Wadi al-Hitan, near Cairo
Whales that walked on land? No, I’m not hallucinating. I did see a whale fossil in the middle of the Western Desert in Egypt. The fossil tells a story of evolution that will haunt me for a long time. Gigantic, bleached white by the centuries, intact, amazing – it is a reminder that the Earth has many secrets.
In the Valley of the whales, Wadi al-Hitan, I was reminded of those famous words: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet (1.5.167-8). The site is 150 kilometers from Cairo, and is a totally different world, one where you realize just how tiny your own preoccupations are. A good place to realize your insignificance in the scheme of things!
The day started with a robust four-wheel drive, our smiling & courteous Bedouin driver Omar, and temperatures already spiking as we headed out into the western desert. Away from the bustle of Cairo, at first this was a straight paved road into the Wadi el-Rayan protected area. Sands stretched away on both sides for miles in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We quickly lost our sense of direction as Omar exited the straight paved road and entered the sands. From then on, our adventure into a true desert safari began.
When I say there was wilderness all around, I hope you can imagine what it is to be surrounded by sand, and rock formation in all directions. There was literally no way to distinguish which way we were going. Awed by our surroundings, we asked Omar if he felt stressed out by the enormity of the landscape. He replied that if he were asked to drive in Cairo’s streets, he would have a panic attack. To each his own!
Strange rock formations rose out of the desert floor at intervals. Some looked like giant mushrooms, carved by the elements. Striations gave the sandstone and limestone structures a peculiar depth. It was easy to imagine giant palaces, animals, fortresses, or pillars in those formations. The mind could play any number of tricks in this place. The sky was a hard dense blue, the air was thick with heat. There was a haze far away, but that could be a mirage.
Sandstone & limestone structures
We came upon some domed structures and a shack against the backdrop of those rocks. It was the Fossils & Climate Change Museum. But in reality, most of the Valley is a living museum. Getting out of the air conditioned vehicle was an eye opener. Outside, the heat was terrific. We covered our heads and faces as best we could. The sand dunes shifted with the wind, the silence was loud.
We heard that the dunes actually move for miles within a period of time. Entering the museum, I wondered at the caretaker. Imagine his job, sitting in that little oasis of cool amid the sands, day after day! The place isn’t exactly flooded with tourists, and official estimates say only a 1000 people visit it per year. But perhaps that’s part of the charm.
“The lone and level sands stretch far away” – Keats in ‘Ozymandias’
Whale fossil in the Western Desert
Inside, we had the first glimpse of the replica of the whale fossil – the enormous skull and body. The real deal was outside in the sand. The fossils in the Valley date back 45 million years. Petrified mangroves, shark teeth, corals, other skeletons – this Valley is a treasure trove, a veritable Alladin’s cave. Our star exhibit, the Basilosaurus, was the walking whale. Imagine – this whale walked this area before slipping into water. The fossils give us an indication of the transition of a land mammal to the water-going one we know today. Despite the physical discomfort, I was smitten by the enormity of what I was witnessing. I guarantee you cannot be unmoved by this place.
Then Omar invited us back into the vehicle. He had a mischievous smile, and we soon discovered the reason. We were going to ‘bash’ some dunes! I had just heard of this, but had no real idea of what it meant. Easily, this is one of the most thrilling activities I’ve ever engaged in during a trip. I’m not much of a thrill-seeker, but this experience was unforgettable.
Strapped into our seats, with Omar at the wheel, we were off into the desert once again. Before we knew it, we had climbed a dune at a wildly impossible angle and were coasting down at top speed. We screamed, and Omar, with a wicked smile said, “Say ‘Aiwa, Aiwa!” (Arabic for Yes)
We did this many times in the next hour, and the landscape kept getting wilder and wilder, the dunes he climbed bigger and bigger, our cries and laughter louder and louder. Never once did he lose control of his vehicle. Defying gravity, we sailed along the sides of the big dunes and came down rushing on the other side. Oh the thrill!
We gathered our senses when we stopped at the highest point in the area. The sun was low in the sky, the air was cooler, and the view was enough to make my heart stop. From an elevation we could see a panoramic 360 degree view of the desert. Far into the distance, we saw a snaking blue line. It was the Magic Lake, we were told. Rushes quivered along its banks. How wonderful and awe-inspiring was the sight of this water body in the middle of the desert.
If you do visit this area, here are my suggestions:
- Wear full-sleeved loose tops and light coloured pants
- A straw hat with a wide brim is a must
- Sun glasses and sun screen ditto
- Take a scarf and bind it around your face and neck to avoid sun burn
- Carry your own food and drinks – there are few options