Life afloat on the Nile gives a taste of bliss

By Peter Calder

Peter Calder abandons the tourist route to cruise the mighty Egyptian river on a felucca.

The sun sets over the Nile. Photo / Alan Gibson
The sun sets over the Nile. Photo / Alan Gibson

It was like a scene from a spy thriller. In the Aswan Moon restaurant at 1500 hours, I was to ask for Mr Washington (now, there's a good Egyptian name for you).

I did not, apparently, have to wear a carnation in my buttonhole or carry a copy of The Times under my arm. This is just as well since carnations and copies of The Times are hard to find in Aswan, the southernmost city of Egypt.

Mr Washington (actually Captain Washington) never showed up at all. The lithe, leonine man who arrived looked like a fine-boned version of another Mr Washington, Denzel. But his name was Ahmad.

His mission was to take me far from Aswan, where the engines of Nile cruise boats, tied as much as three abreast, growl and roar to generate power for the floating resorts. My escape craft was a felucca, one of the lateen-rigged wooden boats that have plied the waters of the Nile and the Red Sea since before the time of Christ.

To cruise the Nile on a felucca is to turn one's back on deck chairs, gin and tonics and waiters by the swimming pool. Those accessories - with the exception of the gin, perhaps - are no part of my travelling habits, so the prospect filled me with pleasure.

If you team up with other travellers, a few days on the Nile can cost less than $30. But I am not keen on being trapped with a boatload of whining co-eds from California or dour Nordic backpackers. Unsociably, I do some simple arithmetic: for barely $100, I can have the entire boat to myself.

And so it is that I find myself lounging on squabs spread across the deck as Ahmad and his first mate, Shahat, cast off and manoeuvre out into the stream.

Their boat, the Huppy Dreams, glistens under multiple coats of blinding white marine gloss.

The thick wooden mast and booms creak as the worn white sheets take the strain of the wind. The 2m-long tiller is as thick as a man's thigh and connected to a big blade of a rudder that can act as an oar in tight situations.

Mostly, Ahmad steers with his foot as we move past the cruise boats.

"Why", he wonders aloud as he gazes at pink and portly Europeans peering at us through their camera viewfinders, "would someone come all the way from Europe to Aswan to spend all their time with other tourists?"

"Beats me," I tell him, shaking my head. "I don't get it either."

There is an old saying in Egypt: "He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience."

No Egyptian told me this; William Golding, hilariously irascible as he chronicles his Nile trip in An Egyptian Journal, records none too happily that he was offered the proverb on his second day when he complained that they had travelled only a few hundred metres on the first.

Golding headed upstream in a substantial motorboat. My course is north, with the flow, though that will be no help. In winter, the river level is low and the current sluggish; not until the summer rains fill Lake Victoria far to the south will there be enough water to carry a boat downstream.

Worse, the breeze is out of the north so the sailors must tack hard, close to the wind.

At this rate - the bank is slipping past at walking pace - it takes several hours until the roaring power plants of the cruise-boats are out of earshot.

But almost instantly I am entranced by the rhythm of the journey.

A few cans of the local Stella are cooling in a bucket of Nile water, which is crisp and cold in late January, and the felucca zigzags across the stream in a silence broken only by the flap of the sails and water lapping against the hull.

I resist the temptation to doze because I want to enjoy the close-up view of riverside life: the date palms full of plump bunches of fruit, the fellaheen (peasants) knee-deep in the green sea of their crops, the tiny fishing craft, rowed by women or children while the menfolk pay out tiny longlines.

This far upstream, 1200km from the Mediterranean, and in the dry winter, the Nile is barely wider than the Waikato. Before the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s, the summer floods would come, bringing the black silt which, when the waters receded, made the land among the most fertile in the world.

For thousands of years with the river in reliable spate, the banks might have been 10km or more apart. It is little wonder that the villages are a long way from the river's edge, and on higher ground.

The edge of the deep irrigation ditch seems like very high ground indeed as I pick my way along it in the dim light of a crescent moon. Shahat and Ahmad maintain an easy loping pace as I stumble slightly in their wake.

Seemingly hours later we suddenly emerge from the densely planted fields on to a road with streetlights.

This is Ahmad's village, where we are to eat with his family, but getting home is a long-winded affair. Every few metres he stops and exchanges greetings with neighbours he hasn't seen for days. Each takes time to greet me, too: "Where from? New Zealand? Beautiful country, very nice people."

We eat, the three of us and Ahmad's brother-in-law, on the terrace of their unfinished, unfurnished house while dogs growl in the yard. Their instinct is to be hostile to any funny-looking intruder - and to kill the wolves that might slaughter the family's chickens.

The meal is sublime: dips of hummus, tahini and eggplant; a spicy green soup; stewed beans; juicy boiled-and-grilled mutton and great stalks of peppery wild rocket washed in what I hope is not Nile water.

I ask Ahmad why the house's four women, who have prepared this feast, are not sharing it with us.

"No woman would eat with a man she had never met before," he says. But the rule is plainly more customary than practical. Later the womenfolk laugh with me as I try and fail to photograph them without red-eye.

I sleep on the gently rocking boat, glad I brought my sleeping bag and gladder still of a sunshade erected between me and the clear desert sky. Egypt in winter is perishingly cold.

The next morning, the wind is bending the treetops.

"No good for sailing," says Ahmad.

I'm no sailor, but it looks no more than a stiff Hauraki Gulf breeze. Ahmad begs to differ. "We could break a mast," he says, "or capsize."

"Maybe it will drop later," I say.

"Maybe," he replies. His tone is not encouraging. "I think it will get stronger because it is a new wind."

I am unhappy at losing sailing time, but Ahmad has a plan. He uses his cellphone to dial up a driver who will take me to the Daraw camel market.

While we wait, he doodles in the sand with a stick and explains "Insha'Allah". The common Muslim saying literally means "if it is God's will" and is used to express hope that an event will come to pass but, says Ahmad, is much more than resignation.

"You see that the wind is too strong to sail," he says, "but now you can go to camel market. You were upset but now something good is happening. This means `Insha'Allah'."

This blend of fatalism and optimism is one of the most constantly charming aspects of the Egyptian character.

And the market - at which I am the only non-Egyptian - turns out to be an unlooked-for surprise, even if the casual brutality visited on the animals by the Sudanese vendors and the Egyptian buyers is slightly sickening.

On the way back, I ask Ahmad if people eat camel. "Yes. It is very nice," he says. "You would like to try?"

A few minutes later I am 60 Egyptian pounds ($15) lighter and holding a kilo of the lean, blue-red meat. Ahmad cooks it up that night - for too long, in my judgment. It is stringy and dry. I smile and pronounce it excellent. He agrees.

The wind, which fills the air with desert sand so that the midday sun is a blood-orange disc, will allow us only a few hours sailing over the next two days. But it doesn't feel like a disappointment any more.

At any stop, mates of Ahmad or Shahat or both of them appear from the fields and pronounce themselves most happy with the snack food Ahmad laid in on my budget. It's impossible to object, really. It's like the song says about that other big waterway: "People on the river are just happy to give."


Getting there: Emirates offers connections between New Zealand and Egypt.

Cruising the Nile: You will have no difficulty finding a felucca captain willing to take you for a few hours or a few days. The riverfront Corniche at Aswan swarms with touts who have to be fought off. The helpful folk in the local tourist office can advise. Expect to pay a maximum of $10 a person a day on a felucca that carries six passengers. Food is extra. Buy it yourself or go with the crew who do the shopping. You need to tip the crew about 15 per cent of the fare; their pay is lousy. Don't even think about swimming in the Nile; the nasty parasite that causes bilharzia is endemic.

Further information: See

Peter Calder flew to Egypt via Dubai courtesy of Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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