Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Wild things

"Elom! Elom!" my guide shouted in Nubian. And there it was, as ancient as time, as majestic as a piece of art and as furious as one of nature's wildest beasts, for indeed it is -- the Nile crocodile. Mohamed El-Hebeishy sets sail to Lake Nasser, Egypt's last wildlife sanctuary

Click to view caption
Ruppell's Sand Fox, one of the desert's elusive creatures, can be seen around the lake if you have the patience and luck; a congregation of white pelicans sunbathing on a beautiful morning; sparsely populated Lake Nasser is home to a scattered community of local fishermen, often coming from Lower Egypt

Some enjoy the pampering of a luxurious five-star resort while others prefer the non-stop beat of Sharm's nightlife. As for me I go for the road less travelled, those places on the map that only a few think of visiting. Certainly there is no right or wrong choice; the matter at the end of the day is a purely personal preference. Still, for me I love the raggedness of nature, the beauty of discovering untouched beauties, and for this, I chose Egypt's largest lake for my adventure destination. That goliath we call Lake Nasser.

Look at an old map of Egypt and you will not find Lake Nasser for the very simple reason that before the 1960s, the lake did not exist. The story goes as far back as 1902 when Egypt, then under British mandate, completed the first dam. Designed by British civil engineer Sir William Willcocks, the 1,900 metre-long and 54 metre-wide High Dam took just three years to build. However, 44 years later it was at risk of being over-flooded due to the high water level. It was then decided to build a second dam, six kilometres upriver. Though planning for the gargantuan project started right after the Free Officers overthrow of the last Egyptian monarch in 1952, actual work did not kick off until 1960, with 21 July 1970 marking the official inauguration date. Whether the High Dam is of benefit or comes with a heavy bill to pay is a controversial issue that can take up the rest of this story, so we focus on the vast expanse of fresh water the dam created -- Lake Nasser.

Talking numbers and taking into consideration the fact that they vary from year to year with respect to the water level, the lake is 550 metres long, covering approximately 6,200km. Its maximum depth is 130 metres with the widest point being 40km. Doing the math, it's about 160km, or slightly more, of water being stored in Egypt's most important freshwater reservoir. To be more accurate, stored in both Egypt and Sudan, part of Lake Nasser, around 17 per cent, is actually within Sudanese borders, where it is called Lake Nubia.

As a direct result of the lake's creation, the entire Nubian community had to be relocated, creating a human vacuum filled by wildlife. The Nile crocodile, the lake's biggest resident, was actually on the verge of disappearing from Egypt, but when the lake was created its population bounced back. Today, and after more than 37 years since the High Dam's inauguration, unofficial census estimates the number of Nile crocodiles in Lake Nasser to be around the 70,000 figure; stunning to say the least.

The second largest of the crocodilian family, the Nile crocodile is found throughout most of Africa's mainland, south of the Sahara, as well as Madagascar. This giant reptile averages five metres in length with adult males weighing half a tonne on average. Infrequent recordings had exceptional males weighing up to a tonne. It's fierce, gruesome and a truly indiscriminate killer that sends a wave of fear to the heart of the bravest of men. Nonetheless it is a beautiful creature, and believe it or not, it is an amazingly caring parent. Of all reptiles, only female crocodiles guard their eggs for the whole incubation period (in their case three months) with the father-to-be waiting nearby for the eggs to hatch. The parents will mercilessly attack any creature that gets too close. And if you think that crocodiles lose their edge when out of water, please think again. They can gallop as fast as a human being, so be extra careful when on shore so as not to disturb a parenting crocodile couple, especially in their nesting season: November to December in North Africa.

The role of the doting parents does not end here; once the hatchlings start emitting a high-pitched chirping noise before hatching, the mother heeds the calling and rips open the nest. Both parents carry their completely defenceless 30cm-long baby crocs in between their killer jaws and take them to the water. The newborns are a favourite snack of a number of marine animals, so the mother crocodile stays with her babies up to two years, when the babies grow to 1.2 metres in length, and start to be fine on their own.

"A total of 64 to 68 cone-shaped teeth line the jaws of the Nile crocodile." I came across this piece of information before I embarked on my photography quest to shoot a Nile crocodile through the lens of my camera. An involuntary shiver reverberated down my spine. Indeed, I was affected by all the documentaries featuring crocodiles, not to mention Hollywood blockbusters picturing crocodiles as ruthless human killers. To an extent this is not far from reality. Although across the globe crocodile attacks are not easy to accurately record as they often occur in remote locations, it can be fairly estimated in the hundreds, with the majority resulting in fatalities. It is important to note that saltwater and Nile crocodiles top the list of the most dangerous among the crocodilian family.

Still, and please read the following very carefully, the situation is not dangerous in Lake Nasser and that is for a number of reasons. Lake Nasser is a sparsely populated area with a scattered population of fishermen. The High Dam blocks all the silt and hence makes the lake's water highly nutritious. Consequently, the Nile perch, the lake's most abundant fish, grows to record figures with some catches crossing the 100kg threshold. Taking these two factors into consideration and adding the fact that the Nile crocodile tops the list of predators in the vicinity of Lake Nasser, there is no motive for the crocodile to attack humans when they can sink their teeth into a juicy king- size fish. True, crocodiles are known to be indiscriminate killers which can entirely devour anything that is unfortunate enough to cross their path. However, if you stay away from their path, you will enjoy the experience of watching them without getting hurt. Having said so, it is prohibited, for safety reasons, to plunge into the lake. If you want to take a refreshing dip in Lake Nasser, jump where your guide tells you it is safe, usually close to non- sandy shores.

Another important point to ponder is where to wander on shore. Don't go strolling alone unless you have informed your guide first, and avoid bushy areas near the shoreline, especially in the November through December nesting season.

At the beginning I thought it would be easy, but photographing a Nile crocodile ended up being not so easy. They are not accustomed to humans in Lake Nasser so they tend to back off and plunge into the water once a human presence is felt -- or at least that's what happened with me. So after three days of relentlessly exerting every possible effort to get a shot, and even though we enjoyed an average daily sighting of three to five crocodiles, it wasn't before the fourth day early in the morning that I finally got myself a 30-second chance with a crocodile, by any standard a thrilling experience.

Wildlife in Lake Nasser is not restricted to crocs; it has more than 100 recorded species of birds. In fact, the lake is one of the most important bird habitats in the country. With Egypt being in route of many migrating birds, different species stop for a rest. There are also a number of resident birds that call the place home. So depending on which month you are visiting you can be greeted by a variety of birds -- spoonbill, white stork, grey heron and white egret, and if you are really lucky you may catch sight of a black ibis and/ or a purple heron. What gives the lake a peculiar touch versus other bird localities in Egypt is not only the number or the diversification of bird species but also the exotic birds it hosts. The white pelican is a refined bird with a gracious posture and a distinctive pouch under the beak. A legend revolves around the lovely big white bird. It is said that in time of famine, pelicans would lacerate themselves in order to feed their young ones. Though this has never been proven, the sacrificing bird became a symbol for the Passion of Jesus. A pelican in her piety or a pelican wounding herself was adopted in the bestiaries as a symbol of self-sacrifice.

Another Lake Nasser specialty is the exotic looking Flamingo, a wadding bird often sighted in large colonies. It is easily spotted, with its pinkish colour and long thin legs. Lacking luck, I missed out on sighting the beautiful bird during my visit to Lake Nasser.

Continuing with the beautiful birds is the Egyptian goose, a vibrant colourful bird commonly seen in pairs and found in abundance throughout the locality.

In Lake Nasser there is also a fair representation of mammals. The fennec and his little larger cousin, Rèppell's Sand Fox, can be seen around the lake, but a good amount of patience and a huge amount of luck are both needed for the sighting.

Avid birdwatchers would certainly call the place a heaven on earth, wildlife addicts would simply fall in love with the lake, and passionate fishermen would find it irresistibly tempting. The lake's recreational fishing tops tourist activities from September to June. Sports fishing is growing as a new tourist segment attracting foreigners and nationals alike. With the length of coastal line, inner waterways and lakes, Egypt is sure to confirm its place on the list of keen anglers. Lake Nasser is grabbing attention with its well- nurtured Nile perch, tiger fish and catfish.

Egypt is way different from Kenya, and Lake Nasser in no way compares to Masai Mara National Park, so it is very essential to fully comprehend that sighting wildlife in Lake Nasser is not a walk in the park. It requires an excellent guide, a lot of preparation and of course the eye for finding such elusive creatures. It is certainly different than your average holiday destination and truly rewarding.

The African Angler organises small cruise boats for fishing and safaris. For more information log on or call: + (20) 097 230 9748

Tel & Fax: + (20) 097 233 0090 Mobile: + (20) 010 342 410, e-Mail:

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