A little way into the Sahara, about 130 kilometers southwest of Cairo, you can find Wadi al-Hitan, aka Whale Valley. Over the past 30 years or so remarkable fossils have been discovered here that provide some of the strongest confirmation yet of the soundness of evolutionary theory — namely, fossils of whales with legs that died 40 million years ago in an ancient shallow sea, just as these mammals were returning to an aquatic lifestyle. The species found in this valley are the archetypical missing link, the kind that creationists and their ilk tend to maintain do not exist, ergo natural selection doesn’t happen.
Except that the species did exist, and tomorrow, Saturday, I will be heading out there with some friends, a jeep and a driver. A perfect opportunity, I think, to test the geospatial prowess of my Nokia N95 and some of the mapping apps that have been built for this kind of phone.
The Valley of the Whales is is one of UNESCO’s newest World Heritage sites, but this newfound fame does not mean it is easy to find. It is off the beaten track, and certainly not a tourist destination. In Google Earth, the World Heritage Sites listing under the Google Earth Community Showcase places Whale Valley some 120km to the northwest of its actual location (the coordinates are reversed). The Lonely Planet Guide, in a single terse paragraph, places Whale Valley 55km to the south of Wadi Rayyan, and notes:
To get there is something of an expedition and requires at least two 4WDs, one to help haul the other out in the event of getting stuck in the sand.
Perhaps it was something of an expedition for the Lonely Planet writer because Whale Valley is actually located about 30km to the west of Wadi Rayyan — at least if you go check several further sources, among them a search in Google Earth for indexed KML files, which leads you to this GEC post, which leads you to this page with precise coordinates. Google Earth also returns the boundary coordinates of the entire protected area around Whale Valley — so this is ample cross-referencing to give me the confidence we’re actually going to the right place:-) I’ve collected all the placemarks in one KML file uploaded to the Ogle Earth server.
I have a standard issue Garmin GPS unit, so I will be using that tomorrow to record our track and also enter some of the destination coordinates of some actual fossil sites, to make navigating to our destination easier. This is standard fare for GPS units, and it will be good to have it as a backup.
With the Nokia N95, however, I have three more interesting objectives:
The first is to use its GPS functionality to take georeferenced photos throughout the day and upload them to my Flickr account via Shozu as soon as I have cell phone coverage or wifi access, which means they should show up on this Google Map and on this KML network link as the day progresses. If you’re reading this on Saturday May 12, check out those links during the day to see if we are on our way to accomplishing our mission.
The other objective is to use Mobile GMaps, a free java-based mobile mapping application I came across recently that combines Google Maps satellite tiles with phone-based GPS positioning. That’s better than Nokia’s built in mapping app, which has vector data only, and Google’s own Mobile Maps, which has the imagery but no link to the GPS. In other words, Mobile GMaps shows me where I am on Google Maps, and that’s brilliant. At least in theory; tomorrow we’ll see how well it works in practice, especially as I will likely be out of the mobile phone coverage area, and I don’t know how or if it uses cached tiles.
Another cool feature of Mobile GMaps is that it can display KML files! No, not complicated ones, not even the KML generated by Google Maps, but if you simply collect placemarks in a folder in Google Earth and save them as a KML file and then FTP that file to a server so that it gets a URL, like I have with the coordinates for POIs in Whale Valley, then Mobile GMaps can indeed fetch this KML from the web and display it. Watching KML rendered on my mobile phone for the first time was an unexpected pleasure; I thought this feat would be some way off in the future. (Alas, one thing the N95 cannot do is take pictures of itself, so no screenshots just now.)
So now, in theory, my N95 will show me not only some KML points of interest I have published to the web, but also where I am in relation to them on Google Maps tiles. Can it get any better?
Well, perhaps, because Mobile GMaps has just added web-tracking features. There is an option in the client software on the phone which directs it to ping www.gmap-track.com with my location, which is then displayed on a public map (I’m “OgleEarth”, and almost certainly the only person in Egypt using this service, so it shouldn’t be so hard to find me). This functionality does not work if my phone is out of coverage range, but it should mean that my last known position is available. That’ll be useful for when they come looking for us:-) (Mologogo also does web tracking, but as far as I can tell there is no client for Symbian phones.)
Stay tuned for a travel report and an evaluation of the Nokia N95′s usability in a real-world scenario.