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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Radio Expeditions

Air Date: Week of

NPR’s Alex Chadwick reports on wildlife biologist Mike Fay’s extraordinary trek across the northern part of Africa’s Congo Basin.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Wildlife biologist Mike Fay has undertaken a year-long trek across the northern part of the Congo Basin, a journey he calls the Megatransect. In a few months he'll emerge from the forest onto the Atlantic beaches of Gabon. Mike Fay is walking through parts of Africa that are among the least explored places on the planet. He's documenting some of his encounters on a field recorder for National Geographic Radio Expeditions. Many of these recordings were made late at night in a very noisy jungle, so you'll have to listen closely. Here's NPR's Alex Chadwick.

(Night sounds)

CHADWICK: An excerpt from Mike Fay's audio journal.

FAY: Today is the sixteenth of January, the year 2000, in what I call, today, the swamp.

CHADWICK: These are late night notes talked into a microphone after another long day's walk.

FAY: We crossed a doozie of a swamp today, without a doubt the most unpleasant swamp we've crossed since the beginning of the trip.

CHADWICK: And these are Mike Fay's tapes. I didn't get to go with him to Central Africa, and maybe that's a good thing.

FAY: It's very slow going. It's excruciatingly slow. And once in a while, you're up to your knee at best and up to your thigh, deep thigh at worst, in this muck, a chocolate pudding. You pull your leg out and it just kind of oozes up and leaves about a centimeter-thick coat of this goo on your leg. And you carry on.

CHADWICK: He's on a conservation trek -- he calls it the Megatransect -- to observe everything he can in the great wilderness in the center of Africa.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: He's got a dozen pygmy helpers, a computer, video camera, tape recorder, sophisticated navigating gear. But here's an old piece of forest lore, even more useful in an African swamp. National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols is walking parts of the Megatransect, and we spoke a couple of weeks ago at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

NICHOLS: When I first started with Mike five or ten years ago, we would follow an elephant trail into a swamp. And then we would lose him. We'd end up just having a hellish time getting through the swamp. If you really can stick with it, the elephant's going to find you the easiest route through that swamp, and he's going to find a hard bottom, instead of you walking off into some goop that you disappear into.

CHADWICK: Can you follow an elephant now in a swamp?

NICHOLS: I can if I'm walking behind Mike. (Laughs)


CHADWICK: Dr. Fay spent more than a year plotting the course of his Megatransect, beginning at the edge of the Congo Basin at the southern tip of the Central African Republic. The route runs west from there, through the Republic of Congo and Cameroon and Gabon, across tens of thousands of miles. Much of it still uninhabited and unexplored. Photographer Nick Nichols.

(Buzzing wildlife)

NICHOLS: And I'm seeing the whole planet. I mean, I've been doing this travel for 25 years. There's no place that I know that we should focus on harder. This is huge forest that the elephants and chimps and gorillas can really be what they were and what they are, because they've still got enough space. We get out there and we're really on uneven terms where the elephants are in charge, and that's what you have out there.

CHADWICK: The Megatransect is meant to get a record of the region. Scientists and conservationists and African governments aren't sure what's there, because the terrain is so forbidding there's no record of anyone attempting such a trek. We're rejoining Mike Fay's audio journal now.

FAY: I hate to make allusion to war once again, but as the captain out here I keep pushing trips to do extraordinary things, which we did today.

CHADWICK: In the first months they cover hundreds of kilometers. Most days Mike Fay walking far in front of the group, a single pygmy with him. Then in January, they hit dense vegetation they must chop through with machetes.

(Footfalls through heavy brush and chopping)

FAY: The black ants are terrible, biting, pouring onto you from tasia leaves all day long. It's definitely wearing on me mentally, but I try not to show it. The seams are cracking.

CHADWICK: They call this area the green abyss. They are in it for months. Sometimes they struggle to make two miles a day.

FAY: The point man certainly sees my temper, but the troops in general don't. So I think that's okay. But I'd certainly like to have some nice forest for once, I'll tell you that.

(Monkeys scream)

CHADWICK: They can't reach the next supply point on schedule. It's harder to find streams and springs at the end of the day. One night, Mike Fay describes ladling water that looks like dirty milk from the bottom of an elephant wallow.

FAY: If it was tea, it would be great. If it was coffee, just a little bit too weak. But as far as pure drinking water, we're talking something we probably wouldn't even wash our feet in usually.

(Animal screams)

CHADWICK: But drink it they do. And they survive, and they do cross the green abyss at last. And enter the land of forest and rivers again. Sometimes there are logging camps. And downstream, a day or two away, distant towns. More data.

FAY: The transitions you see, the interface between the human and the wildlife zones, the large trees, the density of gorillas, the mokede vegetation, the logging wave coming from the south. It's all reading like a book.

CHADWICK: They find unexpected fields, terraced long ago. Remnant evidence of villages disappeared. Mike Fay believes people once did live in parts of this region, until the slave trade. This land is Joseph Conrad's heart of darkness, and it's becoming Michael Fay's, too.

(Animal calls)

FAY: I just don't want to go outside. I want to stay inside the forest. I don't want to see places where people sell things and people are wheeling and dealing in the middle of a beautiful tropical forest.

CHADWICK: Photographer Nick Nichols.

NICHOLS: Last time I saw him, he was in this depth of paranoia about maybe not making it, because something was going to go wrong. I'm like, what could go wrong after all he's been through?


FAY: As I walk and I walk and I walk, I want more. I want to get deeper. I want to get further in and I can't. I can only get as far as I've gone, and it's not enough.

(Animal calls)

NICHOLS: But if you go back to the ancient Africa expeditions, the forest is what always got these guys. They just killed them off with all the diseases. And I mean, particularly like Ebola, the big block he just went through harbors the Ebola virus. So, there's bad stuff out there. But this guy, in particular, just goes through it.

CHADWICK: Nick Nichols on the perils of the Megatransect. For Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

(Jungle sounds fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our story on the Megatransect was produced by Van Williamson. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR news and the National Geographic Society.



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