Went camping out in the desert this past weekend along the North shore of Lake Qarun in the Fayoum on a trip that included both  Egyptological and natural history sites. My ideal for a weekend getaway from Cairo! Sandwiched between visits to the ruins of a Graeco-Roman village with a temple dedicated to Sobek (most temples from this period and in this region especially are dedicated to some incarnation of Sobek which is why Mr. Hoath could get away with telling me about Crocodopolis 😉 )and the Valley of the Whales aka Wadi-al-Hitan, I had a delightful encounter.

Armed with a friend’s head lamp I was finishing up a bit of business and when I looked up into the dark void I thought I saw the glint of a pair of golden lights trained straight at me. Then they disappeared. I was ready to dismiss my ‘sighting’ of whatever it was as combination of imagination and wishful thinking but then those glints reappeared. I was convinced that they belonged to something live. For a few minutes we flirted with each other, these lights and I, with creature doing sort of doing a dance from behind the rocks, curious about me but cautious, and me, holding still as I could and trying to convince Katharine that I was not on anything and was seeing something real. She didn’t believe me. And I don’t blame her because unless you are looking straight at them and them at you those eyes don’t reflect any light at all. And the moon (a beautiful waxing crescent during our trip a week before the Eid) and stars were of no help whatsoever.

By the time we returned to the campfire, I had half-persuaded myself that the animal was an imaginary friend. But there was a lurking hope that it might be real and so I mentioned it to Richard, who is a naturalist  in the best English tradition. The the kind that I’d read about as a kid and had become a Girl Guide (Scout to Americans) just in order to emulate (though that plan amounted to naught). The kind of naturalist who would track various creatures when he was young and make plaster casts of paw-prints … And being that kind of naturalist he didn’t dismiss my story but came back with me and Kathy to investigate.

Whoo hoo! I was right. We not only saw it again (Kathy too since she had her headlamp on and so got the same glimpse of the golden eyes) but tracked it’s movements for several minutes (maintaining a respectful distance) as it scampered around the dunes attracted by us (maybe our scent held out the temptation of something to eat?) but too wary to come too close. At one point it seemed to do a sand slide and before picking itself up and trotting off.  I will admit that other than it’s eyes I could only discern – and very briefly at that – a slight and shadowy figure moving about in the dark, but Richard has more experience in these matters and could make out more details, estimate size etc. Back en route to the campfire, he consulted his field guide – his by possession and authorship, I should add – and figured that what we’d seen was likely to have been a Rüppell’s sand fox.

There are a few species of fox native to the Egyptian desert. They are nocturnal animals who emerge at dusk in search of food, and it’s natural that when a large entourage of people set up camp (we must have numbered some 25-30 all told) the fox comes to investigate the intruders, albeit well hidden in the shadows and the dark.

Good scientific thinkers that we are, we went the next morning to gather evidence of our sighting. And sure enough there they were, paw prints tracking across the sands, bearing witness not only to our sighting but to the episode of the sand-slide. Let the photograph bear witness then, not just to the fox trot but to the midnight, electric slide!