I knew that I probably wouldn’t find any dinosaur eggs – that the best and perhaps sole specimens had been carted away on camelback almost a century ago. But that certainly didn’t stop my search. Striding onto the red soil of Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – one of the greatest dinosaur fossil sites the world has ever seen – my eyes flashed across the sandstone in the fading daylight, hoping to catch a hint of white or grey among the shifting sands. Experiencing the same thrill of discovery encountered by American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews and his hardy compatriots in 1923 was a long shot, to say the least. But here in the birthplace of paleoembryology – the study of unhatched dinosaur fossils – under the same wide open sky that inspired Genghis Khan to conquer the world, I felt anything was possible.
I was in Mongolia’s South Gobi Desert, a land where camels roam free and nomads still follow ancient paths across the horizon in search of greener pastures. Part of Asia’s largest desert, the South Gobi was once an inland sea where life flourished some 80 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous Period. Many experts speculate that it was also a site of mass extinction, where avalanche-like sand-slides both swept dinosaurs away and preserved their remains. In most other parts of the globe, the sites would’ve been roped off, the public kept far from such priceless pieces and places. But here, some of the world’s most fascinating prehistoric wonders were at my fingertips – sometimes literally.