Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


By Injy El-Kashef

Who's the richest one of all? Although the largest and nearest, Fayoum is not the first one that springs to mind whenever the word wahaat (oases) is mentioned, writes Injy El-Kashef. Immediately, most of us think of Bahariya and Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga, even Siwa, but not necessarily Fayoum. Perhaps the reason behind this strange misconception is the huge Lake Qaroun at its centre, endowing the oasis of Fayoum with such a voluminous body of water that it mars the traditional image of the miraculous green burst in the midst of merciless aridity.

At the Wadi Al-Rayan Protectorate west of Fayoum, colours merge in spectacular harmony: soft dunes of wind-ironed sand border the boat- studded salt-water lake surrounded by lush picturesque reeds under a perfectly clear blue sky. Fishermen casting off their nets cause the sudden, synchronised beating of wings off the mirror-like surface of the creeks found in every turn. A bird-watcher's paradise, Wadi Al-Rayan is a welcome haven for numerous species of resident and migrating birds, which display such an array of sizes, colours and shapes as is hard to conceive of so near a forbidding urban centre as Cairo. Birds, however, are not the only creatures bound to attract naturalists and children's eyes; fish -- and fishing -- are a similarly available treat at the lake. Whether during a day trip or camping overnight, fishing is a must- try. If no fishing gear is available, snapping a shoot from any bouquet of reeds and tying a line with a hook around it will do just fine. Although many visitors choose the turbulent waters near the cascades as a fishing spot -- and I have seen about five fish emerge in the space of three minutes in that location -- aiming for bigger catch may dictate asking a boatman to move you towards deeper and calmer areas. Judging by the size of a one-metre catfish laying dead by the beach, it is evident that there are some big boys awaiting a skillful cane to dangle some bait. In the system of waterfalls for which Wadi Al-Rayan is famous, some wild excitement can definitely be sought by more adventurous spirits. Once a very placid spot for a calm swim, the ravages of time -- and people -- have borne their mark on the very network and force of the water. Where there was once a deep pool at the foot of a large waterfall is now a much shallower, yet equally exciting, splashing spot to be reached through a tunnel of gushing torrent that sweeps you literally off your feet.

Although many young children accompanied by adults have enjoyed the experience, both should observe extreme caution. If you are not fond of crowds, avoid the weekends as large groups of visitors are often bound to Wadi Al-Rayan; its proximity and the construction of facilities on the camping site, such as cafeterias and toilets, have rendered this protectorate a perfectly feasible destination for all age groups and most health conditions. On your way, make sure to stop over at King Qaroun's palace dating from around 650 BC. Although only the ancient Egyptian temple over the ground surface is accessible to visitors, just knowing that beneath one's feet lay 366 rooms that once belonged to the earth's richest man is an awe- inspiring experience. From the roof of the palace temple, an extended view of the Fayoum Oasis makes evident the fact that no matter how many visits you have paid the area, there will always be a little something yet to discover.

photo: Injy El-Kashef

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