Whales? In the desert?
Many millions of years ago, when this part of the world was partly underwater, some land animals were making the transition to becoming sea mammals. Early whales died and sank to the bottom of the ocean, where their bodies were preserved in the sediment. The sea dried up and left the animals buried deep underground. Over the millennia erosion eventually uncovered their bones.
Scientists first found sea creature skeletons here in 1902. Wadi al-Hitan, Valley of the Whales, is so remote that they didn’t get around to excavating until the 1980s. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and on Friday I went to see it.
It’s a two-hour drive from where I live in Giza to the oasis town of Fayoum. Then it’s another hour on a slow gravel track through the desert to Wadi Al-Hitan. Our driver Mahmoud took it slow and steady in his 5-passenger sedan.
When we finally arrived, we found a modern visitor center with a museum, cafe, police station, and even proper toilets (I never thought I’d be the kind of traveler that got excited about flush toilets. It was a pleasant surprise, but only if I don’t think about how far the water has to be carried out here to make them work).
Wadi al-Hitan is important because some of the species found here were at an early stage of changing from land-based to sea creatures, still with hind legs and feet. These discoveries gave solid evidence to the theory of how marine mammals evolved.
Scientists are still finding interesting things in the valley.
When we were done with the museum my friends and I spent a couple of hours on the park’s well-marked paths. There are labels, shelters, and informational signs to help guide visitors. Rather surprisingly, Valley of the Whales only attracts about 1,000 tourists each year.