At one time before time, the desert was not the desert. Not all desolate and barren, the desert was actually a sea. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he travels back in time through the portal of Wadi Al-Hitan
Forty million years ago a vast area of the northern part of the Egyptian Western Desert was nothing but a sea. The whole of Fayoum was submerged; it was part of the Tethys Sea. In reality, Tethys Sea was so enormously big that some scholars call it Tethys Ocean rather than sea. When it finally receded, it formed what we know today as the Aral, Caspian and Black seas. In its bluish- green water dwelled creatures that evolved and survived or did not and became extinct. One of the biggest inhabitants of the ancient sea was Zeuglodon, the famous whale of Fayoum.
In the early years of the 19th century, fossils were being systematically destroyed in Louisiana and Alabama in the US. Locals were using it as raw material to make furniture. Somehow, one vertebra made its way into the hands of anatomist Richard Harlan. When he examined the fossil, Harlan mistakenly thought it a reptile and named it Basilosaurus isis, king of the reptiles. In reality, though, it was a Zeuglodon fossil. The gigantic marine mammal known academically as Zeuglodon cetoides, or yoked-tooth, averaged 20 metres in length and had a slender eel-shaped body and saw-like teeth. To add to the oddity, Zeuglodon had small, fully- developed hind legs with a femur, patella, tibia, fibula and four toes.
Theory has it that Wadi Al-Hitan (valley of the whales) was some kind of a bay where the gigantic whales used to harbour. When the Tethys Sea started to recede Zeuglodons became trapped in small water pools in which they eventually died. These mass whale graves contain more than 240 skeletons of the extinct species.
But that's not all Wadi Al-Hitan has to offer. Another whale fossil is also present, this time belonging to the much smaller Dorudon; a three- to five-metre marine creature directly linked to modern-day whales.
Strolling in Wadi Al-Hitan, you don't need to look for big fossils to feel the essence of the once flourishing aquatic environment. All you need to do is look around and be greeted by an abundance of sea shells, shark teeth, mangrove roots as well as entire hills of fossilised corals.
Located in Fayoum, northwest of Lake Qarun, Wadi Al-Hitan is protected nationally and internationally. It lies within the boundaries of Wadi Al-Rayan which was declared a Natural Protectorate in 1989. Wadi Al-Hitan was pronounced by UNESCO a World Heritage Site in 2005.
Managed by Wadi Al-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA), under the umbrella of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), the managing team has been focusing on further development. Through the Egyptian-Italian Environmental Cooperation Programme, progress has been made. Wadi Al-Hitan used to be accessed from different points which all demanded a 4W vehicle in good condition. Now, the site has been sealed off except for a 34km road that connects Wadi Al-Hitan to the main asphalt road of Wadi Al-Rayan National Protectorate. Creating a single point of entry to the site improves control as many visiting cars frequently ran over and destroyed the scattered fossils.
The newly-developed road does not require a 4W drive; it's fit for a 2W as well. It leads to a designated parking area from where you can enter the valley on foot or hire a camel. Displays, informative brochures as well as visitors' facilities are all being developed. WCs and rangers' outposts are being constructed using environment-friendly material. A new fee structure has also been introduced to help support the ongoing activities protecting Wadi Al-Hitan.
Egyptians visitors are required to buy a LE2 ticket, while foreigners, whether residents or visitors, need to buy a $3 ticket. A ticket for any car is LE5. Camping is possible within a specially- designated area. Please call first.
Zeuglodon represents an evolutionary dead end. Nonetheless it provides crucial information on the transition of whales from land to sea mammals. And when it comes to Wadi Al-Hitan, it is literally an open museum, unparalleled in the world.
For more information about visiting/ camping at Wadi Al-Hitan, contact any of the members of the core planning team: Mohamed Sameh, senior ranger, geologist (email: firstname.lastname@example.org); Mohamed Talaat, senior ranger, planning and management effectiveness (email: email@example.com); or Dan Paleczny, international co-manager, IUCN-World Conservation Union (email:firstname.lastname@example.org).
Or call Fayoum Protected Areas office in Shakshouk (084-6830535).