The pyramids are incredibly old! 5000 years of civilisation look down on us from those Pharaonic monuments in Egypt. For our guidebook “Ägypten – Die klassische Nilreise”, we have visited them countless times. But during our most recent research trip to Egypt, we finally found time for a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan, a site where petrified whale fossils have been discovered. And if the pyramids – and other megalithic structures such as the underground Hypogeum Hal Saflieni or the megalithic temples of Malta – are very old, the whale fossils in Wadi Al-Hitan are exceedingly old!
This blog post will show you what to expect from a visit to Wadi-Al-Hitan in Egypt and how to get there.
Why visit the Wadi-Al-Hitan?
At Wadi Al-Hitan, researchers discovered fossilized whales with hind legs. This discovery proves that whales actually developed from land-based animals to ocean-living mammals. The palaeontological remains in Wadi Al-Hitan date from the Eocene, about 50 million years ago. Back then, the Thetys Ocean covered much of today’s Egypt. Along the coastline of the Tethys Ocean grew subtropical mangrove forests, corals thrived in the shallow seabed of lush lagoons. And these early types of whales presumably roamed those lagoons, close to the coast and occasionally still coming ashore!
Through the Wadi-Al-Rayan Nature Park to the Wadi Al-Hitan
We have rented a 4×4 with driver from the village of Tunis in the Fayoum Oasis in order to visit Wadi Al-Hitan. Today the site is in the desert within the Wadi Al Rayan Protected Area. Soon after the turn-off into the Wadi Al-Rayan Nature Park, our driver Mohammed leaves the road and speeds into the desert. Wadi Al-Hitan is about 50 km west of Tunis, and with a 4×4 you can avoid the detour on a potholed desert road. Flat sand plains eventually give way to more distinct sandy valleys and rocky mountains. Then we rejoin the road and pass a sign: UNESCO World Heritage, Wadi al-Hitan. The Wadi Al-Hitan was inscribed as a UNESCO world Heritage site in 2005.
Visiting the museum at the Wadi Al-Hitan site
Finally, we stop at a small parking lot in the middle of the desert, at the beginning of a broad valley. In the vast sandy landscape, we spot a few sandy mudbrick structures. They blend perfectly into the environment, and one of them is housing a museum.
Two large, intact whale skeletons feature in the centre of the museum. On a first glimpse these skeletons look like normal whale backbones – except that this is actually stone rather than bone. These whales lived about 50 to 40 million years ago in the area of today’s Wadi Al-Hitan. They died naturally, apparently, were covered by earth and sand, and became petrified. During this process mineral substances oozed into the bones and gradually completely replaced the organic material. The Thetys Ocean eventually disappeared, and the area became the uninhabitable Western Desert. Only with time, erosion exposed some of these skeletons again. It was in 1905 that the British Cartographer H.J.L. Beadnell discovered the petrified whale skeletons in Wadi Al-Hitan.
In front of the two whale skeletons, there is a small glass showcase. The petrified bones in it are perhaps the most important find in the Wadi Al-Hitan. They are not just some other whale bones, but short hind legs. Legs? Those whales had legs?! Indeed, the whale fossils in Wadi Al-Hitan belong to the earliest suborder of whales. These whales, the archaeoceti, are long extinct. But as we now know, they were originally mammals living at least partly on land. Like crocodiles, for instance, they had short legs to move on land. But they could also use these legs to paddle in the water – similar to ducks, we imagine. The skeletons found in Wadi Al-Hitan were in the last stages of losing their hind limbs. There might be finds in the future with even bigger hind legs.
Walking to the fossilized remains
From the museum building, a signposted path leads out into the yellow desert. Numbers and side-trails lead to 18 “stations”. They are marked points of interest to visitors, some with a plaque or an information panel. Most of them are the petrified remains of whale skeletons. The archaeologists have left some of the most impressive intact fossils in-situ and the huge whale backbones in the sand are quite impressive. Occasionally the fossils still perch on ledges of eroded stone.
A panel calls on us to find the layer of corals in the desert rocks. And with some prodding, we manage to recognise the different layers in the landscape of erosion. And yes, there is a peculiar band of patterned stone that must be the corals. It is on this layer of corals, we learn, that most of the fossils are found. The whales were living in this region, after all, when there was a seabed with corals. Thus, when they died, they sank down and came lying on top of the corals. On the remainder of our walk, we even spot some petrified bone pieces on that coral band of stone, even apart from those bones numbered for the visitors. The walk around Wadi Al-Hitan also leads us to some nice viewpoints over the desert landscape with its peculiarly shaped rocks.
A visit to the Nature Park of Wadi Al-Rayan
After our visit to Wadi Al-Hitan we take the access road back into the Nature Park of Wadi Al-Rayan. The park straddles several salt lakes in the desert. It is mostly Egyptian tourists who enjoy the nature there. Our driver Mohammed shows off his driving skills by driving up a rocky hill in the 4×4. Going up steep sandy slopes in a car feels quite scary! But then, the panorama view from the top is gorgeous.
Afterwards we have a Bedouin-style tea at a smaller lake, the so-called Magic Lake (a very nice lake, but not particularly magic…). There is also a real Bedouin tent not far from us on the lakeshore.
A detour to Egypt’s only waterfall
On the way back we make a brief detour. The short access road between the Upper Salt Lake and the Lower Salt Lake is unusually good. Cars and coaches go our way. At the parking lot at the end of the road, we marvel at the tourist crowds! Obviously this is the place to go! A short walk from the parking lot leads to the viewpoints: From the Upper Salt Lake, a small stream flows into the Lower Salt Lake. Split in two arms, it forms a small waterfall. That is, by international standards. For the Egyptian visitors, it is a rare opportunity to see a waterfall at all!
How to arrange a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan
We went to Tunis Village at the banks of Lake Qarun in the Fayoum Oasis and stayed there for two nights. Tunis Village is a famous pottery village with a good tourist infrastructure. From there, it was easy to arrange the visit to Wadi Al-Hitan for 2 persons by 4×4, even on short notice. It would even be possible to rent a normal taxi there for the day and go only to Wadi Al-Hitan on the regular access road. We paid around 70 $ for a 4×4 with driver for the whole day.
Tour operators in Cairo also arrange the visit to Wadi Al-Hitan as a day trip, but this adds at least two hours’ driving time each way. Prices on the Internet are around 200 $ for the trip from Cairo (4×4 with driver for one day).
Note that ticket prices are usually not included in the care hire. Entrance fee for Wadi Al-Rayan is 5 $ for foreigners. You have enter Wadi Al-Rayan in order to reach Wadi Al-Hitan, since it forms part of the Nature Park. At Wadi Al-Hitan foreigners pay an additional 10$ entrance fee (this was in January 2023).
Should you visit Wadi Al-Hitan?
Wadi Al-Hitan was the first highlight of our travel year 2023! We wanted to see this UNESCO site for a long time and are very glad that we finally made it. After all, it is rare to visit something that old – such as the impressive dinosaur finds in Fukui Prefecture in Japan. We were happy that there was a lot to explore in Wadi Al-Hitan as quite often these very old UNESCO sites have disappointed us a bit. For instance, in Denmark we have endeavoured to admire a scientifically important layer of ash dating to the time of the dinosaurs.
Apart from the sheer thrill of looking at something 50 million years old, we also enjoyed the landscape. The visit involves a long, rather lonesome walk in spectacular desert scenery. If you have some extra time on your Egypt trip, we would highly recommend a detour to Tunis and Wadi Al-Hitan. A lot of Egyptian tourists and expats from Cairo come on the weekend and reservations might be necessary during season.
NB: Our visit to Wadi Al-Hitan was not sponsored in any way and we paid all expenses.
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