‘Whale Valley’ is the English term for Wadi Al Hitan. Any connection between whale and desert may sound strange, but those huge fossils of prehistoric whales found and kept in Wadi Al Hitan would make you re-think over this matter! Let’s proceed to Wadi Al Hitan; I’ll explain everything on time.
It was the first day of our 3N/4D Sahara trip. After visiting the Magic Lake, we were driven to Wadi Al Hitan. Our car stopped in front of a traditional desert hut, at first sight of it, the jingle of our childhood TV series based on the stories of ‘Arabian Nights’ started playing in my mind!
This is a resting place for the visitors of Whale Valley! But sitting here, anybody may forget about whale and keep looking at the mesmerizing backdrop of the hut, those amazingly shaped stunning yellow rock formations against the eye-soothing blue of the sky.
Wind erosion and exfoliation have created a unique texture for what the rocks were looking like melting ice-cream. We came here for prehistoric fossils, but we had no idea about this ‘rock’ing wonder of Wadi Al Hitan. The scenic beauty is so worth-seeing, we felt like if there would be no other wonders in Sahara, we would still do this trip just to be here!
But where are the whales? “Over there” – Khaled, our guide pointed to a place hidden behind the background rock. “But it’s better to visit the museum at first.” A little bit away, we saw a circular house resembling to a tomb-shaped rock formation nearby and when went closer, found a board mentioning ‘Fossils and Climate Change Museum”.
According to our pre-acquired knowledge, in Wadi Al Hitan, some huge & almost intact fossils of the whales are kept open air, so we were excited to witness that, not some museum stuffs! But the museum won our heart! In the center of the museum intact skeletons of two types of pre-historic whales were kept in a circular pattern, facing each other.
The bigger one is Basilosaurus and the other one is named Dorudon. They are 37 million years old! From the introductory label of the gallery, we came to HOW DID FOSSIL WHALES END UP HERE!
The name Basilosaurus reminded me about Dinosaurus. In fact, Basilosaurus means ‘King Lizard’, a misnomer chosen when people first thought that its bones belonged to some reptilian sea monster. Scientists later determined that Basilosaurus was a mammal and a whale, though Basilosaurus did not give rise to any later species of whales. On the other hand, Dorudon, the shorter one or a species of early whale just like Dorudon was probably the ancestor of all modern whales.
None of us is geologist but the museum was very helpful to make us understand the continental drift and climate changes of the world with time.
We came to know that in between 34 million to 23 million years before present, due to global cooling process the Tethys Sea continued to retreat and marine sea slowly gave way to brackish and then fresh water resulting the changes in biodiversity. Fossils of an Arsinotherium (Prehistoric four-horned Rhino) and petrified tree were indicating this period before the birth of Sahara.
The museum was actually a trailer for our Sahara trip. The nummulites and different types of rocks displayed there were found by us under open sky in different parts of Egypt. Being already introduced to them in this museum was of a great help and that was why Khaled sent us here at first.
After coming out from the museum, we saw Khaled preparing our lunch in that traditional hut. We were suggested to explore the actual ‘Whale Valley’ behind the rock by foot as the car is not allowed there.
It was not far away! We went across the rock and found the skull and vertebrae of a Basilosaurus whale imbedded in hard sandstone. But the full body impression we found from the fossil of a Dorudon nearby. There were another fossil of a Sirenia (Sea Cow). Still then we were used to see fossils of prehistoric creatures under the roof of museum, but for the first time we got to see them where and how they had been actually found. The film Jurassic Park was released, when I was a kid. There was a scene where paleontologists were examining over a huge skeleton of dinosaur partially emerged from sand. That scene created a deep impact within me and I used to fantasize a larger than life image of those people who got chance to be present at that site! That fantasy, needless to say, drew us here.
After proceeding few more step we found a huge and almost intact fossil of Basilosaurus. How tiny we are in front of it! And it was some 34 million years old! How many zeros are there behind 34! Oh my God! It’s hard to explain what we felt that moment!
There was a fossil of corals. Fossils of different marine lives were scattered in different areas. Every fossil is encircled by a rope! What a simple preservation of these valuables! Here, nature is the protector.
Most of the fossils were partial and not in good condition. We explored ten of them. There were 2-3 more scattered in distant regions, but the scorching heat of midday was grabbing our energy, so we were in doubt whether to be or not to be there. Therefore we planned not to wait for each other, but to explore the area in everyone’s own comfort and energy! According to our plan we got detached from each other and marked some nearby rocks as our meeting point after we would finish our exploration. That was a big mistake. After a point, every rock seemed resembling each other. So we lost our ways. The ground was extremely wavy; therefore we could not see each other. For those 10-15 minutes we searched each other desperately and destroyed our valuable energy. Though we found ourselves, but it was a remarkable experience of our life, rather a lesson how and why people get lost in desert and how they feel!
Wadi Al Hitan, in all senses was a lesson for us! It was like an open air museum of all possible kinds of rock formations caused by wind erosion, temperature and weathering. As far as we could see we were surrounded by rocks whose structures made us recall the chapters of Natural Geography that we read in high school. Later we found them in other areas of Sahara, but any first exposure is always special.
Our lost energy was fully regained by the delicious lunch made by Khaled. It was also our first exposure of his excellent cooking and of course that mind-blowing Bedwin tea that was served after lunch. What else one need for a perfect rejuvenation, especially for coming out from a trauma of getting lost in desert! We wished not to let those moments go, but Sahara has enough tempting things to offer, so we packed and started for the next wonder.
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