They walked across Africa. This is what they saw.
A photographer and a writer traveled Africa by foot in hopes of saving its glories.
The Last Place on Earth is a heavy book - literally and figuratively. Weighing in at thirteen pounds, it cannot be taken lightly. The contents chronicle one of the last wilderness rain forests in the world, showing us places we might believe exist only in our dreams.
National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols and ecologist/writer Mike Fay spent 456 days walking 2,000 miles across Africa. On their trek, they encountered gorillas, chimpanzees, and elephants - wild creatures dwelling so far from civilization that they didn't know humans as predators.
The result of this incredible, obsessive journey, through Central African Republic, Congo, and Gabon, is two beautifully packaged books (which are published by National Geographic and the Wildlife Conservation Society as a two-volume boxed set, $150.)
The first volume is a large, color collection of Nichols's photographs that includes previous work he did in the area over about a ten-year period.
The other is a smaller notebook-style journal with Nichols's black and white photos of Fay's expedition and his beloved "megatransect" - the vast swath of territory they crossed - seen with the porters and trackers who helped them with their travels. (The journey they undertook was extremely arduous. Sometimes the team had to bushwhack through brush, traveling only a few thousand yards in ten hours.)
Nichols's work goes beyond the beautiful wildlife photos we've come to expect from Africa. There is definitely incredible beauty, but it is wild and raw, active and alive.
The Pygmies and tribes who inhabit this forest are unaffected by outside culture, truly part of the ecosystem around them.
The images captured are sometimes humorous (surfing hippos, a frog completely covered in sand), but often tragic (a baby monkey grieves beside the body of its mother who was killed for food).
The photographs are presented without captions (all the information is in the back of the book) so one flips from page to page, moved only by the visuals of this teeming, throbbing, little-known world.
We owe these brave men a debt of gratitude. The project took a toll on them physically, mentally, and emotionally.
But they had a cherished goal in mind: to help save this pristine land.
Fay writes: "The singular focus was to show as many of the six billion people on this planet as possible that keeping some of this forest from the cut of a chainsaw is a worthwhile human sacrifice."
To some degree, they have already succeeded. The power of their collaboration in this book directly led to the creation of 13 national parks in Gabon where before there were none - saving 11 percent of the country's land from loggers, poachers, and hunters.
The price tag for the two-volume collection is high, but buyers will be pleased to know that proceeds from the sale of the book go toward Congo basin forest conservation.
This is a work that demands to be savored and enjoyed. Both the feat involved in creating this book and the artistic results it delivers are extraordinary.
• Melanie Stetson Freeman is a staff photographer.