Escapism

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Luxor: Sailing the Nile - in disguise

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Sunset over the Nile at Luxor. Photo / Jill Worrall
Sunset over the Nile at Luxor. Photo / Jill Worrall

A guard of honour at the airport, archways festooned with flowers, bands and singers performing from the back of trucks - it was nice of Luxor to have gone to so much trouble on our arrival.

But we were just two more among the millions of tourists who come to this town on the Nile each year. The cause of the celebrations was that Luxor had been declared a province, meaning more prestige and - we were told - more revenue.

It seems to do pretty well from tourists even without adding another level of local government. Luxor entices visitors with two wonderful temples and just across the river the legendary Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Hatshepsut. But the locals also know just how to extract the last Egyptian pound in your wallet after you've finished with the main sites.

Although our hotel was a modest three-star, there was a Nile view from our rooms and through the palm trees along its banks I could see the temple cut into the hillside beyond the far shore. It wasn't quite as elegant however as the Winter Palace Hotel just down the road.

Agatha Christie and Noel Coward stayed here and the lush gardens proved a perfect haven from the touts that lurk along the corniche outside.

Moored along the Luxor bank were cruise boats, sometimes three-deep and alongside them flotillas of feluccas and motorboats. A sail on a felucca at sunset was on my must-do list and Harbi, my Arabic-speaking Jordanian friend, valiantly began negotiations with one of the touts.

I pointed out there wasn't much wind but we were assured further out in the main channel there would be quite enough breeze for a sail.

After an explosion of disgust at the first price offered I'd marched down the street, the tout in hot pursuit. Finally agreeing on a price slightly less than extortionate, we were taken along the floating pontoon and told to board the African Queen. Having seen the disasters that befell Bogart and Hepburn on her namesake I thought this was a little ominous. I was correct.

It was only when we'd been untied from the jetty and manoeuvred away from the other boats that Harbi reported that the skipper was now trying to flag down passing motorboats to give us a tow. There wasn't even a hint of a breeze.

"I'm not being towed up the Nile behind a motorboat full of other tourists," I said, trying without complete success to not sound petulant.

Meanwhile Harbi was also being badgered by our captain who was telling him that he would now also need to pay the skipper of the towboat. The colour was rising in Harbi's face. Although the rest of the debate, which rapidly turned into a conflagration, was all in Arabic I got the gist.

"You said we would be sailing, we paid to sail, we do not want a tow so we want to get off."

"But the other boat is coming now and I need more money."

The skipper then ordered his assistant to throw the rope aboard - we were now marooned about three metres from the pontoon, adrift like the Ancient Mariner.

"Well you're not getting more and we are now going to get off."

The gap was too large to jump however and I'd been warned about the perils of swimming in the Nile. The skipper was now clearly ahead on points.

But Harbi was not beaten yet.

Raising his voice several notches he blasted the skipper with a stream of Arabic that so far had not been covered on my "Let's Learn Arabic" course.

A small crowd of boat-owners was now gathered on the shore and the sightseeing boat was puttering on our other side, its tourists fascinated. I tried to hide behind the mast, which was not entirely successful.

"I will shout for the tourist police," Harbi said to me in a quick aside in English.

I suspected that would not be necessary. All of Lxuor must have heard by now.

"I have also told him that to do this to a fellow Arab is the thing that hurts me most."

This was shrugged off by the skipper who was looking increasingly menacing. The torrent of Arabic resumed ... it can be a mellifluous, poetic language but when the speakers are fuming, the words twang and spit.

"If we have to we will stay out here all night," Harbi stated.

I wondered if we could order dinner from one of the riverside restaurants.

The pair were now just a metre or so apart and I was assessing how soon I'd need to leap between them. It sounded good in theory but I knew it would probably end with me losing my balance and tipping into the Nile. While a crocodile was unlikely to be lurking nearby, bilharzia, the parasitic worm that causes a particularly nasty skin disease euphemistically known as swimmer's itch, could well be.

Suddenly, arms waving towards heaven in exasperation, the skipper hurled the rope back to the pontoon and we were hauled ignominiously in. Meanwhile the skipper on the motorboat was haranguing all of us for wasting his time.

When we were about half a metre from the pontoon Hussein nudged me into a jump ashore then hurried me up the narrow path through a crowd of skippers and touts who were clearly taking the local's side.

"When I go tomorrow you must on no account go out on a boat," Hussein said once we had reached the safety of the corniche.

"I am scared they will recognise you and throw you overboard."

Next evening, a steady breeze was wafting feluccas up and down the Nile, their triangular sails silhouetted against a deep orange sky.

I leaned on the railings overlooking the river and watched, my head swathed in a shawl as a cunning disguise to deter murderous skippers.

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