Looking up at the fat, gray sky, it was hard to tell when, or even if, dusk had arrived. Looking down, it was easy. One minute the water beneath our paddles was the color of tea; the next, it was black. We pushed on around a few more bends, then beached the canoes on a riverbank at a clearing in the forest.
Only Morgan Gnoundou—Mor-GAHN, he pronounced it, à la française—had any energy left. He cleared space for the tents with his machete, got a fire going, put a pot on to boil, and then bounded down to the river to dredge for crevettes—little shrimp with which to bait his fishing line. Sprawled on our Therm-a-Rests, the rest of us watched in awe.
It was early August, dry season in Gabon. That morning, eight of us, in four canoes, had set out from an abandoned logging camp on the upper Djidji River not far from the Congo border. The plan was to paddle downstream 100 or so miles to a take-out just above a spectacular cataract called Djidji Falls. In the process, we’d traverse the entire roadless expanse of 1,158-square-mile Ivindo National Park. Like all 13 of Gabon’s national parks, it was created ex nihilo just over four years ago, largely at the urging of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the international nonprofit headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. No one, to our knowledge, had ever paddled the length of the Djidji before, but our real mission was to evaluate the river’s touristic potential—something the WCS program director for Gabon, English-born biologist Lee White, w...