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Wadi el Hitan, meaning "Valley of the Whales" is situated in the Fayoum Governorate in Egypt, roughly 150 kilometers from the capital Cairo. You drive into Fayoum, alongside the lake Qarun and almost at the end of it, you turn left into the desert and enter the protected area Wadi el Rayan. From there onwards it gets a little bit tougher. To reach the whales, you have to conquer a sand track of 34 kilometers, a very bumpy ride. Every five kilometers, there is a stone sign telling you how far you still have to go, not to leave the road and not to speed beyond sixty kilometers an hour. Unfortunately, with that speed each bump makes you feel as if your intestines will be drilled out while more speed may be dangerous. And all 34 kilometers you do not meet a single soul so you may be praying that our car will not suffer a breakdown or worse. But when you manage to get there, it is definitely worth it.

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Wadi el Hitan was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005 and it is really unique. Hundreds of whale skeleton fossils and other skeletons are lying around, ready to be admired. They were first discovered in the beginning of the 20th century and from 1980 people began to seriously study them. Most of the fossils are around 40 million years old, making you feel like a minuscule grain of sand in the desert of time. Around you, there is also nothing but desert: sand, sand stone, sand rock, sand mountain. All shades of brown and yellow are there but not another color in sight.

The desert you stand in is actually the bottom of a former sea, the Tethys Sea, the Western part of the Tethys Ocean that is said to have existed in the Eocene time, when our one-piece-land was still called Pangea. The fossils show that whales have evolved from land animals to creatures, living in the sea. Their remnants were caught in the sandstone bed of the sea after it had dried. They may have been covered by layers of rock first, but these have disappeared through erosion. Some of the fossils found belong to the Basilosaurus (this name means King Lizard), an animal of about 20 meters length which lived between 35 and 40 million years ago (give or take a few). This animal is a whale but has also rudimentary hind legs, which may prove that it has been a sort of amphibian once. It is seen as the ancestor of our current whales. Its own ancestor is probably the quadruped Ambulocetus, which in 10 million years had its front legs changed into fins and its hind legs shrunk into rudimentary, just to disappear totally in the years after that. Another animal, a lot like the Basilosaurus, which was found here is the Dorudontus. Both animals were more snake-like than the whales as we know them now.

You may meet many different species of whales in different stages of evolution on your walk, but also sea cows, turtles and saw fishes. In the information center at the entrance, they advise the tourists to take 2-3 hours for the walk. As the path is barely 1 1/2 kilometers long, this may seem a lot, but there are so many pieces to admire, for which you sometimes have to go off the path and into the desert, that it is worthwhile to take your time (and sunscreen and a hat),
Time has left very interesting shapes in the desert, shaped by wind and perhaps other forms of erosion. The picture underneath to the left made me think a sculptor had created a snail and tried to fool us into thinking, this was a natural form, but observing it from up close showed, that no human hand had worked on it. You also see many "desert melons", round sandstone balls, scattered around.

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Looking around you, in the layers of the landscape you can see layers of time. There are striped mountains, which have remained standing in the desert, ready to tell you their history. The black stripe is a layer of shale, and you also often see stone mangrove roots. Shells and pieces of mother-of-pearl and fossil wood are also abundant.
The oldest layer, the dark shale layer on top of the desert at the bottom of the mountain is about 40 million years old. Where this layer came to the surface, whales were found, crocodiles, turtles and shark teeth. The middle layer consists of sand stone, lime stone and clay and contains some whale fossils as well. The layer on top of that, about 39 million years old, contains invertebrate sea animals, so in this period there may have been a shallow sea.

On the picture underneath you see part of the remnants of a fossil of a log coming from a mangrove palm, which suggests that the area once was probably lush and green and completely different from the hot and dusty desert it is now. Even though no pharaohs or other famous human beings have lived here, that did not prevent foreigners to export pieces to their own country, as they did with the pharaonic treasures. Fossils from Wadi Hitan can be found in London, Berlin, Stuttgart and Michigan. If you are interested in fossils, you can also find them in the Gebel Qatrani formation (primates and elephants), which lies to the North of the Lake Qarun in the Fayoum Governorate. The Muqattam hills in Cairo contain fossils as well, but in this area the original inhabitants have been completely conquered by the population of the growing city.