Clutching my camera tightly, I scrabble in an ungainly manner after my guide Sara, following her down the craggy, orange sandstone cliffs that overlook the vastness of the southern Gobi Desert. It is a sunny afternoon in early September, and a swift breeze whips at our clothes and sends swirls of fine sand into motion like an unruly dervish. In the distance, the scattered greenery of needle-leafed saxaul forests adds a touch of shrubby vegetation to the otherwise khaki-brown landscape of Bayanzag, Mongolia’s “Flaming Cliffs.” I’m here in the stark wilderness of the south Gobi Desert on a mission to see dinosaur fossils. A few days earlier, in the capital Ulaanbaatar, I saw fossils at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. And a couple of hours before this trek, I was shown some fossilised rocks, purportedly containing fragments of dinosaur bones, in my desert tent. Now I hope to see them in their own habitat.
“Every driver and guide knows of a secret location where you can still find dinosaur bone fossils,” Sara told me, piquing my curiosity. I took her bait.
One of the high points of my childhood in a nondescript Tamil Nadu town was watching Jurassic Park in a dark theatre. I was 15 and I still remember clutching the armrest tightly. Ever since Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg saved dinosaurs from paleontological obscurity and immortalised them in popular culture, these creatures have held a powerful sway over me. I feel exhilaration at the mere thought of walking on the same ground where giraffe-necked brachiosaurs ambled along millions of years ago.
The flamboyant American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, allegedly the inspiration for Indiana Jones, arrived here in 1922, on an expedition for the American Museum of Natural History. His team found hundreds of fossilised remains, and Bayanzag became known as a dinosaur graveyard. Ultimately, the team collected fossils of up to 140 previously unknown dinosaur species and other prehistoric mammals at the site. Among the 80 million-year-old bones were skeletons of Velociraptor, Saurornithoides,Oviraptor, Protoceratops, and Pinacosaurus.
Andrews’ expedition took an even more exciting turn when George Olsen, a member of his team, found fossilised eggs at the site. This was the first clutch of dinosaur (oviraptor) eggs and nest ever found. Since these discoveries, Mongolia has become one of the most prominent paleontological sites for dinosaurs. The Gobi’s wind-battered, serrated sandstone cliffs are constantly exposed to the harshness of the region’s extreme weather, bringing more fossils to light. Dinosaur eggs have been found here as recently as 2013.
I kick a misshapen rock speckled with calcium deposits, and then reproach myself; it could well be a dinosaur fossil. Sara points to a cluster of wooden huts in the distance, a winter settlement for the region’s nomads.
Our driver, Batah Erdene, walks ahead of us on the gravelly mounds, armed with a pink toilet brush. Every once in a while, he points at the earth, squats down, and brushes the sand to reveal a white, chalky piece of mineral. “Is that a bone?” I ask incredulously. Yes, it is. Batah sticks it in his mouth and says, in throaty Mongolian, that dinosaur bones will stick to your tongue. He hands the fragment to me. It looks chalky and bone-like. For all I know, it could be a piece of camel bone, but I also know that it is this easy to stumble upon dinosaur bones in this part of the Gobi. However, I politely refuse the offer of a lick.
It is illegal to remove fossils from Bayanzag. Sara and Batah place the bone fragment back where they found it, and throw some sand over it. The orange of the early evening sun lights up the sandstone cliffs, as if they are on fire. I turn back to see two fast approaching jeeps with another bunch of tourists, all intent on making the next big discovery. I may or may not have found a dinosaur bone, but this certainly is as close as I will ever get to a bona fide Jurassic Park.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “The Lost World.”
Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.