Saturday, December 25, 2004

We begin our journey

December 25, 2004
Glenside, Pa., USA
N 40.09243° W 75.16562° Elevation 306 feet. Temp: 24° F

While many Americans are relaxing at home this Christmas morning, I and my colleague Barbara Johnston of The Philadelphia Inquirer are gathering at a loading dock at Arcadia University in Glenside, a suburb north of Philadelphia. We’re here to meet Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, Arcadia professors who are leading a group of 32 volunteers, scientists and students on a three-week journey to Equatorial Guinea in Africa.

The expedition’s goal is to trek to a remote rainforest on Bioko island (about 20 miles off the coast of mainland Africa) to count endangered monkeys and sea turtles. The beach where we will be landing and the ancient volcano crater into which we will hike have one of the highest concentrations of primates in Africa. But the goal for the two Philadelphia academics is much more ambitious than counting animals – they’re committed to saving the animals from extinction on Bioko island, a place they have come to feel fondly about over the years.

The expedition’s immediate aim will be focused on counting several mammals and reptiles, one of which starkly symbolizes the peril of the wildlife on Bioko – a primate called the drill. Hearn calls the drill Africa’s most endangered monkey. It’s a magnificent creature -- the males weigh more than 50 pounds, and they have a striking face ringed by a gray beard and a bright red lower lip. They’re clever creatures and very elusive. Few photographs have been taken of them in the wild, partly because there are so few of them left to photograph. They’re being hunted relentlessly for food.

We’re meeting about a dozen of the team here at Arcadia. Some members of the expedition, including about 13 Equatoguineans, are already in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. Others will arrive from other parts of the world – California, Wisconsin, Washington, Spain. Today we’re packing up our camping gear and setting off by van to New York’s JFK airport, where we depart this evening for Madrid. Tomorrow we should be in Malabo. We’re departing on Christmas Day as a matter of convenience – cheap airfares are more plentiful, and this departure date coincides with Arcadia’s academic schedule. It’s also the dry season on Bioko, which is a critical issue – the rainforest to which we’re traveling gets more than 30 feet of rain a year. That’s an inch a day.

A few words about our ambitious journalistic plans. Barbara and I will be filing stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer every three or four days, starting tomorrow, Sunday Dec. 26. I have about eight stories sketched out in my mind, and spent recent weeks doing the background reporting for those stories. In addition to the newspaper reports, we’ll be filing daily updates on the expedition at the newspaper’s website, This link will take you directly to the series:

The wilderness is unwired, so we will have to carry in all the gear we need to transmit our stories. Barbara and I are each lugging a laptop. We're also carrying a portable satellite telephone whose flat antenna unfolds to about the size of newspaper’s front page -- it allows us to make a fairly high-speed connection for uploading photographs. Barbara is also hauling a 500 mm lens, one of those cannons you see propped up near the endzone of an NFL game.

Power is another issue. The expedition runs three camps from which it conducts the animal census. Each camp has a small gasoline generator to power the expedition’s satellite telephones, which they use to communicate among the camps and also in case of an emergency. We’re planning to plug our gear into those generators. An undertaking of this scale is also possible only because the expedition will employ about 20 porters to help haul our gear into the rainforest. They have their work cut out for them. My gear alone weighs more than 120 pounds (a lot of that is trail food).

I’ve done a lot of primitive camping, and I’ve also transmitted stories from remote places. But there are many aspects to this expedition that worry me. We won’t be hiking at very high altitudes – not much higher than 4,000 feet. And the porters will lighten our loads. But the area where we’re traveling can be very wet, which will be a problem for all the electronic gear we’re carrying. I have invested heavily in plastic containers and bags. I’m also taking about a pound and a half of silica gel, which I’ll roast periodically over a campfire to expel the moisture that it absorbs from our gear.

The ancient crater where we’ll be camped, the Gran Caldera de Luba, is covered with dense rainforest, so I’m not sure if we’ll get a clear satellite signal through the trees to upload our data. And managing our power will be critical. Between the computers, the satellite telephone, Barbara’s digital cameras, and the GPS, we will require our own little portable electrical power grid. We will carry a 12-volt lead-acid automobile battery as a backup power supply (I fear the porters will flee when they see my stuff). If we run low on gasoline or our equipment starts breaking down, we will go into Apollo 13 mode – shutting down equipment in order to conserve power. If we have to go silent on the Web site for a few days, bear with us. We’ll be back.

The aim of this blog is to provide some of the backstory to our work, an outlet for some of the things we observe and experience that won’t make it into the newspaper stories. It will be a little more conversational and informal than the newspaper stories. I spent six years living and working in Africa for the Inquirer, and I spent eight days in Equatorial Guinea at the beginning of December doing some background work for this series (mostly convincing suspicious officials of the sincerity of the newspaper’s mission). So I have an appreciation for some of the obstacles we will be encountering in the coming weeks. A large percentage of the work journalists do in the developing world is logistical – the paperwork, the police checks, the equipment breakages and the bedbugs. But sometimes the tales that emerge in the quest to get the story are as entertaining and revealing as the news story itself.

My interest in doing this is professional and personal. I think the newspaper business inevitably is moving towards a multimedia platform, so I’m grateful The Inquirer is willing to experiment with this format (wait ‘til they add up the expense reports!). I have the ulterior motive of getting out of Philadelphia in January, though we should be back in time to see the Eagles in the playoffs. I will get to travel to a dramatic setting that is usually closed off to outsiders. I’m sure we’ll meet some extraordinary people. I hope to see creatures in the wild that are rarely seen even in zoos – many of the Old World primates from Africa do not adapt well to captivity.

And I hope we can share much of what we experience with our readers. It’s also my desire that the stories provoke at least a moment’s reflection on how we live on Earth, the relationship between humans and animals, and the relationship of Americans and the people who occupy the rest of the planet.

Feel free to send your questions or comments to me and Barbara and the Arcadia team, and we’ll try to respond as long as the equipment holds up. For some background on the expedition, the best place to start is the Web site of Hearn and Morra’s project, the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program:
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