Monday, January 17, 2011


We are up early, in spite of jet lag, and enjoy the nice breakfast included with our room, and are packed and ready to leave when Dalia arrives at 8 am. We are grateful for the sweater vests Dalia has provided us. It is chilly and rainy, nothing we had anticipated in Egypt. We are dressed in layers - shirt, long sleeved sweater, expedition vest, sweater vest and safari jacket! (So if we look a bit bulky, that's the reason!)

We are scheduled to head out to nature areas to look for butterflies and birds, but in this weather there no butterflies and only a handful for birds.

The pictures from today are here:

We are heading out to Wadi El Rayan and the El-Rayan Valley in the Western Desert, taking a loop around Fayoum Lake and through the desert for about two and a half hours. But this does not really feel like a desert today - it is foggy, rainy and chilly! In El Rayan Valley are two man-made lakes and a small waterfall (the only one in Egypt!) all in a wildlife preserve. But with the cold and rain, most wild things seeking cover. We climbed the sand dunes there, and found our first Teythis Sea fossils, small sand dollar- type creatures.

With little prospect of sun or butterflies, we continue on to Wadi El-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales. This wonder was declared a UNECSO World Heritage site a few years ago, a title it richly deserves. But if we had had anything less than the Toyota safari vehicle, we would not have made it to Wadi el Hitan. Rain made roads very hazardous, washing out some places and turning others into seas of mud.

Normally you take a 4 by 4, or even an ordinary car along the paths in the Valley of the Whales but it is, we are told, too wet to drive so we must walk, 3 kilometers. It turns out this is by far the best way to appreciate this wonderful place.

Even without the fossils, the landscape would earn this place great fame. But barely had we reached the first station, places marked as containing with the most significant fossils, but the skies opened up and it was a deluge. Quickly we flee back down the hill and seek what little cover there is in a tiny kitchen off the picnic area that is covered only by woven reeds to offer protection from the sun but not from pouring rain. Change of plans – we will eat first.

After having lunch inside the caretaker's shop (he makes us welcome in spite of the mud on our shoes and much of the rest of our clothing), a lunch prepared by our intrepid driver, the rain seems to have eased off, and the wind has subsided, so we embark along the trail once more. The rain has intensified the colors of the sandstone formations that are fantastically shaped by the winds and in the past, water erosion. This is one of the world's great places, and not to be missed.

Our pictures in no way do this place justice.

In the Valley of the Whales paleontologists have so far found thousands of skeletons of sharks, dogfish and, and whales that some 40 million years ago, were thriving in the Tethys Sea. The fossilized roots of mangroves are a clue that this was a shoreline, one of the most active parts of the ecosystem. Scientists believe the rolling surf may have helped concentrate skeletons near the ancient shoreline.

Over thousands of millennia, a mantle of sediment built up over the bones. Eventually the sea receded, and the former seabed became a desert. More millennia and the wind carved away the sandstone and shale above the bones. Still the secret of these bones lay hidden until about 25 years ago when Philip Gingerich, a paleontologist with the University of Michigan, came here. Soon he was exploring the fossils of whales and other marine animals, One day he was bushing sand away from the spinal column of a 50-foot long Basilosaurus whale when he discovered proof that whales evolved from land mammals. It was a bone from a vestigial leg, less than three feet long, Basilosaurus was a whale, with two delicate hind legs.

Here we are walking across the bottom of an ancient sea, seeing what Gingerich calls the Rosetta stone of whale evolution! And there may be countless more skeletons remaining to be discovered here.

Our intention had been to camp out near the Valley of the Whales, but the rain and cold forced a change of plans. The tents (carried on top of the truck) were soaked and there was no dry place to camp even if we had wanted to brave the chill. So Dalia called Samir to arrange accomodations in Fayoum City.. Samir found us a villa just on the outskirts, a lovely place.

When we finally got there, having worked our way around land slips and mud, and waited about 10 minutes for someone to unlock the gate, it seems all the power is off all over town and also there is no water. Well, the original plan had been to camp out so we DID have water and food and the two of us have two flashlights each (never travel without them!). Fortunately there was a gas stove and with the combination of food we had and Gammal, our driver, had brought, Jim produced a very tasty chicken stew by candlelight – and enjoyed the accomplishment a great deal! And we all ate by candlelight.

We retire early - it's been a busy day and we are tired. The house is quite chilly - of course with no power, no heat - and the two of us sleep together in a twin bed with multiple (and very heavy!) blankets.

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