Dispatches from the Sahara Desert: preparing for the trip
AGADEZ, NIGER – Before COVID-19 interrupted travel, I led expeditions that uncovered some 25 tonnes of rare fossils scattered across the Sahara Desert in remote parts of the West African country from Nigeria. These are impressive finds, including never-before-seen dinosaur species and human graves from a Saharan culture that flourished thousands of years before the pyramids. I reburied everything for another day, when I could come back with a team capable of recovering everything.
But the pandemic intervened, and a year then two then three passed. On a memorable day a few months ago, the ultimate expedition I had so long imagined came true with an email from an anonymous donor who would fund it. We are planning to return later this summer.
I assembled a paleo team made up mostly of freshly graduated students and faculty who exuded the courage and spirit to meet the great challenges ahead, both mental and physical. They are souls willing to drop everything for the opportunity to venture into the wilderness of the Sahara and wander into Africa’s deep past. Although a few were in my Fossil Lab at the University of Chicago, most came from elsewhere – from Canada, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain. I also needed a geo-specialist, someone who could date the rock that buried the dinosaur specimens. In total, about twenty participants joined all or part of the adventure. The team is completed by Nigerian students and Saharan guides, essential for any stay in the desert. I only knew most of the team members digitally through team Zoom calls, meeting them for the first time in person at the gate of Paris airport for the flight to Niger.
Be clear, this is no ordinary fossil excursion. I am writing this from the oasis of Agadez, our base, which we will be leaving for a month under armed guard, camping in the open with afternoon temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Water is for drinking, cooking and essential hygiene; no showers. We packed generators and all the battery-powered gadgets that would help us find, dig, move and survive. A tray of essential equipment left Fossil Lab in the weeks leading up to the expedition and was flown to Niger, then trucked 650 miles to Agadez.
We spent our first week in Niger’s capital, Niamey, focusing on the paleontology room of the national museum, the Boubou Hama National Museum. The highlight of the museum is Niger’s first named dinosaur, the famous sail-backed plant-eater Ouranosaurus (“valiant lizard”). Collected in 1966 by the French paleontologist Philippe Taquet, it was installed in a sandpit as the centerpiece of the now aging hall. They attempted to protect the dinosaur from a leaky roof with a thick glass cover, which sealed the dinosaur but allowed mold to grow. When the glass was removed, bones were broken. So our job was to identify, register, repair and package the bones of this rare and important dinosaur, using stereophotogrammetry to capture 3D digital images of the bones.
A few years ago, I launched an international foundation, NigerHeritage, which will oversee the return of the immense Nigerian heritage, dinosaur and human, that I had the chance to discover and develop for several decades in Chicago. The culmination will be the creation of world-class museums envisioned for Niamey and Agadez, where Ouranosaurus will join many other presentations.
Many challenges await anyone who tries to embark on a three-month desert expedition with an international team in aging Land Rovers. Authorizations are required from several ministries for the right to recover fossils and from regional authorities, for safety and for the use of vehicles. Being an expert project ambassador is a requirement – in French, the lingua franca of this nation with many African languages.
Nerves of steel are also required. In the desert, only national paper money works – no card, no bank, not even dollars can buy all the necessities of the expedition or come to the rescue in an emergency. The physical transport of cash is the only safe way, with a clever conversion into local currency in Niamey, which quintuples the volume of cash to be transported.
Suffice it to say, no one at the downtown Chicago bank we used had ever witnessed a cash withdrawal as large as the one I had to make in preparation for this expedition. This generated disbelieving looks from O’Hare’s manager who asked why I was carrying a heavy bag of cash. Of course, it’s for a dinosaur expedition, I explained.
In the Sahara, if you want security, you bring it with you. Heavier-than-usual security is needed to avoid any incidents involving armed bandits roaming the desert. This is not just for the safety of my team, but also for the continued well-being of our museum effort and the resumption of tourism in northern Niger. After long discussions, an armed escort of dozens of guards was organized.
Now we are completely in for the adventure. A row of overloaded vehicles are parked next to a desert worthy transport truck stacked as high as it is long. That’s a huge amount of gear for the expedition – plaster for field jackets, tents, cots, food, medkits, generators, tools – anything you might need , along with numerous 55-gallon drums of fuel and thousands of gallons of water.
But we have been waiting for several days for final approval from Niamey to stand guard. For this team of young fossil hunters, each day of waiting feels like an eternity.
SAHARA DESERT EXPEDITIONS: The Tribune follows the progress of Professor Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago and his team over several months during an expedition to Niger in Africa. They discover traces of a human civilization that lived some 10,000 years ago in what is now the Sahara Desert. For more information, see also The lost world of Africa and NigerHeritage.