National Geographic : 2005 Sep
sands fall. The dunes rise, some up to 900 feet. And here they linger, bunched and tall, majes tic and delicate and dynamic, continually slid ing away and continually rebuilt. With his stylus, Fay taps a laconic note into his lap Tablet: "mountains of luscious sand." His vertical photos will say that and more. Mario drops one wing, and we circle out over the desert. Gaping back, we see the dunes with their shadows and edges in bright silhouette be fore the mountains. Light against dark, smooth against jagged, from this angle they seem to be pouring down slowly from the highlands like a glacier of sand. We circle again. Three separate GPS units-two for Fay's system, one for the plane-trace our loop. The door camera goes click click click. With a second camera, at the opened window, Fay takes handheld shots. Des ert wind fills the cockpit. And I begin, when Ascani isn't jabbing my ribs, to shape an inchoate thought: mountains of sand, mountains of data. Metaphor is unscientific, I know, but then again I'm not a scientist. differences in mode of travel and geographic reach, the Megaflyover has a similar purpose: to gather abundant, incremental, and systematized data on the state of wild landscapes and the trends of human-caused transformation. Fay's motive isn't idle curiosity. His aerial enterprise is closely linked with-and to some extent in spired by-a major initiative of the Wildlife Conservation Society, known as the Human Footprint project. That project, which involves an ambitious program of multidimensional mapping to show gradients of wildness and human impacts around the world, is intended to help WCS target conservation efforts. Fay himself, a restless individualist with a surpris ingly good nose for politics, wants nothing less than to change the way the world perceives and uses ecosystems and natural resources-start ing with perceptions in Washington, D.C. The ultimate goal of his Africa Megaflyover, he says, is to convince "the powers that be, in particular the U.S. Congress," that integrating natural resource management into American foreign Of course Africa isn't a place; it's a million places. Its Here we have nothing but tiny particles, assembled by a persistent force, yet the collec tive effect is momentous and grand. As for Fay? He's trying to create his own Arakao. TODAY IS OUR TENTH DAY of survey flying in Niger, and the 187th day since Fay and his chief pilot, Peter Ragg, departed from an airfield in South Africa on this latest breakneck adven ture in ecological reconnaissance, loosely labeled the Megaflyover, for its parallels with Fay's Mega transect. (See October 2000, March 2001, and August 2001.) No, the jungle boy hasn't gone soft. Traveling by bush plane rather than on foot, covering hundreds of miles a day rather than half a dozen, sitting dry in the sky rather than slogging through blackwater swamps and thorny thickets, doesn't actually represent a change toward safety and comfort. It merely adds scope. Whereas the Megatransect was a single long hike across some of the wildest remaining for ests of central Africa, the Megaflyover is a zig zaggy marathon of low-altitude flights tracing cloverleaf patterns FREE ON over much of the continent, from magazine's I Cape Town to Tangier. Despite the stories at ng 20 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . SEPTEMBER 2005 IL Me im. policy is "a very, very smart thing to do. And a good investment." Wherever humans live at high population densities, making unsustainable demands on natural systems, he notes, you eventually see eco logical breakdown, unmet needs, and tensions that lead toward conflict. Look at Darfur. Look at Rwanda. Look at Zimbabwe. Get beyond the headlines, beyond the tribal and racial animos ities, to the resource disputes that underlie them. He's a collector of small facts who likes to think big, and his current line of thinking involves the strategic security issues inextricably linked with water, soil, mineral deposits, flora, fauna, and ecological health. To that end, he conceived the Megaflyover. As a pilot himself, he recognized the value of low-altitude flying to illuminate the realities of land use. A bush plane shows you patterns you'll never perceive from the ground, while allowing flexibly targeted coverage ("Let's circle that spot again") and the capture of fine details you can't get from a satellite. A modi fied Cessna 182 was the logical tool. INE Find the Africa, the continent he knows and gatransect loves best after 25 years of working com/africa. there, was the logical place.