Catching up: Summer 2007

This blog has not been fulfilling its purpose of late: To let people know what I have been up to (and to remind myself in my twilight years). This post should redress that.It’s been quite a summer.

Cairo & Whale Valley Early May still saw me in Cairo, where the pressure was on to get the Second House of Sweden — Sweden’s virtual embassy in Second Life — up and running in time for an inauguration that kept on being pushed forward, to accommodate the schedule of Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.

It would all end well, but that this would be the case was not at all clear from Cairo, nor was it from Stockholm, so there were many long days and nights, at home and — when the bandwidth demanded it — from internet cafés around Cairo’s Zamalek island.

The highlight of my time in Cairo during May was without a doubt a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan, aka Whale Valley. A shallow wind-eroded valley 3 hours’ driving into the Sahara southwest of Cairo, it holds around 400 mounds of fossilized whales, beached at the edge of an ancient sea 40 million year ago just as they were turning from land-based mammals back into ocean-going vessels. The site is unique because some of the whales found there still had hind legs, turning them into Exhibit A of missing links, evidence of evolution in progress.

Whale Valley has long been a semi-secret, inaccessible to all but the determined adventurer (or vandal). You’d have to hire a couple of sturdy 4WDs and drive through the dunes, aiming for a specific coordinate. In 2005, the site made the UNESCO World Heritage listing; this year a road was built to it, guards were posted and the area cordoned off. For me, this meant it was time to pursue some of the best paleotourism this side of Jurassic Park.

The easiest way there was to hire a car and a driver who knew where we were going. It cost us $120 for the whole day, divided by me and three co-travellers, friends I had rustled into going along.

The route to Whale Valley took us through the heart-shaped El Fayyum, a fertile depression first irrigated by the ancient Egyptians, and where farm technology still owes much to that time. In El Fayyum we also picked up an escort of army recruits, as we had an American in our posse and the area is described as “restless”, whatever that means — the running joke among expats is that the escorts are the ROI Americans get on their billion-dollar aid packages to Egypt.

Whale Valley itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The landscape is windswept; rounded bulbs of harder stone jut out of fine yellow sand, and every so often a low mound is crowned with a whale’s fossilized spine, all in a jumble, unless it’s been reconstituted by passing paleontologists.


I’ve never seen fossils so accessible or so close up in their natural environment: Most of the site hasn’t been excavated, so you really get to experience the sense of excitement paleontologists must feel when they first chance upon a new specimen, just lying there. All my previous encounters with objects paleontological were in museums. Whale Valley is a completely different experience.

That’s not to say you get to rummage about by yourself while there. A friendly but unobtrusive park ranger walked with us for nearly two hours, pointing out the most interesting places. There is now a cordoned path through the park, and the ranger was adamant we not veer off it. A few months later, Whale Valley was in the news on reports that two jeeps from an unidentified European diplomatic mission allegedly drove over one of the whale fossil mounds after ignoring orders to stop. It was later revealed the diplomats were from Belgium(!) My Flickr set subsequently got a lot of hits as Whale Valley entered mainstream consciousness. For better and for worse, then, we Belgians have done more than any other nationality to put this place on the map…We were happy to oblige.

I took a good set of photos on the day, and used the expedition to play with some new GPS toys. Here’s the Flickr set, and here’s the post on Ogle Earth. I’ve also updated my Cairo KML file with the track we took on the day.

Second House of SwedenI travelled back to Sweden on May 20, and we launched Second House of Sweden on May 30. Carl Bildt was at the press conference, and it was very well covered by international media. As far as bangs for bucks goes, Sweden definitely got its money’s worth.

The presentation itself was a bit audacious: We sat in front of a big screen; on it was projected my avatar’s view of the virtual embassy. At the embassy in Second Life, the auditorium showed a live video feed of the proceedings at the real-life press conference, with a good number of avatars present. This created wonderful feedback loop opportunities, of course. At one point, press photographers were craning to get a shot of Carl Bildt, his avatar on the screen behind him, and the in-world screen behind his avatar showing the real-world press conference.

The whole thing has been put on Google Video, of course: The inauguration ceremony proper,

and my guided tour:

Check out the blog (Building the) Second House of Sweden for more.

West-coat vacation: In early June I took three weeks of vacation. I travelled to San Francisco, where I attended the International Symposium for Digital Earth at Berkeley. I was there both as blogger for Ogle Earth and as representative for International Polar Year, helping to coordinate the creation of’s Google Earth layer. It was also an opportunity to catch up with some old friends in the area.

F & M turned up, on their way to a house in the Napa Valley, and I hitched a ride with them. In the Napa valley we ate and drank to excess, much like the movie Sideways though without the self-loathing and the naked running around (at least as far as I am aware).

A few days later, Another M showed up in a rented SUV, and we drove up the west coast of California and into Oregon on the way up to K’s family compound in the hills outside Portland. On the way, the major highlights were the DSC_0129.jpg

Redwood forests and Crater Lake. You can see that set here, or else take a look at it here:

View Larger Map

The redwood forests were impressive but one little run-in with a redwood was especially iconic. I remember this from old National Geographic magazines: A tunnel wide enough for a car to pass through it had been carved through a tree. We found it, did the deed, and documented it. Driving through the tree felt like participating in America’s twin obsessions simultaneously — cars and nature.

After a week in Oregon I travelled to New York for a few days, to touch base, before heading back to Sweden. July and August were spent there, where summers are best. Early September I travelled back to Cairo, where a spare bedroom awaits visitors.

Brian Teed, an old friend from my days in Oklahoma as a camp counselor, has already dropped by — here’s his blog post on the visit.

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