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Extreme Africa: A Trek Through the Heart of Darkness


"This may well be the most beautiful place on Earth," wrote conservationist J. Michael Fay from the central African forest.

Fay was not just a casual observer of the landscape—he immersed himself in it. On September 20, 1999, Fay and ten Bambendjelle Pygmy assistants walked 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across Africa, from the deep jungles of the Congo to the beaches of Gabon.

Conservationist Michael Fay
Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Society

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The walk traversed forest uninhabited for more than a hundred years. The land presented a unique research opportunity to Fay: a chance to see animals virtually unaffected by human activity.

"There are amazing things in that block [of forest]," said Fay. "Things that people think are already gone."

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"I dream every day of walking 1,000 miles into a place that has no human beings. I crave only for deeper, wilder forest."

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Before his walk through Africa, Fay published works ranging from research of exotic orchids to studies of forest elephants. His doctoral thesis was based on field research of lowland gorillas.

The trek, which Fay calls the "megatransect," was the ultimate field-researched thesis: It was a journey to see the last bit of undisturbed forest in Africa, a forest as hostile as it is beautiful.

To survey the forest, Fay didn't just stroll 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) through the woods. His route was carefully plotted before he left and followed using a wrist compass and a portable Global Positioning System (GPS). The path he chose cut through 13 connected forests that constitute the largest area of wild land remaining in central Africa.

"This trip really was a very difficult thing," conceded Fay. After a few months on the trail, "we realized we had certainly bitten off more than we can chew."

In addition to his local guides, Fay had decades of experience in Africa's forest to rely on. After completing his doctorate, he returned to Africa where he surveyed the land and later became director of a national park project for the Republic of Congo.

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"Maybe I have been out here too long, but I can no longer look at the forest like some kind of giant supermarket."

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Fay's diary includes stories of close encounters with animals, near-starvation, and disease. Despite these wild tales from the trail, Fay's trek was not made for the adventure. He is no adrenaline junkie.

Instead, the journey was primarily one of exploration and documentation. Fay recorded his encounters with wildlife—from charging elephants to the density of bongo dung—in 87 waterproof notebooks. He also documented his trek on digital video and in photographs.

The trek was a timely one. According to Washington, D.C.'s World Resource Institute, only 34 percent of Africa's tropical forest remains, and logging is moving closer and closer to the areas traversed by Fay.

"There is a land rush going on in central Africa," said Fay in a 1998 statement to the U.S. Congress. "This land rush will lead to greater environmental change in the large African forest block in the next ten years than has occurred in the last 2,000 years."

By documenting the near-pristine wilderness of central Africa, Fay said he hopes to convince the world of the importance of preserving this region. "For me the goal is [preserving] ten percent in national parks by the end of 2005," said Fay.

Learn more about the Megatransect by reading National Geographic magazine, visiting nationalgeographic.com's Congo Trek, and watching Africa Extreme on Sunday, March 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.

Beginning on Friday, March 16 at 5 p.m., join the Voices of Africa Extreme forum at this URL and have your say about African conservation.



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