Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mountain high

Having a bad week? Join Amira El-Naqeeb as she washes away the fatigue

Click to view caption
From top: a view of Gabal Al-Madwara; Al-Nohoud Mountain; in the vicinity of Wadi Al-Rayan

 After a week full of work, a night out with friends on the weekend or chilling out in front of the tube won't do it for me. I decided to pack for a short and easy trip to Wadi Al-Rayan.

Although Fayoum governorate and the Wadi Al-Rayan protected area (WRPA) in particular are popular destinations, there are places inside the protectorate itself which are not. Fayoum, the largest oasis in Egypt, lies 80km from Cairo. It takes almost an hour's drive from Rimaya Square in Giza. Wadi Al-Rayan lies 150km away from Cairo, and it's almost a two-hour drive. It was designated a protected area in 1989. The protected area covers 1,759 square kilometres of the southwestern part of Fayoum governorate.

Eighteen kilometres after the protectorate gate stands Gabal Al-Madwara (the round mountain). The area around the mountain is a perfect spot for spending the day and relaxing. A friend of mine and I parked and got our bags and tent out and started heading down the sandy dunes. We started scouting the area in search of a spot on the shore, and as away as possible from the reed beds forming along the shoreline. The area around Gabal Al-Madwara consists of sand dunes, large water bodies and botanical life. We nestled on a sandy spot on the water.

Swimming in this spot didn't turn out to be a euphoric experience since the water was freezing and the bottom was muddy and slippery. However, on a hot spring day, it is still refreshing. The two lakes in WRPA began forming in 1973 when the desert depression inundated with excess agricultural drainage water. The area comprises a diversity of habitats which has its own characteristic wildlife and features. The spot we settled on had a sublime view overlooking Al-Nohoud (the bosoms). Al-Nohoud is an outstanding rock formation, created by erosion and made of limestone. The reason behind the name is that the shape of the rock formations, coming out of one base, looks like a woman's bosoms. It's perfect for camping if you have a tent. However, if you want to spend the night, there are some specific places inside the protectorate for camping. You can enquire about those places at the information desk at the gates.

There are plenty of activities in Wadi Al-Rayan that can make your day a memorable experience. If you are an avid birdwatcher then Wadi Al-Rayan is a must-go destination. It hosts around 170 species. Winter is the best time of the year for birdwatching when the lakes are abundantly filled with migrant water birds.

Sand dunes are another major attraction in the area. Some of the dunes are about 30km long and 45 metres high, which is ideal for sand surfing with boards or slides. Taking a hike across the dunes is equally thrilling. For an unsurpassed view, you can climb to the top of the dunes south of the lower lake and watch the Western Desert below. However, try to avoid midday in the summer time for such a hike. I had loads of fun walking in the sand, and I got to exercise as well.

Relic hunters will also have their share in the protectorate. In 2005, Wadi Al- Hitan (Valley of the Whales), located within the protected area, was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in recognition of the 40 million- year-old whale skeleton found there. It is known as Egypt's first World Heritage Site. Wadi Al-Hitan is considered an open museum where you can see petrified whale skeletons, shark teeth, shells, and mangrove roots preserved in soft rocks.

There is also Madinat Madi, which is an ancient city uncovered. The city dates back to the third Pharaonic dynasty, built by Amenhotep III, and completed by Amenhotep VI. It lies on the eastern side of WRPA, and is accessible by a road from Fayoum city. There is also a new track that connects the visitors' area (beach area) of the protectorate to Madinat Madi. Information about the track can be acquired from the visitors' centre before going. Just before sunset, we decided to head for Al- Nohoud. It took a 10-minute walk to reach it from where we set up our tent. There was another hill close to Al- Nohoud which is carved beautifully by erosion. We climbed it in another 10 minutes for a panoramic view. The lush greenery standing in contrast with the blue water and the yellow sand dunes made the sunset my most appreciated moments in the day. "Exactly what the doctor ordered," said my friend. I winked at him with a smile, feeling utterly rejuvenated.

Upon leaving and after packing, my friend was taking some pictures. I stood still, mesmerised by the beauty of the sand. I felt my chest expanding and my body floating. I dropped the bags on the ground, and I followed. Laying flat on my belly with my head buried in the sand. I remembered doing exactly the same thing when I was little. It was a sort of objection, as if I didn't want to leave. I guess I did it unconsciously without thinking. May be I was nostalgic for my childhood, or to nature's vast spaces. For someone who has Pocahontas as her favourite cartoon character, the best childhood one can ever have doesn't involve expensive toys and fancy places. It's being allowed to be wild.

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