout the world. The volunteers then live and work in the local community.


“A First Look at Logging in Gabon.” A report issued in 2000 by Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute. Available online at

McLynn, Frank. Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa. Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Van De Veen, Hans. “Fast Forward to Conservation or Take Time for Consultation: A Dilemma in Gabon’s Gamba Protected Areas Complex.” Worldwide Fund for Nature-DGIS-WWF Tropical Forest Portfolio, 2001.


Quammen, David. “Megatransect II: The Green Abyss,” National Geographic (March 2001), 2-37.

Nichols, Michael. “The Clearing,” National Geographic (March 2001), 38-45.

Quammen, David. “Megatransect: Across 1,200 Miles (1,900 Kilometers) of Untamed Africa on Foot,” National Geographic (October 2000), 2-29.

McRae, Michael. “Central Africa’s Orphan Gorillas: Will They Survive in the Wild?,” National Geographic (February 2000), 84-97.

Belt, Don. “Forest Elephants,” National Geographic (February 1999), 100-113.

Nichols, Michael. “Congo Masquerade,” National Geographic Adventure (Winter 1999), 118-120.

Brower, Kenneth, and others. National Geographic’s Last Wild Place. National Geographic Books, 1996.

Chadwick, Douglas H. “Ndoki Last Place on Earth,” National Geographic (July 1995), 2-45.


© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE HOME Contact Us Forums Subscribe Contact Us Forums Subscribe