Valley of the Whales: A Phenomenal National Park in the Middle of Nowhere
Updated On: May 29, 2022
Valley of the Whales, Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt
Countries get to be characterised by how nature unveils itself within their borders. Many African, South American, and European countries are famous for having forests. Some countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, and Tajikistan are themed by their incredibly high mountains. Others are popular tourist destinations thanks to their dazzling beaches. Now more and more countries are presenting themselves as the ones with the tallest towers and largest resorts.
Egypt, on the other hand, is known for three things: enchanting history, phenomenal beaches, and golden deserts. Desert makes up more than 90% of the total area of Egypt. For thousands of years, Egyptians have lived around the Valley of the Nile where agriculture and therefore life are possible.
Making that much of the country already, desert tourism in Egypt has been quite popular; yet, unfortunately not with many tourists thanks to the culpable stereotype that claims deserts are no fun and extremely hot. Well, they are quite hotter than most of the other places but that part about not being fun and all is extraordinarily wrong.
What is so special about the desert?
First and foremost, let’s say here that a vacation in the desert is not for everyone. Those looking for thrilling adventures will definitely feel bored, let alone disappointed if all they get to do is sit down and do nothing. On the other hand, those who are looking forward to some quiet time will be literally stunned. Therefore, if you see yourself as one of the latter, read on. If you are looking for a stirring adventure, also read along for there is a chance you might change your mind!
Unlike every other place that people go to when on vacation, the desert is exceptionally simple. There is literally nothing else than land and the sky. But the experience is not limited to this. Being in a place as open as the vast desert provides many benefits that can truly change the way one views the world and therefore transform their entire life.
First, there is the silence
That terribly silent silence that stops time itself. It is perfect for clearing your head; for meditation with no external distractions whatsoever. Such silence unconsciously quietens people, giving them a chance to slow down, disconnect, and take a break from the crazy rapid daily cycle. One or a few nights in the desert are enough to discharge and recharge.
That being said, everybody experiences silence differently. It surely allows people to relax but who knows what else they may feel. This, in and of itself, is quite thrilling. Will people feel comfortable? Worried? Or happy? Will they find themselves finally face-to-face with what they have been ignoring lately? Will that blocking of distraction gives a chance for some creative ideas to pop up?
Pushing yourself into that vicious bubble can teach you many things about yourself that you were totally unconscious of.
Second, the emptiness
Hundreds of kilometres of pure nothingness, extending ahead endlessly and evoking feelings of freedom and unrealistic comfort. There are no buildings, no roads, no cars—except that land cruiser you arrived on, of course. Just like everybody pretty much feels irritated being stuck in a car that is stuck on a crowded road that has not moved for the past 20 minutes, many people do feel comfortable in open areas with no buildings blocking the vast sky.
That is why most experts say decluttering helps with feelings of overwhelm. And that is why more and more people are becoming minimalists nowadays. The less you have, the happier you get, at least that is true for some (myself included!)
Third, total disconnection
In a world of people feeling more comfortable texting than having a phone call, much less meeting, talking, and making face-to-face connections with others, everyone is getting more and more isolated and self-absorbed. We are trapped in a prison of screens and we are addicted to it. Work, entertainment, and our own social life have shifted to screens. Consequently, we as well as our kids are growing disconnected and apart.
But in the desert, technology is not allowed. With absolutely no network around, phones suddenly turn into futile pieces of metal and people are suddenly compelled to look around. OK, there is the horizon. There is the sky. Wow, look! People! Let’s go talk to them!
Interestingly, a few days spent in the desert are a great way for people to get to know others who they are travelling with and connect with them. And unlike those conversations made in seminars and job fairs, desert talk is much more friendly and can genuinely be the base for friendships; therefore, a better social life.
Living in noisy crowded cities for a long time sometimes makes people feel they cannot connect with nature. Some even totally forget about nature as being surrounded by screens, walls, roads and buildings, add in the nasty city habit of walking fast and driving fast with the head down staring at the phone, all such things have stopped people from realising any other sort of life around.
Even if this happened, most people unfortunately would not try to slow down and pay attention to that living thing they see, let alone realise that they are alive; that they are here and now—Disney movie Soul, released in October 2020, beautifully emphasised that notion.
That being said, the desert gives people a chance to reconnect with nature. The sky in the desert, for instance, is not like the sky anywhere else. Once the sun sets, you will be amazed by the innumerable tiny “fireflies that got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing” (I bet you would recall that scene from the Lion King once you lie down!)
You will not even feel you need to do anything else because once you look up, you will not be able to put your head down. Well, even if you try, you will just see bright stars everywhere as the dark blue sky is literally wrapping up everything like a half-sphere dome.
You will soon realize that just gazing at the beautiful sheeny-shiny stars is all that you want to do at the moment while you are inevitably falling for that captivating feeling of tranquillity.
Fifth, mental clarity
As we mentioned earlier, silence enables many people to pause their crazy rapid train of thoughts for some time and clear their minds. Others experience silence differently. They may find themselves able to think clearly about the important things in their lives and maybe even make important decisions they have been putting off for some time.
Pausing all distractions around allows many people to see for themselves what is important to them and what they should let go of. That is precisely what journaling does by the way. You pour your thoughts down on paper and clearly see them for what they are.
Being in a place as primitive as the desert, carrying only the most necessary stuff makes people come to realize that they are able to do without so many things—and sometimes people—they thought they cannot live without. For instance, they realise they can be entertained without Netflix and can start their days without their tall, decaf, pumpkin spice lattes!
In turn, this can start people to get rid of what they do not really need but mistakenly thought it was indispensable. Going on vacation in the desert can, on a global level, help reduce consumption and, if I am being ridiculously optimistic, tame global warming and help save the planet!
One of the most popular vacations in Egypt is camping and hiking in the deserts Egypt is abundant with. On top of these destinations is the White Desert the southwest of Cairo which is characterised by its unique rocky chalk formation. Another is the Wadi al-Rayyan which is a nature protectorate located in al-Fayyum City and distinguished by its vast man-made lakes, beautiful waterfalls, and hot springs.
A third is the Valley of the Whales, a 2005 UNESCO World Heritage Site and a distinctive national park that interested geologists since the early 20th-century and became exceptionally important in 1989 when it revealed the mystery that had agonised biologists for decades: how did whales become whales?
Here is how.
What is Wadi al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales)
According to the definition, most people are familiar with, national parks are large areas of countryside that are intended to protect the original wildlife that lives there. That is to say, countries usually open national parks to protect living animals. Well, Egypt has opened a national park to protect dead animals. Animal fossils, to be precise.
Wadi al-Hitan is a national park with a total area of 200 km² in al-Fayyum Governorate, around 220 kilometres southwest of Cairo; a 3-hour ride by car. It was opened in 2007, two years after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yearly, more than a thousand people head to Wadi al-Hitan to see the prehistoric whale fossils and enjoy camping and stargazing in the valley.
The distinctiveness of this desert-themed national park of the dead stems from its biological and geological importance which taught scientists about the prehistoric life forms and the evolution of whales particularly from land-based animals to marine ones and how they made the change from here to there—Well, yes. Whales used to live on land 45 million years ago.
The story began in the early 20th-century when the site which is now the national park of Wadi al-Hitan attracted British geologist Hugh John L. Beadnell. He was working on his graduation project at the time and his excavation in the area led him to discover, completely by chance, the first of hundreds of fossils of prehistoric whales. That was in 1902.
Beadnell returned to the UK with the fossils and showed them to a colleague but the latter mistakenly thought they were the bones of a dinosaur.
Unfortunately, further study of the fossils could not be conducted mostly because the site was incredibly hard to reach at the time. Decades went by with no one paying the site much attention until the late-1980s when an Egyptian American expedition led by palaeontologist Philip D. Gingerich resumed the study of the interesting site.
Previously, Professor Philip D. Gingerich had discovered fossils of whales in Pakistan that had fingers, legs, feet, and toes. Such a discovery provoked huge confusion: how could the legged prehistoric land whales turn into modern legless marine whales? What transition had they gone through that made them lose their legs? What exactly was their cycle of evolution like?
Well, Professor Gingerich did not find the answer to this question until he went on an expedition to Wadi al-Hitan in Egypt, the same site in which Beadnell found the first fossils more than 80 years ago. The discoveries he and his team could make later on enabled them to try to reconstitute what the environment in the area was like 45 million years ago.
First, the passionate professor and his team swept the area carefully and patiently. Luckily, we’re able to record 1400 fossil sites in a total area of 200 km².
Searching in those sites enabled the team to find more and more skeletons of prehistoric whales, the largest of which is 18 metres long and is thought to have weighed around seven metric tons. Interestingly, such primitive whales had similar body and skull structures to those of the modern whales; yet, they had also fingers, legs, feet, and toes, but smaller!
Not only fossils of whales were found but also others of sharks, sawfish, crocodiles, turtles, sea snakes, bony fish, and sea cows.
In addition to that, Professor Gingerich’s team found tons of seashells covering the site. This undoubtedly referred to the ancient presence of water. They also concluded that such water did not experience rough currents, which would not allow the seashells to stay where they were.
That does match the theory that a vast ocean called Tethys used to cover south of Europe and north of Africa. But because Africa was moving northeast, this ocean shrank until it concentrated in what is now the Mediterranean Sea.
As a result of the shrinkage of the ocean and because the area around Fayyum is already a sunken landform, a depression, much of the water was locked in there, leaving behind a sea in which ancient whales and many other marine species lived.
So while the whales discovered in Pakistan lived on land, those in Egypt did live in the sea and had smaller legs, as shown by that the transition they made from land to water.
The smaller legs of the Egyptian whales document the last stages of whales gradually losing them or more accurately having them turned into fins.
What led to such an epiphany is exactly what makes the site highly valuable and the most important one in the world. That is the large concentration of fossils as well as the now-accessible area which made it easy for geologists as well as visitors, later on, to reach the fossils for view and study.
In addition, skeletons were found in great condition and many of them were even complete; even some fossils had the food in their stomachs still undamaged. That is because they were buried for millions of years in the sand, which kept them pretty much well-preserved until it was time for disclosure.
Out of the identified 1400 fossil sites, only 18 are open for regular visitors. The rest are exclusive to geologists and biologists for study purposes only. Interestingly, a fossil of a pelican—which is a large sea bird—was discovered in Wadi al-Hitan in 2021. Such a fossil turned out to be the oldest among all discovered fossils so far.
The search and the rewarding discovery did take many years. The 200-square-kilometre site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 and was turned into a national park—Egypt’s first national park—in 2007 now under the supervision of the Ministry of Environmental Affairs.
Wadi al-Hitan Museum
Or the Wadi Al-Hitan museum of fossils and climate change.
Cooperation between the United Nation Development Programme, the Government of Egypt, and the Government of Italy resulted in the establishment of Wadi al-Hitan Museum. In fact, there are two museums. The first is an open museum, a large site in the desert where complete skeletons of whales are shown where they had been originally discovered.
The second museum, which was opened in January 2016, is an underground hall with an interesting design that is centred by a large skeleton of 18 metres in length.
In the Wadi Al-Hitan museum, other fossils of whales and marine animals are shown, kept in glass cabinets with informative labels written in Arabic and English about the animal displayed.
Besides being of such biological and environmental importance, the site is also perfect for camping. Ever since it was opened to visitors, people have been heading there every year to see the prehistoric fossils and enjoy stargazing and night sky watching.
Most of the site is flat land but there is one relatively short mountain that people enjoy climbing. There are also huge rocks that display the terrific formation caused by wind and water erosion.
In the same area as the museum, there is a Bedouin cafeteria that offers meals and drinks and there are also multiple restrooms nearby.
Going to Wadi al-Hitan
The trip from Cairo to Wadi al-Hitan might be a little weary; yet, it is completely worth it. Many travel companies organise one-night camping trips in the valley usually in spring and autumn. However, the high season is always summer, especially during the meteorite showers in July and August. Just having nothing to do except lying on your back, counting up shooting stars, and gazing at the beauty of the galaxy arm is an incomparable joy.
For the most part of the trip to Wadi al-Hitan, cars do not have any problems driving because the road is well-paved. Yet, for an hour or so before arriving at the park, vehicles have to slow down for the road gets rocky. This is also where phone networks fade until they are completely disconnected, allowing the complete silence to begin.
Usually, travellers to Wadi al-Hitan are notified before that and are advised to make any necessary phone calls before entering the dead zone, after which they have no choice but to put their phones down and get ready for the adventure that is about to start!
If you are interested in visiting Wadi al-Hitan, which we think you should, it is highly recommended you do this with a travel company. They take care of everything and even offer lunch meals. They also bring large telescopes to spot Jupiter and the rings of Saturn which rise on the horizon at around 3:00 in the morning.
One of the best agencies you can travel with is Chefchaouen—no, not the blue Moroccan city. Chefchaouen is a co-workspace based in Dokki, Cairo. They organise a variety of trips and activities at reasonable prices. So if you make up your mind, make sure you go check out their page. If you could make it around the mid-summer months, then you hit the jackpot.
Just be prepared to be struck by the quietness of the place and the vast extension of what might seem like the void but is in fact the bottom of the ocean!
So…Let’s go to Wadi al-Hitan!
A trip to the desert, especially Wadi al-Hitan, can be truly transformative. Not just because it will detach you from the crazy, busy lifestyle of the city but also because it allows you to spend quality time with whoever you are travelling with and to socialise with others, thanks to having no network coverage.
It is also a great chance to make new friends and learn new things about yourself that you might not be aware of. You will be surprised by how such a small act as lying on the sand and staring at the beautiful night sky will wipe away so many dim thoughts. As you realise how small we are compared to the vast cosmos, every other thing that might not be going very well will just sound so tiny, trivial, and overcomeable.