16-18 October 2015. In the thick darkness the water slips by on each side of us like long black velvet ribbons. In front of us the river is a broad expanse of inky blackness, reflecting the occasional lights that flow by on the banks far off on either side. All is silent except for the splash of the water and the hum of the engines. The river is broad and deep, the night is a dark secret, and we are standing alone in the bow of the boat, as close to the very front of it as we can get, taking in the moment. We are on a cruise boat on the Nile. We surrender to the experience as fully as we can. We can hardly believe it is real.
Forty years ago I sailed on the Oriana, a P&O liner, from San Francisco to Auckland. It was a two-week voyage and one of the most fabulous highlights of all my youthful travels. I have an abiding memory from that journey. Long before James Cameron ever conceived of Titanic the movie, I made my way alone in the dark to the bow. I climbed over a gate that said Crew Only and walked across the wooden deck to the very front of the boat. Once there, I climbed up onto a small ledge and sat there with the ship’s bell dangling above me and my legs dangling over the edge to the pitch-black water fifteen stories below me. It’s late at night in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There is no light pollution. I am alone in the darkness, the water splashing below, and an unbelievable riot of stars above. I sit there for a long time.
Our Nile cruise experience is similar, and just as wonderful.
We had boarded the boat in Aswan and spent the first night of the three-night cruise moored there. The boat is a floating hotel complete with shops, a restaurant, and lounge chairs and an open-air café on the rooftop deck.
There are over three hundred such cruise boats on the Nile though most are idle these days due to the significant downturn in tourism. The name of our boat is Nile Dolphin. I also remember a boat named Moondance. There were several boats in a row tied up along the wharf in Luxor, and each of them was the first in a stack of boats seven or eight deep. I knew that if I boarded Moondance at the wharf and walked across the main deck of six idle boats, and the deck of a seventh that was in use, I would then come to our boat. Moondance was the way home in a great crowd of boats that all looked alike.
After a night at the wharf in Aswan we leave late morning the next day. Finally we are cruising, moving effortlessly down the river. Following lunch in the dining room I spend almost all the afternoon hanging out the window of our cabin watching the world go by. It is a quietly joyous experience cruising along the lush Nile Valley with its green tropical foliage and golden sand dunes.
Suddenly a heart-stopping moment: a huge flock of pelicans flies by the window and settles on the water,
and now: a glimpse of daily life as we pass by villagers bathing and playing on the shore,
and now: grazing camels and water buffalo with the ever present white egrets dotted around them.
The shore on either side is lush with palm trees, fields, and crops. Beyond them is nothing but sand and bare mountains.
We are lucky it is so quiet. With over three hundred cruise boats, dozens of dahabiyas or smaller tourist boats,
and hundreds of feluccas,
and the river is usually busy and crowded, but with few tourists these days not so much. We more or less have the place to ourselves.
Later in the afternoon we stop at Kom Ombo Temples, in time for sunset.
The cruise continues as night falls and we all meet for dinner. The food is plentiful and good enough, the buffet imaginatively decorated,
and the company wonderful. After dinner, and after dark, Don and I make our way to the bow of the ship and stare out into the liquid darkness, our hearts full of joy.
At about ten o’clock we pull up to the wharf at Edfu and tie up there for the night. We are in our cabin and suddenly hear a huge ruckus outside on the waterfront. There are about a dozen cars and vans all crowded together. There are many men in each vehicle. Horns are blaring, people are shouting, arms are waving, and with all their might the guys are making the vehicles bounce up and down. Suddenly the stark shot of fireworks fills the air. After about ten minutes they form a line and take off down the road parallel to the water, perhaps to ‘perform’ for the next boat along. A bit later they return and repeat the performance. This time someone holds up a big picture on top of one of the cars and I can see it is a bride and groom – so, a raucous wedding celebration to end our evening.
Early next morning
we travel by horse and buggy to the Horus Temple, arriving back at the boat in time for breakfast. We go to our cabin and discover that there is a small man riding an elephant on my bed. We just about fall over laughing.
At another time we discover a crocodile on Don’s bed.
Our cabin steward lurks to see the fun. He is rewarded with our screams of delight.
I hang out the window again as we continue downstream. It is smooth, quiet and peaceful. In places the river is as deep as eleven metres. In places it is over 3 kilometres (2 miles) wide. It is the lifeblood of the entire country.
On the banks children play in the water and wave as we go by, farmers ride donkeys or tractors along the shoreline pathway, and fishermen concentrate on their task.
The river is home to over one hundred different species of fish, and people have been fishing its waters for thousands of years. There’s concern in Cairo that the numbers are dwindling but here, some six hundred kilometres to the south, it is still a viable part of daily life.
Sixty-four kilometres south of Luxor, on the west bank of the Nile, is the town of Esna.
A little way in the distance I see this,
and then closer, off one side, I see this.
Suddenly the peace is shattered. It is mayhem. The cruise boat is surrounded on both sides by merchants in small boats, all of them shouting at us to buy a variety of cloth goods – tablecloths, towels, bedspreads. And they are along the shore too. Everywhere there is a commotion as they vie for our attention.
We are approaching a lock in the river. It is barely wider than the boat,
yet in the lock ahead of us the men in three of the small boats continue with their sales pitch.
I’m completely incredulous, even a little afraid. How will they get out? Where will they go? Are we just going to plow them over? Suddenly one man from each boat grabs the side of the lock and scrambles up onto it
and continues his sales pitch from there. As we move through the lock they run along side keeping up with us.
Some people on the cruise boat are interested in buying and cloth items are flying through the air up onto the top deck. Prices are negotiated; some goods are hurled back down again when a sale is not completed as others go flying up. Meanwhile the three boats in the lock somehow manage to make it around our boat as it plows on forward. One of them is almost swamped.
By now we are on the other side of the lock, and the next thing I see is that some of the boats have thrown lines up to the cruise boat, and probably with the help of our crew, are now tied to us. They continue trying to make a sale as we pull them downstream towards Luxor.
Looking back I see those left behind begin to relax and head to shore.
It is easier for these salesmen these days, but not better. There are so few cruise boats on the river. Tourism is only at 10% of what it was about five years ago, and very few cruise boats are operating. At the height of tourism in Egypt cruise boats would be lined up at the lock for hours waiting to go through. Now we were perhaps one of two or three boats for the entire day.
Sometime later, back in our cabin, I hang my head out the window and to my surprise I see there is still a couple of boats tied to us, and the men are still trying to make a sale. It is at least an hour later. I wonder how, in these small rowboats, they will be able to get back up river to Esna. Suddenly my question is answered. There is another cruise boat coming towards us. Like lightening they cast off from our boat and row across the water to the one going up stream to Esna. Safely tied to the side they’ve got a tow home.
A short time later, close to sunset, we dock in Luxor. We are the eighth boat out so we walk through the other seven to get to shore. It is our last night on board. Our Nile cruise has ended.
Forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty mystic stream has rolled.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Next post: The extraordinary Horus Temple, the streets of Edfu, and Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.