Welcome to our Dinosaur hunt, It all begins here, intrigued by the unknown with an unquantifiable amount of preliminary research, preparation and planning, mounting up to a moment in the field dig, the sun relentlessly beating down while contemplating the possibilities of what is to be unearthed in this world of Dinosaurs!
Travelling east in the stifling heat of the Saharan sirocco, observing mirages and catching glimpses of dust devils skimming over the blackened rock-strewn surface of a flat valley floor, crisscrossed with dried out oued's, treacherous dusty river beds scoring the boundless desert floor. These gullies of the oued's have no obvious geographical sign and the Landrover rocks from side to side as we narrowly miss each channel eroded into the desert, a result of the last flash flood which could have been up to several years before. The scorching sun gnaws at our team's fraught nerves a mixture of anticipation and fatigue, this being around midday and travelling from sunrise. The pre'83, Santana series III Land Rover has no such modern comforts as an air-conditioning system, so warm water gulped generously from plastic Sidi Ali bottles is going down very well and all too quickly...
Eventually we stop to gain our bearings, by the Nomad eye not satellite, we survey printed maps and relate the contours of the map to the undulating geology and more importantly to our Moroccan team leader whom has lived in this region all his life, our friend of a quarter of a century in whom we entrust our whole expedition. We have ceased the endless jarring of the piste several times to make our bearings over this sea of sand, one-stop to change a tyre. Our regular and excellent Berber driver hired for the duration of our desert sojourn and affectionally nicknamed by our team as 'the silent assassin' completed the wheel change in a quiet calm manner with the customary ease of a skill regularly practised, again once more we move onwards to our dinosaur goals.
We eventually arrive at a place marked by its unmemorable and monotonous and seemingly lifeless desert sand-scape. We are tracking down a particular group of Berber fossil diggers. Titbits, rumours had reverberated through village grapevines 50km north of this point and eventually before setting off on this latest journey, reaching our ears. All we had to do was navigate to a point that was for the present evading us. We tracked back and forth two long irritating hours to this point, picking our way through the flat desert, the desolate void infrequently dotted with low lying ridges. Trying to identify certain features in the vast remote region. In the far distance another range rose, this rising group of hills formed into a Hamada and focus's our interest. Mohammed surveys the horizon, while our map team attempt to orientate a route towards a waypoint we need to identify, pouring over an old tattered Michelin map, we are now perilously close to the border between Algeria and Morocco, a hotbed of military activity and political unrest, we need to have our wits about us in this region, no borders posts or markers showed which claimed territory we would be leaving or encroaching upon, a wrong turn could lead us into the possibly fatal situation however slim this maybe we didn't want to be in a position of having to extricate ourselves from any military infraction, Algerian border troops have been known to shoot before shouting out, or homing fire over several hundred yards in the tense atmosphere of this border territory, particularly towards evening or after nightfall.
Penetrating the heat and stillness, this mechanical resounding ever closer, rather fortuitously one of our elusive fossil diggers appeared to us through the heat haze. It transpires he was returning to the dig site, we exchange pleasantries and seemingly discuss many other issues as Mohammed gleams what information we impatiently want to hear. An accord reached we follow our new guide behind a scratched, battered and mainly paintless museum exhibit of a moped piled high front and rear with essentials supplies of fresh bread, food and water, including atop one large bundle a very warm tajine pot! This Berber fossil hunter had slept in the nearest hamlet the night before and now returned some good distance to his friends bivouacking in a distant Oasis. One of his family members had a birthday so returning from a welcomed and rare break from digging became our teams moment of serendipity.
As we scramble up the loose granular earth gaining hand and footholds the heat penetrates our lungs and reduces our progress, every few metres seemed like a momentous effort. The diggers down in the Oasis, an almond-shaped depression with the trace of another dry Oued running through it, the sides of which were sparsely scattered with occasional scrubby brown grasses, prickly pear cactus and a solitary stunted palm crooked over at a rakish angle which seemed to hold with our opinion of the atmosphere around the Oasis, a dead mule lay downwind and the overpowering stench was too much for our European stomachs, so we climbed in the hot afternoon as mad dogs and Englishmen do to work rather than suffer the unpleasant rotting smell of the animal.
Climbing up above the light afternoon breeze we came across one the latest excavations, broken pieces of dinosaur bone and teeth were scattered around a large hole dug out of the rising hillside, large boulders of congealed sandy earth lay about in a sort of niche cut out of the sloping terrain, flattened ground caused by a long period of excavations and traffic of feet and tools coming to this level, perched on these were selected keepers, the interesting larger pieces of fossil dinosaur bones and the omnipresent Cyanoacrylate adhesives, super glues, often used in the field for convenience. These removed later in the Laboratory with skill and much patience. Our team scour the site for the best and evidence of something yet to come from the layers of overburden rock above the holes, as now the scene opened up to our slowly accustoming eyes in the strong sunlight that had somewhat blind spotted us and on first glance over the site and had prevented the discovery of many shafts dug into the hillside and these flattened areas. As we tracked around the curve of this particular raised Hamada site more and more holes big enough to squeeze a small framed Berber through, opened up before us. These tunnels, as that to all intents and purposes they were, unshored, the unstable earthen workings apt to collapse at any time it seemed to us, some borrowing downwards after a few feet. Once inside these bone veins the claustrophobic environment overcomes the intrepid, this is something to be endured, as the sides tremble with movement in other excavations, the thumping of picks digging out the millions of years worth of ecosystem deposits, sandy earth falls back down into the tunnel, ones desire is only to 'get out' immediately, in the desert there are not enough trees! Nevertheless, these diggers risk life and limb to rape the mountains for spoils with an air of nonchalance that actually masks a need to better the Berbers existence.’
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After thirty minutes or so we are joined by several dusty looking men sporting worn, tattered clothing, these fellow fossickers bring up to us dinosaur fossil specimens wrapped in torn bits of cotton, crumpled newspaper and even bubble wrap, having long ago lost its bubbles and protective qualities, these dinosaur bones and teeth are laid out before us to admire and discuss and finally barter for. The issues with this sort of exposure of the fossil bed, reclaiming from the earth its fossil dinosaur wonders is the amount of scientific data which can also be overlooked. Only the Berbers are privileged by King Mohammed VI and therefore the government of Morocco to have free access to the desert, nomad lands for generations. These Berbers in the desert do not fully understand why the scientific environmental evidence is important and so continue only to work away to improve their lot in life. We try to gain a thorough knowledge of the sites visited where possible, this adds to our own knowledge at the very least. In this dig, we found several good teeth and invigorated by what we were shown spent time with these excavators, towards the end of the day helping in the fossil site. On this occasion no large bones were uncovered although much was learnt about the terrain and the animals crammed in the layers of millions of years of deposition, Carcharodontosaurus lay alongside Raptor, Spinosaurus, sawfish, shark, pterosaur and myriad of fishes bones. Most badly damaged or worn, very few of these examples reach our web store catalogue, finding well-preserved teeth and bones is a combination of much work and patience.
We continued with our search to the end of the day and inevitably finally remembered old acquaintances from the previous years as faces were cast with light over a campfire and the coffee we supply, as more faces appear from the desert dusk we discuss more sites and how to go about the future hunt of dinosaur fossils hoping to drop on or dig something up tomorrow that would surprise our party.