The sandy shores and fresh water lakes of Wadi El Rayan make a perfect weekend getaway from Cairo for birdwatching or sandboarding.
If you set out on a weekend morning when traffic is light, the sandy shores and fresh water lakes of Wadi El Rayan are less than two hours from Cairo.
A longtime favorite destination for Cairenes seeking a day’s rest, the protectorate draws in adventure-seekers who come to parasail or sandboard across its dunes.
The magic of Lake Qarun
The road goes past sprawling Giza suburbs outside of Cairo and miles of desert. It then turns scenic and lush as you pass Lake Qarun, one of the world’s oldest natural lakes. Families work the fields of green onions and wheat in what’s one of Egypt’s most fertile regions. The vast waters of the lake lap away in the background.
White and orange blossoms grow in the fields this time of year and fishing boats are out in search of a catch.
Some prehistoric fishing tackle discovered in this area confirmed the waters were fished as early as 7,200 BC.
Some believe that Qarun, a wealthy man whose story is told in the Quran, got his treasures flooded as punishment for his sins. It’s said they still lay beneath the lake’s surface.
Ancient Egyptians favored the lake as a vacation spot and called it Lake Moeris. More recently, the area was a hunting ground of the late King Farouk, whose lodge is now converted into the Helnan Auberge Hotel. The luxurious hotel is a favorite for honeymooners and birdwatchers with some 100 rooms overlooking the lake.
Wadi El Rayan
The Wadi El Rayan Protected Area, a short drive from Lake Qarun, includes two lakes connected by a waterfall and stunning landscapes of blue waters that fade into golden sands. The best – and only – way to navigate the terrain is in an offroader that can push up the sandy dunes for views of the Upper and Lower lakes below.
I saw one vehicle there that couldn’t make the ascent and had fire shooting up from under the hood until a crowd quickly threw sand to extinguish the flames.
The two lakes, with a total surface area of some 30,000 feddans, are a breathtaking sight.
The blue, turquoise and yellow waters blend into desert shrubbery and then fade into golden sand as seamlessly as watercolors.
Even the offroad vehicle drivers who often make this trip pause for a moment to look out into the horizon.
Because the northern lake is higher than the southern, the channel that links the two lakes creates Egypt’s only waterfalls. Young men and children roll up their pants to cross the rushing stream of the two-meter high waterfall, or jump into the lake below.
Waterfalls are not a common sight in Egypt and these have provided the background in several romantic films.
Nearby, families take strolls along the yellow sandy shore, play snakes and ladders or sip mint tea at a cafeteria overlooking the water.
Others take a long boat ride across the lake for a taste of the fresh breeze and views of the shoreline.
Sports at Wadi El Rayan
Wadi El Rayan is a top destination for birdwatchers. It’s home to 13 species of residential birds and 26 migrant and vagrant birds.
Groups come especially for parasailing or sandboarding at Wadi El Rayan’s soft dunes.
Dozens climb the sandy hills carrying long boards as their legs sink into the sand with each step. They sit or try to balance on the board, then slide down amid laughter and photo-snapping. For those who fall, the soft sand provides a nearly painless landing.
Such trips end with exhausted groups in the evening over a barbecue or bonfire and spirited shaabi music. Others take in the sunset and make their way back to the old-world charm of their ecolodges or the Helnan. The vast landscapes of the valley offer plenty of sightseeing for avid naturalists.
A first-time visitor will leave Wadi El Rayan grateful that such a serene landscape is so close to the city.