e called it “The Doctor’s House” only because someone said that a doctor had lived there. Yet the structure had been shuttered for many years, decades even, and there was no way of saying whom it belonged to now. I’d assumed that this absent doctor had been French because the architecture of the house was French colonial, with its hipped roof of corrugated iron, the stately veranda framed by columns, and stairs that led to a set of big red doors. The exterior walls were a faded canary yellow. Swatches of its plaster were falling off, and a bromeliad was growing from one of these patches of missing pigment, suggesting a process already in advanced stages among area homes—namely that the jungle was slowly taking them back.
The second reason I assumed that the doctor had been French was simply because he was not there. In the side yard on blocks was a white 1980s Chevy Suburban with big letters on its rear doors that read, Ambulance. The vintage of the wrecked ambulance was important to note, because its model year aligned with the age of just about everything mechanical in town: the mid-’80s, when the French logging company that ran the show figured it had felled all of the great trees in this part of the country and packed up and left. The immediacy of the departure gave the villa a suspended feeling, like an exotic species of insect floating in amber. Roads paved in the ’80s lay like spooling, moth-eaten parchments that drivers preferred to drive around, or next to, but rarely on. The bank, permanently closed, had never made it to the age of cash machines. The airport outside of town was a breezy, provincial development that reminded me of similarly small, but bustling, airports of the South Pacific. Yet this one was completely abandoned. You could walk behind the ticket counter and write your own fare. You could hike up flights of stairs to the control tower and observe the forested hills, the agitated equatorial Atlantic, and the swaying palms lining a white beach that ran all the way into the Congo.
The doctor’s house had become important to us visitors—had caused me to study it and even think through the healer’s backstory—because every day we stood under the tree canopy in front and we watched swell rifle at an exacting angle down the beach below. The shape of these tiny runners was hypnotic and drew us to watch two, three times a day. And we’d begun to call the actual break The Doctor’s House as well. We knew in our hearts that, one day, we’d be tickling the roofs of perfect barreling tubes there. And at the thought of it, the very words “doctor’s house” became synonymous with seeking and finding.
I’d contracted mine from a friend, George Puder, who’d joined the Peace Corps in the 1990s and was stationed in a remote Gabonese village. He brought a surfboard with him. A villager thought the board was a satellite dish the volunteer had come to install, possibly for the purpose of relaying spy information, but Peace Corps officials were not pleased with Puder’s personal item, because they knew what he’d be doing with it. The volunteer’s mandate was to build a schoolhouse, and to this end he was given a truck that he used to explore the coast. Along with culture shock, Puder returned with stories of setting his flashlight on nighttime tree canopies only to illuminate dozens of primate eyeballs staring right back at him. There were hippos that blew out of river mouths and circled back in the surf and sauntered right onto the beach. And, if he were to believe the villagers, there were mermaids in the ocean who would pull a swimmer under. I’d been wanting to see these things ever since.
There is a video clip buried somewhere on the official Gabonese Embassy website that describes the small West African nation as having once occupied the center of the ancient supercontinent, Pangea. An embassy spokesman cites the shape of sub-Saharan Africa and how it appears to be missing a corner of itself, a corner that quite obviously resembles the horn of Brazil jutting into the Atlantic. Expel the ocean, and the two masses fit together.
The idea is a romantic one, but what Gabon is now is still central to a lot of notions: untouched wilderness, the last stand of certain species, the last outpost of languages and cultures. Few understand this better than the American conservationist behind the MegaTransect. Having survived a few sticky situations during the war in Congo, he came to the conclusion that if he simply decided to do something, he could do anything at all. And what he wanted to do was walk 2,500 miles from the interior of Africa all the way to the sea. Setting out in 1999, along with a team of Pygmy porters, the conservationist entered “a domain where people had never ventured.” At one point a chimpanzee, a creature normally alarmed at the sight of its traditional hunters, approached the team and observed from a short distance without hesitancy or fear. “All that is human became minuscule, ridiculous,” the conservationist later wrote. The team emerged from the forest 456 days after the start at Gabon’s Petit Loango, where jungle laps up onto a beach visited by elephants, upon an ocean rife with whales. The MegaTransect became world famous and directly led to the establishment of 13 national parks, about 10 percent of Gabon’s landmass.
e arrived in Libreville on the nation’s independence day, which occasioned a dance-party weekend of music blown through tin-cup speakers on the beach and in roadside shacks where crates of empty beer and palm wine bottles spilled into the streets. For such a well-traveled group, this arrival date was a regrettable rookie mistake. Shops were depleted, restaurants unattended. Banks were closed. The airport cash machine didn’t accept our cards. All of this meant that we’d joined the independence party empty-handed and broke. Luckily, our cinematographer, Alex Laurel, had actually lived in Gabon’s Port-Gentil as a kid, and his older brother, Tim, still lived in the capital. Tim met us at the airport and, understanding the situation, brought a cooler of food. Tim also led us through Libreville’s crazed streets and pointed us in the direction of Mayumba, 12 hours to the south, where there was said to be amenities like a bank, a post office, a Western Union, and even an airport.
We made an important friend, or possibly a spirit guide, on the first lap of the Mayumba. Destin struck a dashing figure in blue patent-leather shoes and matching blue shirt. He said he’d never practiced English with native speakers, but it hardly mattered. Destin’s language was in his shoulders, arms, and hands. And we followed him like we would have the Pied Piper to our eventual campsite in front of what looked to be a failed hotel, and to the Mauritanian’s shop for choice tinned foods, and to meet the mayor in his office on the hill. It was on this visit to pay our respects that we first glimpsed Mayumba’s main point and its gentle gravitational pull on swell out of the southern Atlantic, the way it had of wheeling those bands of energy around its broad finger of sand. These waves didn’t stop where point waves often do, but continued to rake along the coast in various forms until they arrived at a state of refinement in front of the doctor’s yellow house, where, mostly, their perfection spooled along much too small to ride.
The bifurcated nature of the serviceable main point and the deceptive waves at the bottom inspired a regular commute in us visitors. It took us from camp to the doctor’s house, back through town, where we looked for food, past the closed bank and Western Union, and then to the point midway between, where we surfed all day and hung out with a gang of kids who raced their homemade cars up and down the beach. Our return was the exact reverse. The townspeople became familiar, they waved, they called us les blancs, the whites. Our vehicle for this expedition may have given us entrée. It was a silver Mazda 4x4 pickup with a matching shell and giant orange-and-black logos on the hood and sides that read “Planet Energy Drink”—a type of go-go juice. Acero had struck up an online friendship with the owner of the Mazda, and they negotiated the trade of a surfboard for its use. The team vehicle turned out to be perfect in almost every way. The logos were surefire conversation starters. Its wear disguised us from appearing as the hapless tourists we were. The windows worked, the locks locked, and it was roomy enough. There was just one major drawback: a horn that bleated from whines to whistles at any time at all, and at a rate that increased over the course of our travels.
asically, I am a hero in this town,” Destin said. We stood in the center of Mayumba, among its many threadbare shops. Some were utter holes, some sold peanuts and these chalky rocks that kids chewed on. Destin now wore red leather shoes, jeans, and a red shirt. I was befuddled with his ability to match his shoes with a fresh shirt day in and day out. We looked like people who lived on a beach somewhere, which I guess we were.
“The hero? Of the whole town?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s because I am like you,” he said. “I am like the white man.”
This confused me, but my mind was weak at the moment. We’d been eating mush for breakfast. Dinner was either spaghetti noodles or rice with canned beans. Both meals were cooked over a rebar grill that I’d found in some beach trash. Lunch, as Dane Gudauskas put it, was the thought of dinner—just the anticipation of it. We hadn’t had any protein or fresh fruit, other than all the coconuts we could pull out of the trees, and so we’d stopped in town because one of us believed that oranges could be found. As the others set out on foot, Gudauskas and I stayed with the Mazda.
“You see, I don’t believe in all of this black-magic shit, eh?” Destin continued. And with his hands poised to deliver the story as if it were a melon, he explained how his “baby” used to be the local witch doctor’s “baby,” and the new relationship made the witch doctor very angry with Destin. His friends warned him to watch out, that the witch doctor would “broke his dick,” or, worse, he might kill Destin with a spell. The dispute came to a head one day on the beach as several men had gathered to play soccer. The witch doctor allegedly approached Destin, and, anticipating an attack, Destin swung at his rival. The blow connected. The man crumbled to the sand. He told the man that no magic could separate him from his baby.
“You see, this is why everybody around here says that I am the hero,” Destin nodded, spreading his hands to indicate the whole of Mayumba. Destin was the guy who knocked out the witch doctor. He was a badass.
The rest of the crew returned and glumly began packing themselves into the Mazda. I saw that their hands were empty.
“We’re out of money?” I asked.
The little currency we were able to trade was used collectively. At one point, we all stood around an ugly sweet potato, set on a street vendor’s table, and we debated the merits of making this particular purchase.
“No,” said our photographer, Grant Ellis. “We have some money.”
“Where are the oranges?” I asked.
“There are no oranges,” he replied.
As we lost weight, it became easier for us to fit into the Mazda.
Something struck me on this drive through town, however. At first, I’d assumed that the elevated state of attire among the general population had to do with the Independence celebration. Not just Destin, but almost every adult dressed with care and attention to detail, and the nuances only seemed to deepen. Some men wore the traditional suits of bright patterned fabric, and women wore equally exotic dresses. The tailor who made these items in an open, barn-like shack seemed to be hustling to keep up. But many others sported a wide range of styles, each outfit curated to produce a specific look. There was a guy with a flat-top who wore black Buddy Holly eyeglasses, a V-neck sweater and skinny jeans. He looked like he was headed for the L train. Another man rocked a bleached Mohawk and sleeveless T-shirt. There were haute couture sunglasses, scarves, leather jackets. People strutted and waved.
“The fashion,” I muttered.
“I know,” said Gudauskas.
There were New Era baseball caps, chain wallets, and high-tops. “And we can’t even buy an orange,” I said.
“I know,” replied Gudauskas.
Closing on a group of people at the side of the road, I prepared to wave and offer a “Bonjour.” But just then the Planet Energy mobile began to honk as if it was suffering an epileptic fit. The stylish youths looked up and stared. I lowered my head. “We are freaks in this town,” I said.
“Yeah.” Gudauskas turned and waved. “Isn’t it great?”
he surreal shape of the waves breaking below the doctor’s house created a kind of masking effect. It was nearly impossible to tell how big these waves were. It was obvious that the swell we’d been waiting for had arrived, and still, I idled on the beach as Acero and Gudauskas readied themselves and paddled out.
A tall man in a blue uniform approached Laurel, who was setting up his camera. They chatted and Laurel waved the man in my direction. He seemed official, this guy, and my high school French was awful, but I understood when the man told me that he worked as the conservator of the nearby national park. Waiting at his house, he said, was an American whom the conservator thought I should talk to. And so I found myself walking down the beach toward a small collection of houses. One of them was just four walls, with a large tree growing through its center. The feeling of making your way to a stranger’s house at the edge of the jungle was both unsettling and familiar. It was the sensation of having lost sight of shore, and having forgotten the reason for setting sail in the first place.
We passed a fisherman’s house, piled high with traps and floats, and crossed an empty lot to a small, brown place. The back porch faced the ocean. On it sat a white man with graying hair. He wore eyeglasses and a mountain climber’s jacket. An open paperback rested under his hand. I didn’t know why I was there, or who the man was, so I introduced myself. I said that we’d come to Gabon to look for waves.
“Oh,” he said, apparently gauging my accent. “Everyone thinks that you guys are Germans.” I wondered if it was the honking that created this impression, or the awkwardly standing around making group decisions on the purchase of a potato. The man offered me a seat. The conservator sat back into a chair a few feet away, and settled in, as if to watch something interesting. The white man said his name was Mike Fay, which sounded unfamiliar at the time. His plane was parked down at the airport. He said he’d been waiting two days for the cloud cover to clear so he could take off.
His manner was so austere, I thought he might be a corporate mercenary, or some other kind of extra-legal agent. “What type of work do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a conservationist,” he said.
“What does that entail?” I asked.
He said, “Cracking heads, mostly.”
At that moment, waves that had started peeling at The Doctor’s House were now, half a mile down the beach, running past the porch like the lonely leaders in a quiet city’s marathon. The swell was growing.
I mentioned that my group had wanted to see gorillas, and Fay jotted down information that would lead us to their forest reserve. With nothing more to add, I said my goodbyes. The conservator looked disappointed. Something had been missed. And, walking away with the slip of paper in my hand, I thought for a moment that maybe Fay really was an environmentalist, but then again, probably not.
“Who did you meet?” asked Ellis when I found him on the beach.
“I don’t know, some kind of CIA agent,” I said.
“American? What did he say his name was?”
“Mike Fay,” I said.
“Oh,” Ellis said. “The explorer.”
In fact, Fay was sometimes referred to as the “greatest living explorer.” He was the guy who walked 456 days through the jungle, whose work led to the establishment of Gabon’s national-park system. He was the guy who put Gabon on the map.
he day before we left town, Destin gave us a pumpkin. I thought it was one of the most considerate gifts I’d ever received. We wrapped the squash in foil and placed it under coals. We perched on broken plastic chairs that belonged to the failing hotel we camped in front of, and we hunkered over a blaze of coconut husks.
“I don’t think there are many more left,” Acero said.
I didn’t have to ask what he meant; Acero was always thinking about undiscovered waves. “People have been saying that for a long time,” I said.
“No, really,” Acero asserted. The beach fronting our camp, shrouded by palms and swollen with sand, met an ocean that would not stop pitching shapely waves. There was no one out. “We’re close. It’s almost over.”
At sundown, Destin returned with his baby and their friend Carol. We listened as the ladies conversed in an elegant French patois, then Laurel translated. The story concerned a local woman who had gone into labor, but, preceding the expected child, a large snake slithered out. As the ladies calmly discussed the implications of this event, I marveled at how easily a conversation could turn in this direction. Then Destin’s baby lightened the mood by sharing the “dick pics” she’d downloaded on her cell phone with the very last of her credits. We met this crew again the next morning in front of the Mauritanian’s shop, and the salutations and bon voyage were extended into a hangout. I stood with Destin next to his car. A kid in an orange shirt rolled a tire down the center of the road. The tailor was busy at his sewing machine across the square. “Next time you come here,” Destin said, waving his hands as if to pat down the dust, “this will all be buildings and…industry.”
The government planned to turn Mayumba into a large petroleum hub, he said. Oil pipelines would run from offshore sources right up onto the beach that held the point. The back bay would become a port. Destin seemed all for this progress. I noticed the rear door of Destin’s vehicle ajar. I thought I’d do him the favor of shutting it, but looked in beforehand. That’s when I spotted a creepy mask. I pulled it out. “What’s this?” I asked.
“I am making something with it,” he said.
I asked him to put it on. What looked like the witch doctor’s mask fit Destin like a glove.
Not long after we’d crossed the bridge out of town, we struck fresh black pavement. We’d literally rolled into town on a three-hour dirt road, and we were leaving on a paved one. We started to come upon the logging trucks loaded with the trunks of ancient okoume trees. Gutted and splayed on roadside sticks hung fresh bush meat. If a carcass looked tasty, you could pull over and barter for a bongo, monkey, snake, wild hog, or alligator. Sometime later, I’d learn that after Mike Fay’s great success in lobbying for Gabon’s national-park system, the pit mines only grew, the logging continued, and wild animal populations declined.
So much embedded in the idea of exploration is about discovery and revelation—formerly unknown resources, animals, and even worlds brought fighting into the light of the modern gaze. In practice, however, the act of exploration is often hard to untangle from the opposite, from loss. Sometimes this happens so fast that exploration and disappearance are merely stages of the same stroke. In some places, things cease to exist as soon as they’re found.