Sailing the Nile

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The Nile was the superhighway of the ancient world, binding together the lands and people of Egypt. A cruise on its waters today is a journey back to the very origins of our civilisation. 

By: Justin Fox

I visited Egypt as a guest of On the Go Tours to fulfil one of my travel dreams – to journey down the Nile on a traditional sailing vessel. The most popular way to experience the river is by cruiseship and dozens ply the waters between Luxor and Aswan each day. But a far more intimate and authentic way to do the journey is by felucca, the ancient boat of the river.  

By choosing a traditional craft, one experiences the river as one should: at waterline on an open deck with only a triangle of canvas or the current for propulsion. You sail lazily downstream during the day, taking in the colourful panorama of the Nile and stopping at sights of interest to swim or explore the banks. The deck of the boat is lined with soft cushions, perfect for lounging by day and sleeping out in the open air by night. 

Feluccas are brightly decorated sailing boats with carpets and cushions on deck for lounging. Photo: Justin Fox

I boarded our felucca, moored beside the corniche in Aswan one winter afternoon. This graceful wooden vessel with its tall yardarm and furled sail would be my home for the coming days. 

Salaam, welcome aboard the Phila,” called out Mahmoud Abazied, our skipper, as I climbed over the rail and was introduced to a handful of passengers. I stowed my bags in an adjacent motorboat, which housed our ablutions and a kitchen. This second vessel would follow us downstream and tie up alongside when we stopped, giving us access to amenities lacking on the felucca. 

Mahmoud and a crewman prepared to set sail, gambolling about the deck, unhitching ropes and casting off lines. A turbaned lad gave us a shove and we slipped astern, brushing another boat, a fender, a rail. Phila lay for a moment in dead water until our sail filled with a gentle northerly coming off the Sahara, wafting us out of the mooring pond. Back and forth we tacked, riding the current downstream. 

As the sun began to settle in a stand of palms, the river’s skin turned to satin. Mahmoud steered us into a quiet cove where our support boat was already lying at anchor. Supper was served and out came plates of pitta, dates, falafel, beef tagine and cold Sakara lager to wash away the dust. Donning beanies and gloves, we wrapped ourselves in blankets to ward the winter chill and bedded down on the deck. 

Listening to the night sounds, I thought of the annual flooding of the Nile (now throttled by the High Aswan Dam), which determined the seasonal rhythms of the past. I imagined the ancient traffic that came this way: the royal yacht of a pharaoh, a funerary boat bearing a dead queen, barges laden with Aswan granite for the temples of Memphis. My musings were interrupted by the grumble of cruise ships, racing past to the pulse of tourist clocks. 

The yellow disk of Ra – the sun god – lifted from the eastern shore to spread a feeble warmth among the deck-bound sleepers – as-salamu alaykum, another day. We upped anchor and set off downstream once more. 

Mahmoud gave me the helm. With the heft of the tiller in both my hands and a bellied sail above, we glided north. Palms lined both banks, fields of sugarcane and salmon-coloured sand dunes lay beyond, a dark blue sky and a cooling zephyr. It was blissful. 

Temple run

After another night on the river, we moored and were collected by a minibus that delivered us to the Temple of Kom Ombo (180–47 BC). This “dual temple” was dedicated to the worship of both the falcon-headed Horus, the Good Doctor, and the crocodile god, Sobek. It’s unique in having a double design in which the courts, halls and sanctuaries are duplicated on either side of its axis – the south for Sobek and the north for Horus.  

The temple stands on a bend of the Nile where crocodiles once basked on the banks in great numbers. Our guide, Mohamed Radwan, showed us where the first reptile of the flood used to be let into the temple through a water gate to a well where it was worshipped and later mummified. 

We proceeded to Luxor where we visited its two famous monuments: Karnak on the east bank and the Valley of the Kings on the west. Karnak’s Temple of Amun is a grand succession of halls, courts, obelisks and colossi that leave you spellbound. In the Great Hypostyle Hall, stone lotus blossoms were suspended high above us and soft light filtered through the columns. Outside, the remains of a two-kilometre avenue of sphinxes led to Luxor Temple. And everywhere I saw evidence of the river – boat motifs, papyrus and palm columns, images of crocodiles and hippopotamuses. 

From the land of the living to the world of the dead

Our second day in Luxor was set aside for the Theban Necropolis, one of the greatest open-air museums on earth and testament to the ancient Egyptian’s obsession with the hereafter. We hailed a water taxi and crossed from the land of the living, the east bank, to the world of the dead on the west. The approach is guarded by the 20-metre-high sandstone figures of the two Colossi of Memnon, that look like Star Wars Cylons. 

For centuries, pharaohs, queens and noblemen were buried in lavish tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The Egyptian cult of the dead meant that much of society was geared towards the hereafter, with pharaohs spending their lives preparing for their deaths. 

I was amazed by the vivid colours of the paintings and hieroglyphics on the tomb walls, so bright and, ironically, so full of life. And such imagination! Three-headed snakes with feet and wings, sun-worshipping baboons, ram-headed beetles and ceilings dotted with stars. 

Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is perhaps the finest in Luxor and consists of terraces set against a natural amphitheatre. Many of its wall reliefs depict the queen on a trading expedition upriver into Nubia, the Sudan and even further south. The stumps of myrrh (incense) trees – brought all the way from the Land of Punt (Somalia) – are still there. 

On our last evening, I sat on the banks of the Nile and watched its waters coursing by, the occasional felucca ghosting past. The sun had set, but the river still held a silvery gleam. Across the water, the realm of the dead was slipping into darkness.  

The Sahara felt as though it was pressing in. I could smell its dryness, sense its implacable presence beyond the curtain of palms. This river was the source of all life here, as it had been since the beginning. Almost everything we know as modern humans, it seemed just then, has flowed down to us, filtered by Christianity and Islam, by the Greeks and the Romans, on the currents of this mighty river.  

A muezzin began his call to prayer. The scene was impossibly romantic, freighted with history and unnameable emotions. But for me, the journey had come to an end and the night train to Cairo was due.     

About the tour

I travelled with On the Go Tours, which offers a range of options. These enjoyable tours are escorted by experienced local guides qualified in Egyptology. Accommodation is in 4- or 5-star establishments. Felucca sailing and train transfers are more rustic. Included in the price are most meals, all transfers and two overnight train journeys. Excluded are certain side excursions.

Getting there 

FLY SAA flies from Johannesburg to Cairo four times a week. Visit flysaa.com 

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