Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Valley of the Whales

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The deserts of Egypt have always been known to hold and hide the mysteries of the ancient pharaohs, buried treasures of kings and queens that once ruled these lands. Apparently, these lands where once ruled by much bigger, grander creatures, they too left behind their treasures.

Over 40 million years ago, long before any human existence, the western desert of Egypt formed part of the Tethys Sea, which was an extension of what is today the Mediterranean Sea. As the wind blows northwards through this barren, arid desert, it reveals one of the greatest mysteries of evolution: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal.

Wadi El-Hitan, which in English means Whale Valley, is a reserve within the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area, in the Fayoum Oasis, some 150 km from Cairo. The desert floor is littered with fossil remains of now extinct whales. More significantly, there is no other place in the world yielding the number, concentration and quality of such fossils, as is their accessibility and setting in an attractive and protected landscape. This is why it has been recently added by the UNESCO to the list of protected World Heritage sites.

The first fossil skeletons were discovered in the winter of 1902-3. The remains display the typical streamlined body form of modern whales, yet retaining some of the primitive aspects of skull and tooth structure. The largest skeleton found reached up to 21 m in length, with well developed five-fingered flippers on the forelimbs and the unexpected presence of hind legs, feet, and toes, not known previously in any archaeocete (a now extinct sub-order of whales). Their form was serpentine and they were carnivorous. A few of these skeletal remains are exposed but most are shallowly buried in sediments, slowly uncovered by erosion. Wadi El-Hitan provides evidences of millions of years of coastal marine life.

The fossils here may not be the oldest found but their great concentration in the area and the degree of their preservation is to the extent that even some stomach contents are intact. The actuality of fossils of other early mammals such as sharks, crocodiles, sawfish, turtles and rays found at Wadi El-Hitan makes it possible to reconstruct the surrounding environmental and ecological conditions of the time, adding to its justification to be cited as a Heritage site.

Only about 1000 visitors a year drive into Wadi El-Hitan by 4WD due to the fact that the track is unpaved and crosses unmarked desert sands. To the most part, visitors to Wadi Al-Hitan are foreigners, who usually camp in the valley on winter weekends. Because Wadi El-Hitan is within Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area, the same protection management plan restricts visitors to prearranged guided tours along a prescribed trail. Sustainable tourism is beginning to develop and grow in the area, and the 4WD are alternatively being replaced by foot or camel treks.

Besides journeying into the desert, to experience the wonders of the past, Wadi El-Hitan, is also home to 15 species of desert plants, sand dunes and about 15 types of wild mammals including the north African jackal, red fox, Egyptian mongoose, African wildcat, and dorcas gazelle. Also, attracted by the lakes at Wadi El-Rayan are recorded 19 species of reptiles and 36 species of breeding birds.

The valley is located behind a mountain, known as Gabal Gar Gohannam which is Arabic for The Mountain Next to Hell. In the light of the setting sun, the mountain seems ablaze with an eerie red light, which only added to the feeling that one is about to embark on a journey to unravel the hidden mysteries of a yet un-chartered planet.

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To find more about Wadi El-Hitan, please visit:
Wadi El-Hitan, Fayoum