The recently opened Wadi El-Hitan Museum makes an informative and enjoyable trip for adults and children alike.
written and drawn by Richard Hoath
I have visited Wadi El-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales southwest of Fayoum, twice in the past few weeks. The first time was to visit the recently opened Wadi El-Hitan Museum. The second time was to show it off to friends, so impressed was I by it.
If your idea of a museum, and I mention no particular example of course, is of a vast, dry, dusty, ill-labeled edifice with iconic pieces held together with epoxy, think again. Inside Wadi El-Hitan is a gem of a museum dedicated to climate change and to the fossils, whales and very much more, that abound in the area. It is airy and interactive. It is extensively labeled in English and Arabic and follows a clear chronology from the Big Bang to the modern day. And the centerpiece, two massive 20 meter skeletons of the wadi’s showpiece, the extinct whale Basilosaurus isis, complete with hind limbs missing from modern whales, the hind limbs that highlight its pivotal place in whale evolution. Wadi El-Hitan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, such is the importance of these fossils.
Outside it is anything but attention grabbing, which is what it was designed to be. Renowned architect Gabriel Mikhail has designed it as a low, rounded cupola that mirrors the surrounding rock formations and the honey-beige adobe means it blends seamlessly into the landscape.
While these were my first visits to the museum, I had been to the site several times before. My very first visit was not a great success. I was the natural history guide to a coachload of visitors all eager to walk the site and see the colossal skeletons laid out in the desert. My role was to give a talk in the coach about whales and whale evolution ahead of arrival at the wadi, and with children in the audience I wanted to make the talk less lecture than presentation and to be interactive. With this in mind I brought with me the skull of a Bottle-nosed Dolphin I had found at Lake Bardawil, North Sinai many years ago so that I could not just pontificate about whale skeletons, I could deliver a hands-on experience. It proved to be an inspired move.
There is a turnoff on the main road west from Wadi Rayan and an unmetalled but perfectly serviceable track leads from there across some 35 km of desert to the wadi entrance. The coach driver — who had been made fully aware of the track ahead of the trip, decided, in his notably finite wisdom, that the track was impassable for his coach and that he was not going to go on. We argued, cajoled, begged and beseeched to no avail. We phoned up the company’s office and spoke to the manager to no avail. Adults got angry to no avail. Children wept to no avail, no doubt after having the fossils hyped up for days in advance ahead of the big adventure.
At this point I asked a group of the parents to take the younger offspring off to explore. With them out of the way I buried my dolphin skull and on their return we played at being paleontologists and they ‘discovered’ and ‘excavated’ my dolphin skull. It proved a real hit and a Bottle-nosed Dolphin skull should be top of the list when packing for a family day out.
It might be only 35 km from Wadi Rayan to Wadi El-Hitan but in terms of natural history they are whole worlds apart. The lakes of Wadi Rayan and indeed Qarun in Fayoum itself host tens of thousands of waterbirds in winter, waders, ducks, gulls and terns the vast majority of which will be heading off this month to breeding grounds perhaps as northerly as the high Arctic. A few will remain here to breed. We got excellent views of one such resident, the Purple Swamphen (formerly called the Purple Gallinule but that name is now given to a similar but much smaller American species). Our Purple Swamphen is a big bird some 45 cm long, bright purple throughout with a green back and bright crimson legs and bill — including a stonking great head shield. Its rear is bright white, an important feature as it is this that is often your only view of the bird as it heads for cover in the dense reed beds it calls home. At Lake Qaroun on my recent trips, the swamphens have been positively coquettish flaunting their purpleness for the binoculars. Sadly the equally spectacular Greater Flamingos that often grace the saline shallows of the lake’s western end proved far less flirtatious. They failed to show though a friend with a house in Tunis on the lake’s southern shore had photographed them earlier in February.
Of course none of these birds are found at Wadi El-Hitan. This is desert and austere desert with very little vegetation at all and the species are at once similar yet different. The crow of the oasis (technically Fayoum isn’t really one) is the Hooded Crow, the common and widespread crow of the agricultural areas and the cities decked out in somber black and gray. The crow of the desert is the Brown-necked Raven, about the same size at 48 cm long but black throughout. The brown neck is hard to see in the field unless the sun catches the bird at just the right angle.
A bird we got excellent views of on my trip last weekend was the Crested Lark. This dowdy, streaked species has a prominent, sharply pointed crest and is frequent at roadsides presumably feeding on insects disturbed by the traffic. We found a male perched out on a telephone wire singing his song that sounds as bubbly and effervescent as his appearance is dull. Wadi El-Hitan is home to a very different lark, the Hoopoe Lark. This species of very dry deserts has a longer, more slender, down-curved bill than the Crested Lark is, rather larger with no crest and in flight is easily told by the bold black and white patterning on the wings — indeed reminiscent of the Hoopoe. Its song is even more ostentatious than the Crested, the male flying vertically up into the air and then closing its wings and falling dramatically all the while calling. An old friend nicknamed it The Dive-bomb Bird.
On the late afternoon drives back along the southern shore of Lake Qaroun the farmland and marshes yielded my first record of White-throated or Smyrna Kingfisher from the area and several Black-winged Kites, balletically graceful raptors in white and soft gray with black on the wings and glaring red eyes. I always hope for Little Owls. They seem to like the telegraph poles rather than the wires, sitting hunched at the top like a feathered Nelson atop a wooden Column. Not these times round.
So give the museum a visit. On both my recent trips there were people there reading, absorbing, learning and listening. It informs and is fun and best of all it is being used. The walks around the site are long enough for everyone to have their own little bit of desert and quiet. But just in case the unexpected happens, make sure you dust off the old dolphin skull and slip it into the day bag.