Published: March 2007
Michael Nichols


I can't remember a story in which I absolutely had to have a certain picture. Anyway, this was one. I needed a photo of a large herd of elephants, and I had that picture in my mind. I'd been plugging away at this for some time with Luis Arranz, my pilot and guide, never quite getting it. Then Mike Fay, who'd been scouting for us with his faster airplane, gave us the GPS points for an especially large herd of 800 south of the park. But what was especially satisfying about getting the shot was the magic of digital photography. Normally, I'd have to wait until the film was developed to see the results. This time, I was able to see the results at once and share it with Luis, whose opinion I respect greatly. So I got immediate feedback and gratification. Once I had that picture, I knew that everything else would be gravy.


I was with Luis Arranz, a conservationist who knows Zakouma like the back of his hand, and we'd just set out in his tiny plane to track a huge herd of elephants that was forming way south of the park. We'd foolishly taken off in very threatening weather, thinking it was moving north. But it wasn't, and a short while into the air we looked back and saw the storm coming straight at us, much faster than our slow little plane. We could have landed then and there, but we didn't have enough water, and you can die without water in this country. So Luis decided to turn around and fly back. But the storm beat us to the airstrip and was battering our little plane so violently that it seemed to be coming apart. I thought, We're dead, and Luis said, "We're not gonna make it." But miraculously, he was able to maneuver the plane for a crash landing in a clearing of scrub and brush. As soon as he put it on the ground, the plane came to a stop—in one piece. We looked at each other and then touched each other. I said, "I love you." And then we hugged. It took four hours for the rescue team to find us.

The next day, Luis said: "Nick, if you're gonna fly with me anymore, then you'll have to do it tomorrow. It's like getting back on the horse that's just thrown you." I'm thinking, Wait a minute. That plane was almost destroyed. But it wasn't. And sure enough, the next day we were back in the air, in Luis's scrappy little plane.


I'd set up some camera traps behind the house near the park that we were using as our headquarters. I did it just for fun, and almost everything the cameras captured was quirky. You can see some of it in the sidebar to our Zakouma story.

One day, when we were returning to check our email, I was rewarded with the pictures of a baboon who'd photographed himself looking smack into the camera. We started calling this little fellow George Bush. Well, I mean no disrespect. But the photos of this baboon did indeed look like the famous caricatures of our President—you know, the ones with the big stand-up ears! They were hilariously funny.