The Road Less Travelled: Wadi El Hitan + The Oasis of Fayoum
While there are countless amazing things to see in Egypt, a trip or stay in Oum el Dounia wouldn’t be complete without making a stop in the Egyptian desert. Normally a fan of greenery and jungle, I find there’s something ethereal, almost alien if you will, about vast expanses of dust and sand that roll over one another in grainy amber waves and blow across Egypt to the beat of a pharaonic melody.
Unfortunately, travelling into Sinai isn’t recommended these days due to increasing lawlessness in the eastern part of the country. Heading west of Cairo however, is still an option and, aside from St. Catherines in Sinai, it’s where some of the best desert trekking can be found.
For one of my last weekends in Egypt, I went into the desert – convoy style – with a great group of people to celebrate upcoming change, leave the pollution and noise of Cairo behind and spend time together under an expansive sky. Given that time is limited on the average two day weekend, we went to the closest desert – Wadi El Hitan (Valley of the Whales), in the governorate of Fayoum – to sleep under the stars.
We got up early and undertook a meandering 5 hour journey starting in Wadi El-Rayan. Though I had made the journey before, it was no less breathtaking this time around. The weather was perfect (not too hot and not to cold), the tour thought provoking and the silence of the ages echoed in my ears. The desert acting as a suitable backdrop for the absence of sound.
After a several hours of driving and walking, we stopped for lunch 1.5 hours from Wadi El Hitan (note: Valley of Whales is 150 km southwest of Cairo and can be reached in 2 hours…not taking into consideration possible mind-bending traffic though) and spent time climbing into the hills to peruse a couple of old monastery caves before breaking for lunch and a little siesta.
Following lunch we continued the drive towards Wadi El Hitan. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wadi El Hitan is known for the hundreds of archaeoceti fossils littered across several kilometeres of desert. The remains point to the existence of a-now extinct sub-order of whales. Geologists and archaeologists believe that Wadi El Hitan was actually underwater some 40 million years ago, and whales used to be land-based mammals before they became ocean-loving ones.
Due to its proximity to Cairo it’s quite easy to plan a day trip to the desert of Fayoum, including the Valley of the Whales. If you have more than a day available however, it’s worth carting along a sleeping bag and pillow to spend a night or two sleeping in a tent or under the stars. Between the food, the conversation, the roasting of marshmallows over a blazing fire or spending hours gazing up into a jet black night painted with stars, very little comes close to the simultaneous feeling of separateness and oneness this type of experience generates. It is, by far, one of the most magical things one can do in the Middle East.
After a rough and tumble night (while I enjoy being in the desert I’m not good sleeping in it) chased down by a high protein breakfast, we took a lazy two hour tour of the Valley of the Whales before hopping in our cars to return to the city. Along the way we stopped for a light lunch at the Fayoum Oasis, which is 85 km south of Cairo. Fayoum Oasis is one of largest bodies of water in Egypt and it is fed by water from the Nile that runs through a series of canals. On the edges of the Fayoum Oasis is Lake Qaroun, a large salt-water basin that serves as a main drain for El Batts and El Wadi.
It is possible to breakfast, lunch or even camp out by the lake. Though bring your mosquito spray if you’re going to be there between March and November. While it’s possible to swim in the lake, the basin is quite deep, which means the water is icy cold…especially during the winter and early months of spring.
Desert + lake + archaeology + camaraderie = a most fabulous time.
Planning a trip to the desert? Contact: