Google Earth is a highly impressive computer program, able to give users a 3D look at the Earth through the use of satellite images. It basically lets us voyage around the world and explore all kinds of cities and natural landscapes at the touch of a button, from the comfort of our own homes, and represents one of the most impressive technological marvels of modern times.
Many users enjoy scrolling around on Google Earth, perhaps planning vacations or looking for a glimpse of famous landmarks far and wide, but one Welsh researcher actually managed to use the tool to discover an untouched area of African rainforest, leading to an entire expedition and some fascinating discoveries along the way. This is the story of how it all happened.
For centuries, humans have felt the need to explore, to delve into uncharted lands, to make new findings and discoveries, and to map the entire world, stepping foot on each and every patch of land the Earth has to offer. We can think back to great explorers of the past like Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, and Hernan Cortes as some inspiring examples.
This sense of exploration is an innate part of many people’s personalities and an integral aspect of the human race in general. It has helped us expand far and wide, building cities and civilizations across the continents, and even today, at a time when much of the world seems to have been seen and touched by humans, this spirit of adventure lives on.
A lot of people might assume that the whole world has been explored already, at least as far as the lands are concerned. There are many parts of the ocean that have yet to be thoroughly investigated, and all kinds of exciting treasures and undiscovered life forms could be waiting below the murky depths, but you might logically assume that, in this day and age, all land has been covered.
Well, this story proves that assumption to be incorrect. It turns out that even with all the many years of human exploration and travel, along with all of our modern advancements and technologies, there are still parts of the Earth that haven’t yet been touched, and one man has dedicated much of his professional life to trying to track them down.
That man is Dr. Julian Bayliss (julianbayliss.co.uk). He’s a conservation scientist, an explorer, a natural history expert, an ecologist, and much more besides. From an early age, Bayliss developed a passion for the natural world, pursuing that passion in his studies and professional endeavors. As someone who was always so fascinated by nature, he knew that he was destined to work with nature in the future, but he couldn’t have imagined how his life might turn out.
Bayliss has since gone on to enjoy a highly successful career, working alongside leading scientific and research institutions across the world in pursuit of habitat conservation, landscape ecology, protected area management, and more. He has also become famous for his use of technological tools such as Google Earth to help track down and identify unknown and untouched wildlife locations across the world.
Those who have used it before will know that Google Earth is an impressive piece of software. It makes use of satellite imagery to generate a 3D map of our world, allowing users to scroll around, looking at different cities and natural spaces in remarkable detail. You can enter specific addresses and locations to see those spots up close, without even leaving your living room.
The program can be used on computers, tablets, and even phones, and many users see it as a fun little map app that lets them virtually travel around the world, seeing places they might never get to visit in person and feeding their inner need for exploration without actually having to travel anywhere at all. For Dr. Bayliss, however, Google Earth is much more significant.
Dr. Bayliss, along with various other researchers around the world, decided to make use of Google Earth to try and find hidden spots and untouched lands around the world. He’s been doing this work for almost twenty years now, spending countless hours painstakingly studying Google Earth’s maps and satellite images, scrolling all across Africa in search of high-altitude, almost inaccessible forests.
Bayliss’ idea was simple: high-altitude forests and natural landscapes were very difficult for most people to access, so it was likely that these kinds of locations hadn’t yet been explored by anyone. Even if the entire surrounding rainforest had already been mapped out, there might still be some spots that explorers and natives had ignored, due to the difficult terrain.
Bayliss’ first big find came back in 2005 when he spotted a large patch of rainforest on Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique using Google Earth. This turned out to be the largest rainforest in southern Africa which was previously not known to the international community. Bayliss went out to the site to explore it himself in 2005, and then again in 2008 along with scientists from the Key Royal Botanic Gardens in England.
The forest, which is situated at an elevation of 5,600 feet above sea level and hadn’t been previously charted due to its height and inaccessibility, later became nicknamed “Google Forest,” due to the unique way in which it was found, and Google made a short story about its discovery, which you can find at the end of this article. While he was there, Bayliss actually discovered a whole bunch of previously unknown species, including a new type of chameleon, a bat, a viper, and several butterflies too. As a result, Sir David Attenborough has also called Mabu forest ‘the Butterfly Forest.’
Bayliss had played a part in the amazing discoveries associated with the Mount Mabu forest, but he wasn’t done yet. After that expedition was over, he got right back to work, spending more years exploring Google Earth, charting a trail across Africa, and specifically focusing on the rainforests of Mozambique, hoping to find another patch of untouched land to explore.
It seems like the finding of Mount Mabu, and all of its new species helped to encourage him, proving that his work could hold immense value and could potentially lead to some incredible new discoveries in the future too. It was in 2012 while working as a professor at Oxford Brookes University, that Bayliss made his next big find.
In an interview, Bayliss recalls the precise moment when he made his discovery. He was actually looking across Northern Mozambique, not far from Mount Mabu itself, where he had been just a few years earlier catching butterflies and identifying new species. He got to the area between Mount Mabu and Mount Namuli and spotted something he hadn’t seen before.
“I could see this sort of crater-like mountain with this dark, round patch in the crater basin. I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be a forest.” He then zoomed in closer to get a better look, noticing some roads and cultivated land in the surrounding area, signifying that humans passed through regularly. Yet, despite this surrounding activity, the main patch of the forest he found seemed unaffected.
As he looked more closely, Dr. Bayliss began to understand what was going on. The forest itself was growing in a crater, in the center of a mountain. The mountain had very steep and smooth sides, described as “fortress-like” by Bayliss himself. He realized that the mountain itself had formed a kind of natural barrier around the forest.
Essentially, the mountain’s walls helped to keep the trees and plants safe from the outside world, preserving the forest against human interference. This is when it occurred to him that it might not be possible to get to the forest on foot, and it might only be accessible by climbing up the wall to the site. That’s when he knew that he simply had to learn more about this place, so he started to get in touch with a few of his most trusted colleagues, letting them know that he might be onto something.
Dr. Bayliss hoped and believed that he’d found something special through his Google Earth searching, but he couldn’t just blurt out his discovery to everyone around him. It would have been easy for other researchers to visit the site first and potentially steal the credit, and he wasn’t even sure if the forest he’d found was truly a new discovery at all.
So he had to keep the whole thing relatively secret, only sharing the information with those he knew best. Mike Brewin, a logistician and one of Bayliss’ trusted advisors, remembers how Bayliss was “fairly secretive” about the whole thing, simply saying, “I found a new piece of forest that hasn’t been visited. I’m going to go there. I’m going to assemble a dream team of scientists.”
Before he could truly start putting together his so-called ‘dream team’ and plan out a full-on expedition to the secret forest, Bayliss had to learn more about it. He spent the years that followed pursuing his research to learn more about the area, and in February of 2017, he actually flew out to Mozambique personally to visit it.
Bayliss brought a drone along with him, setting it up at the base of the 410′ rock face that led up towards the forest and then carefully piloting it up to take a closer look. He was thrilled to see that forest, which had simply been a bunch of pixels on his computer screen a few years earlier, in the flesh for the first time, and once he’d confirmed its existence, he got to work preparing his expedition.
Bayliss already knew that he needed to assemble an incredible team of scientists, explorers, climbers, and other experts in a range of fields for this expedition to be as successful as he hoped. He’d visited the site firsthand and seen that climbing up that 410′ rockface would be quite a challenge, so one of his first priorities was getting in touch with trusted climbers.
Julian Lines was the best climber he knew (and one of the best climbers in the UK), so he gave him a call and sent over some of his drone footage so that Lines could start preparing a plan of action for the team, knowing that he’d basically have to teach a group of scientists how to safely transform themselves into professional-grade climbers for the mission to go smoothly.
Bayliss’ team had to be perfect, and it was! It was made up of 28 members in total, including Bayliss himself, Lines the climber, a chef named Matthew Cooper, a lecturer in environmental geography named Simon Willcock, Mike Brewin, the logistician, Hermenegildo Matimele the curator of the National Herbarium of Mozambique, and others.
Several local Mozambique scientists came along to provide their knowledge and expertise of their homeland, along with other scientists and researchers from around the world. Bayliss says that the team he put together was basically the ‘best of’ from all of his previous expeditions (and he has previously organized about 50). He used his experience, contacts, and knowledge to choose the finest people possible for each task. The team was set, and now it was time to put their plan into action!
The expedition was sure to be a big one, and even with such an experienced team of experts, it still needed a lot of planning and preparation. The help of Mozambican scientists and organizers was absolutely critical in ensuring that the plan as put into action successfully.
Scientists and doctors like Roland Van de Ven and Ara Monadjem helped out in terms of logistics, transport, conversing with the locals, finding forest guides, and more. There was a lot of negotiating to be done and, in Mozambique, the natives are regarded as the stewards of the land, so the team needed to liaise with them to obtain their blessing and reassure them that they didn’t mean any harm to the land.
Once the team was in position at Mount Lico, it was time to start climbing. If you’re wondering why the group didn’t just hire a helicopter, they simply didn’t have the funds for that. The only real option available to them within their allowed budget was to climb, but luckily, they had some of the best climbing experts in the world on their time.
Julian Lines has worked all over the globe in locations as diverse as Brazil and Singapore, so he knew how to tackle a job like this. Still, he had a lot of apprehensions, as the weather could cause all kinds of chaos with the climb, and he was working with many scientists who had never done any climbing in their lives. Still, even though many of the team had little experience with rock climbing or ropes, they all managed to get up to the top.
Once they made it to the top of the 410′ rock face and found themselves on the summit of Mount Lico, the team were able to admire the most beautiful view all around them. Bayliss remembers exactly how it felt, saying that the “sense of adventure” simply overwhelmed him at the time, adding that he felt emotions of “excitement” and “wonder” upon arrival.
Other members of the team were similarly impressed, blown away by all the butterflies up there, as well as the beauty of the forest and the extraordinary new sights that surrounded them. Ana Gledis da Conceicao, a lab technician, compared the views to “paradise.” At the same time, Brewin felt a kind of sadness from “standing on the last little remaining fragments of what was a kind of African paradise.”
The expedition had three separate camps dotted around the scene – one on Mount Lico itself, one on nearby Mount Socone, and a base camp in between the other two. For two weeks, the large team of diverse experts lived, slept, and ate together. In interviews, the team revealed that they got along pretty well, which is quite unusual for such a large and diverse expedition, as there are often some tensions and arguments that break out.
The group would often spend evenings sitting around the fire, sharing stories, learning about each other, and enjoying new experiences each and every day. Still, the group had to make do with lean provisions, with many meals consisting of nothing more than bread and a bit of cheese or pasta. At one point, they had an opportunity to buy a pig and eat the meat, but they simply couldn’t afford it.
One of the most exciting parts of any expedition into uncharted land is seeing what kind of wildlife can be found there. Bayliss had experience of this, as he’d spent plenty of time over on Mount Mabu discovering all sorts of new species, from crabs to butterflies, so he was eager to see what sorts of new animals might be discovered at Mount Lico too.
Quite quickly, the team started to spot all kinds of animals, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and, of course, a whole bunch of butterflies too. They began to catalog the various animals they spotted as they explored, noting down the species, taking photos, collecting samples, and so on, searching for any trace of a possible new species.
Well, the team didn’t have to search too hard to find some new species! They confirmed a brand new butterfly quite quickly (discovered by Bayliss) and also believed that they may have found a few other types of animals too. They identified a giant rat, about the size of a cat, with a very long tail, as well as several types of mice and shrews.
They set up a range of humane traps and cameras all over the forest to gather data on the animal life, and they even found a stream and caught a catfish in it, much to the surprise of the team. Everyone wondered how on Earth a catfish (which is probably a new species) had managed to make its way up the mountain. Perhaps we’ll never know, but it was an interesting discovery, and the new butterfly they found will be named after the mountain.
Anyone who doesn’t like spiders or has a fear of arachnids would probably want to steer clear of Mount Lico, according to reports from the team. They stated that there were spiders and webs absolutely everywhere, with almost every single tree of the forest being connected to another tree by some kind of spider web.
Someone walking through the forest without looking ahead of themselves would quickly wind up with webs all over their face and body, so the team developed a system of carrying sticks in front of them to break the webs in advance and clear a path for the rest of the group. The forest was also home to some long, furry caterpillars, which were said to be poisonous, so everyone had to be on their guard at all times.
The forest might have been filled with all kinds of creepy crawlies, but it was quite a fascinating and beautiful place, all the same. The group conducted various tests and scans of the area to learn more about it, sectioning off little plots and measuring the trees. They also did soil tests, surprised to see that the soil in the area went down much deeper than they’d initially expected.
The forest was filled with Newtonia in the middle and Brachystegia on the edges, which are trees commonly found in East and Southern Africa, as well as long vines and lots of deep piles of leaf litter too. Brewin was surprised to see how hospitable the area was, stating, “Obviously, there’s freshwater up there. As long as you have food, you can live up there for quite a considerable time really because of the water situation and the firewood.”
One of the interesting things about this expedition that made it so special was the fact that Bayliss and his fellow team members assumed that they’d found a totally new and untouched patch of land, never before seen by human eyes. However, when they got up there, they discovered that they might not have been the first human visitors, after all!
On top of the mountain, they discovered a bunch of earthenware pots. When they’d asked some of the locals beforehand if anyone had been up there, and they’d all said no, but it seemed now that the truth was very different. The team was faced with a new mystery: who put those pots there, and why? They needed answers, so spoke to some of the local elders to learn more.
As you can see in the photograph before this one, some pots seemed to have been placed next to the river with a purpose. The pots were actually placed ceremonially upside down near the source of the only stream. Upon further investigation, this appears to be a phenomenon known as ‘rainmaking’ where offerings are made to the gods for rain and a plentiful supply of water.
It seems at some point in the past, and before current local knowledge, Lico was scaled by a professional ‘rainmaker’ (a bit like a medicine man) to make this offering to the gods, and the pots have remained ever since.
The team seemed to be having a lot of fun and making some amazing discoveries during their expedition, getting to know one another, and enjoying the sense of adventure that was felt throughout the group. However, they all knew that the expedition was a risky one. Each and every day, they faced a range of dangers.
These dangers included the high temperatures and humidity levels in the area, along with the poisonous bugs and snakes that surrounded them too. They all knew that they had to be safe and prudent, as the slightest lapse in concentration could prove to be lethal, and one serious incident did eventually occur. Jonathan Timberlake, a botany expert, got an infection in his leg after cutting it on a blade of grass.
Timberlake cleaned his wound carefully and hoped it would be okay, but the infection developed, and he had to be quickly rushed down the mountain. His temperature was rising and the team had to act fast. He even started hallucinating at one point, and everyone was worried about his health, so they worked hard to get him down to the base camp.
Lowering him down the side of the cliff was a huge undertaking, and then carrying him through the forest was a big challenge too. Fortunately, the team pulled it off, and Timberlake was treated successfully with antibiotics by Dr. Roland Van de Ven (the expedition doctor), clearing up his fever and infection. For the rest of the trip’s duration, he had to stay in camp with his leg up to prevent any other issues.
Eventually, after two special weeks, it was time for the team to say their goodbyes to Mount Lico and head home. Dr. Bayliss didn’t want to leave without spending one last night on top of the mountain, so while the rest of the group went down and spent their final night at base camp, he and Matt Cooper, the team’s cook, decided to sleep up top.
He can still remember how strange it felt to be leaving that place once and for all – a place that had meant so much to him, ever since he first spotted it. “I was bringing everything down, and I am meeting Jules [Lines] at the top of the ropes. And we gave ourselves a hug and looked out over the views, and then I said, “Okay, I’ll see you down there then.” And off I went.”
The adventure to Mount Lico was a special and memorable one for each and every member of the group, and they all took something away from the experience that meant something significant to them. Da Conceicao, for example, became the first Mozambican woman to climb the mountain, stating that she felt much more confident and brave after the trip was complete. Julian Lines stated that he’d never done anything quite like that and probably never would again.
As for Bayliss, he has hopes that the rainforest will be left alone from now on. He says that many other swathes of forest in places across Africa and Asia are being chopped down to make way for things like palm oil plantations and farms, calling such destruction “the greatest environmental crime of humanity right now.” He hopes that his work will shine a light on the importance of preserving rainforests as much as we can.
Many people might believe that we have mapped out the entire world by now. However, discoveries like the incredible rainforest on Mount Lico prove that there may still be some secret spots out there, just waiting to be discovered, precious, and untouched parts of land that haven’t yet been investigated, explored, or exploited for human gain.
In some ways, given that so many forests and natural habitats have been destroyed by humans and continue to be exploited each and every day, perhaps it’s fine if a few little locations like Mount Lico remain untouched for now. Still, the innate spirit of adventure and exploration in people like Dr. Bayliss will ensure that, someday, the entire world will truly be mapped out.
It’s inspiring to think that a tool like Google Earth, which is freely available to everyone and anyone that would like to use it, was responsible for such an amazing discovery and such a fascinating story. This just goes to show how far modern technology has come, and the potential it still has to surprise and amaze us each and every day.
Dr. Bayliss deserves a lot of credit for making this remarkable discovery, and it’s wonderful to see how his simple session on Google Earth turned into such a huge expedition as time went by. A film crew from Grain Media documented the expedition to Mount Lico which was recently released on the National Geographic YouTube Channel (youtube.com/watch?v=aDoanNM7O_s). You can also check out the short Google story about the discovery of Google Forest on Mount Mabu (youtube.com/watch?v=ZTMyDtHZXIc). His work will surely inspire many other budding explorers, scientists, and researchers across the world looking for their own secret, untouched patches of land, and who knows what they might find next?