Mike Fay had been walking across Africa for 408 days. He was still six weeks' walk away from the end of his trip, the food had run out and his entire team believed they were going to die of starvation. "The team was a combination of despondent, defiant, blameful, idiotic, and selfish – but all kind of dull," he wrote in his diary. He believed that the 11-strong crew had been staying in camp each morning and eating extra rations after he and his path-clearer had left. As a result, they had no more food.
Dr Mike Fay is a biologist working for the Wildlife Conservation Society based in New York. On 18 December 2000, he completed a 2,000-mile walk across Africa, which he called the Megatransect. During this time he became a walking, talking, filming, sampling machine, collecting data continuously from 6am until he and his team of pygmies made camp in the evening. Twice a week he conducted a night survey, too. As he walked, a GPS device recorded his longitude and latitude, and a coil of string wound out behind him, attached to a Fieldranger that noted how far had walked.
Each Fieldranger has a spool of string 3.7km long; had they all remained in place, 2,000 miles of bits of string would have stretched across Africa from the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic where he started, to the Atlantic coast of Gabon. The Megatransect was an attempt to chronicle the last undeveloped region in Africa, taking a snapshot of a land awaiting transformation at the hands of logging companies.
What saved him and his crew on the 408th day was the sighting of a dug-out canoe with a motorboard. They hailed the owner, who took one of the team, Jean-Claude, upriver to the nearest village and brought him back with supplies. While they waited for Jean-Claude to return, they found honey and ate it in chunks, like steak. Hunger was but one of the hardships they encountered.
A typical ecological transect, where scientists sample the flora and fauna of a region, runs in a straight line. Dr Fay planned to take the path of least resistance, his one stipulation being that he would keep walking and recording data in an unbroken track. However, this is not as easy as it sounds; the team waded through swamps, swam rivers, climbed mountains, suffered from malaria, hepatitis, fever, and were torn by thorny plants, charged by elephants, attacked by worms, voracious leeches and parasites.
At one time, they hacked their way through what Dr Fay labelled "the Green Abyss", a virtually impenetrable thicket of vegetation stretching west from a river for what seemed an interminable distance. Mambeleme, his path-clearer at the time, went first and hacked a tunnel for him. For some days, they walked just 60 paces in an hour. In some 10-hour days, they travelled for less than a mile. In the evenings they had to cut out spaces for their tents. This went on for 10 weeks. His first team of pygmy porters, cook, path-clearer, and scientific assistants left him less than halfway through the walk. Not one of them said goodbye.
Dr Fay is a man of contradictions and ambiguities. Dedicated, passionate, single-minded, stubborn, monomaniacal, obsessive, a man skilled at hiding his emotions, capable of one minute cajoling, the next reading the riot act to his team, a friend who can be funny, but can push other people and himself to their limits; an ecologist who likes reading books on the Vietnam war, a lover of orchids and a hater of bottle-blondes, a pragmatic idealist, a man possessed of something more than mortal determination.
His dispatches to the National Geographic Society, which partly funded the transect, became less frequent and more desperate towards the end. How did he manage to keep going? "It's like studying maths every day for two years, and then suddenly you realise the power of calculus," he says.
"It's a thing of extreme beauty. Every day you become more intimate with it, every day is more of an adventure." He says he did not prepare either mentally or physically; he never had a low point, never considered giving up, though he admits in his diary to "losing it" when he screamed at a mountain he had to climb. What did get him down, he says, was the health of his crew. Most of them had ailments before they even embarked on the trek. "In the forest, a simple thing like a rotten tooth risks blood-poisoning. I got tired of looking after 12 people, caring for them, feeding them, housing them, being entirely responsible for their well-being."
Mike Fay was born in 1957 and grew up in Pasadena, California. Pasadena in the Sixties was polluted, but behind his house was a forest. There was no one thing that made him become such a passionate ecologist, it was just the 180-degree turn away from the urban sprawl towards the wilderness that excited him. Although his first love is botany, he did his PhD on lowland gorillas at the Botanical Gardens in St Louis, Missouri.
It was his experience in what has now become one of two national parks he helped to create, Nouabalé-Ndoki, six years in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, and extensive field research in Gabon, that enabled him to perfect the data-collection system he currently uses.
"Every step of the way, I took notes, filmed, made audio-recordings, took photographs. I recorded every dung pile, every monkey, every major tree, every trail." The data was combined with aerial photos of the region, plus soil samples. The transect was carefully designed to pass in and out of differing levels of human influence so that, in the past few months, he and his colleagues at the Conservation Centre have been able to calibrate how humans are affecting Africa's last remaining wilderness. "It's natural history-type data, but it's the software that makes it powerful. We're empirically coming up with startling results; it's bringing us to a new place in terms of understanding."
Humans in the forest were categorised in two ways, either by influence – their distribution – or impact – how they used the forest, by hunting and logging, for instance. What is clear from the data already is the huge effect we have. Elephant density decreases rapidly as soon as there is any contact with people, and this applies to many other species. Dr Fay admits his technique, "is not high-tech scientifically, and it doesn't follow what statistical science says will work. But it's a whole new way of looking at wild animals and humans in an elegant, simple way".
When I ask what was the best experience he had, he says: "That trip had so many highlights. I'll never be the same." But he cites finding Langoué as the most remarkable. This was a region in the heart of Gabon where quite possibly no humans had ever been before. The gorillas were so tame, they sat metres away; the elephants were gigantic, with 3m-long tusks; the rivers had never been fished, and the forest itself was, he says, exquisite.
"This place is off the charts, it's too special." And this is the trouble. The entire area has already been carved up and logging rights assigned to 10 companies, mostly European. In other areas they have decimated the forest, harvesting the wood unsustainably; wildlife streams out, the locals kill whatever moves and sell the meat.
Dr Fay is campaigning to turn the area into a 600,000-acre national park. He needs to persuade the Gabonese government, and he needs to raise $3.5m (£2.3m) to buy the rights back from the logging companies. It works out at £4 an acre. It hardly seems much for what is after all one of the most unique and untouched places on earth, and which we would have logged, never knowing what we had lost if one man had not been both brave and bold enough to walk through one of the remotest regions on earth.Reuse content