Fayoum Region, Egypt -- I'm standing in the Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al-Hitan in Arabic), where you can find the fossilized remains of long-extinct marine creatures. The ancient whales and sharks lived some 40 to 50 million years ago.
For a full day, I and my four desert adventure-seeking companions let loose in the mammoth Saharan sandbox. We temporarily leave the city and our professional personas behind like the cloud of dust trailing our 4WD as we follow a desert ranger's vehicle into the Sahara.
This desert habitat is located in the Fayoum region, Egypt's best-known site for fossils. The two-hour drive on the path from the Wadi Rayan Protected Area flashes by in a Cairo minute.
Faces press against the car windows. Hearts pound. We see but can't believe the sweeping desert vistas and creamy beige sandstone formations of fantastic abstract shapes.
"I am not in outer space. I am not dreaming," I remind myself after a pinch or two.
With endorphins cranked high, we spill out of the vehicle and sprint toward the giant golf balls of sandstone strewn around the desert plateau, said to have been formed by erosion and the winds of time.
Since eco-tourism in the Fayoum region isn't fully developed, we're virtually the only souls at the site. I'm astounded to walk in the vast bed of sand surrounded by rising cliffs, territory famous for the fossils of the sea-serpent-like Basilosaurus isis (incorrectly identified and thus named the "king of reptiles"). The Basilosaurus, known to grow up to 60 feet long, was an ancestor of the modern whale, the king of all animals in size and in the food chain during the late Eocene period.
One of many Kodak moments comes when we spot some reddish-orange loose fossil stones, and desert ranger Mohamed beckons us to help him carry the petrified bones and reassemble the Basilosaurus.
Wannabe paleontologists, we delicately lay the pieces down to fit into the puzzle of Basilosaurus vertebrae peeking out from under the sand. Assembled bones are usually roped off, but we can come as close as a few centimetres to admire the exposed fossils in the raw.
Soon after I ask about any evidence of sharks, Mohamed uses his X-ray vision or, more likely, his inside-out knowledge of the area to pick up a Y-shaped shark's tooth from the rubble of fossils, shells and stones. I hold the artifact of my greatest fear in the palm of my hand, impressed. For a predator, it's shockingly minuscule with an innocuous pointy tip.
Mohamed is a friendly, gentle soul who understands our feelings of elation as we frolic in the open-air museum of the desert. After his oft-repeated Arabic-English phrase "Yalla, let's go, guys!", he graciously allows us to linger a while longer, not minding the brewing sandstorm. Though he gives us some freedom to enjoy our moments away from rules and responsibilities, Mohamed draws the line when it comes to preserving the beauty of the desert.
When I ask politely in my Canadian way if we can keep a few tiny souvenirs, he replies in his serious yet playful Egyptian manner: "Don't ask me. I don't own the desert." Not everyone follows the rules, Mohamed laments. Overzealous tourists have pilfered the site for "personal souvenirs" over the years.
I don't go home with a prehistoric shark's tooth, but seeing one is enough.