One kilometre beyond Tunis, a well-signposted spur-road turns off the lakeside highway towards Wadi Rayan, a separate depression 15km outside the oasis which has become a man-made wildlife haven. The idea of piping excess water from the Fayoum into the wadi was first mooted by the British but only put into practice in 1966, when three lakes and a waterfall were created, vegetation flourished and the area became a major nesting ground for birds.

Wadi Rayan is now a nature reserve harbouring the world’s sole known population of slender-horned gazelles, eight other species of mammals, thirteen species of resident birds and 26 migrant and vagrant species. The prehistoric fossils of the Valley of the Whales also come under its auspices, supported by several foreign NGOs.

Lakes and waterfalls

Initially cultivated, the valley gets sandier the closer you get to Wadi Rayan’s azure lakes, where hordes of visitors descend on Fridays and holidays to sunbathe and play ghettoblasters on the beach. The lake is too saline for swimming, but boating (and floating in rubber tyres) is popular, and its tatty lakeside cafés are always busy.

From the main lake a track leads to the waterfalls (shallalat). The only ones in Egypt, they’ve appeared in countless videos and films despite being only a few metres high, and are usually busy with families enjoying the novelty of an outdoors power-shower, surrounded by reeds and sand dunes.

Birdwatching, dunes and springs

About 10km beyond the visitors’ centre, the road passes a hill known as Al-Mudawara which you can hike up for a spectacular view of the reed-fringed lake and desert scarp beyond. Soon afterwards is the turn-off for the Valley of the Whales, followed by a signposted turning to a birdwatching site by the shore. Besides the ubiquitous cattle egrets, grey herons and little bitterns, there are hard-to-spot wagtails, skylarks, kestrels, kites and Senegal coucals.

Further on, magnificent seif dunes 30m high run parallel to an inlet fringed by tamarisks, with three sulphur springs nearby, before the road crosses a boring stretch of desert to return to the oasis. All of this route can be done in a 2WD car, unlike the route to the Valley of the Whales, separated from Wadi Rayan by the Garet Gohanimeen (Mountain of Hell), so-called because the light of the setting sun appears to transform it into an inferno.

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