Jehan Casinader discovers the famous river's ancient past has to compete with its colourful present
It's late afternoon on the Nile, in the heat of the African summer. A large fleet of cruise ships is slowly making its way along the river, approaching the city of Edfu in the south.
We're sitting on the sun deck of the TuYa having afternoon tea when there is a great commotion on one side of the ship. Two modest rowboats, each carrying two men, have latched their ropes on to the side of the cruise ship, which is still in motion. They cheer at their success. It seems they have hitched a free ride to the shore.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that these young men have a different motivation. They begin heckling the tourists on board; imploring us to peer over the handrail of the ship. Their small rowboats are stacked with items for sale: scarves, fabrics, Persian rugs, and traditional "galabeya" party garments. The men are soon bellowing at the top of their lungs. Having mastered a few basic phrases in a variety of languages, they try everything from "Salaam, amigo!" to "Ciao, senor!"
The men start rolling up T-shirts and lobbing them at the highest floor of the cruise ship, hoping the bemused tourists will catch and examine the items, before putting some money in a plastic bag and dropping it down to complete a sale.
"I'm fat! I can't fit into this!" shrieks an English tourist, who has caught one of the T-shirts. She throws it back at the boat, but it lands in the water. The owner slaps his brow and mutters in Arabic as he paddles towards the T-shirt.
Within minutes, two dozen other rowboats have turned up. They bump into each other as they jostle for position. One man rows each boat, while another scans each deck of the ship, waiting to spot potential customers. It's 40C outside, and the currents are strong. Some of the boats are being rowed by teenagers. My guide tells me that most of these men do this all day long. All are desperate to make a sale, but few seem to be having any success.
An hour later, the cruise ship is stationary while waiting to pass through a toll gate. Having had no luck, most of the traders have given up and rowed off to "do business" with other ships. Others wait, waving their arms in frustration. Two young men are the last ones clinging to the ship as it approaches a lock. At the last moment possible, they let go and push their boat away.
To the tourists sunbathing on the cruise ship, it's a wake-up call that although the Nile has cultural and historical significance, it's still an active river. It's one of the most important trade routes in the world, but these days there are more cruise ships than mercantile ships on the Nile.
Our four-day trip began at Luxor, the ancient capital of Egypt, one hour from Cairo by air. We continue south to the town of Aswan, where it hasn't rained for many years. The city is home to Egypt's modern marvel, the High Dam, which holds the biggest artificial reservoir in the continent.
A quarter of the Nile runs through Egypt. The river feeds the country's plantations, including sugar cane, corn and cotton, as well as yellow tea, black tea and coffee. The air is sweet as we sail past sugar cane crops in the swampy areas on the banks of the Nile. Despite the arid climate, the vegetation beside the river is greener than anything to be seen in New Zealand. What is striking is that, just a few metres beyond the crops, the land is dry and parched. In these parts, animal life also seems rather scarce.
Many have caught unpleasant illnesses by taking a dip in the Nile, but for some, the chance to swim in the world's longest river cannot be passed up. Those who are brave enough include Spanish tourists who ask for refunds if they are not given the chance, even though the Nile is home to a disease-carrying parasite. For that reason, swimming is against the law. The local kids aren't deterred. As we take an afternoon felucca boat ride in Aswan, they swim towards the boat, cling on, and sing to us.
My guide estimates that most of the locals on the East Bank of the Nile work in tourism or for the government, while on the West Bank, most are farmers. Those who live in clusters around the Nile are reluctant to move further west. The river, after all, is their life source. Some hardy communities have moved further inland, where they have found oases and underground water supplies which allow them to prosper.
Because it is summer, many of the usual throngs of tourists have disappeared. The only people on this trip are hardy enough to withstand the soaring temperatures. Over four days, we stop at the most significant points along the Nile route to marvel at the historical sites that Egypt is known for, from the temples at Luxor and Karnak to the Valley of Kings and the Tomb of Tutankhamen. For history buffs, the grand sites are instantly recognisable and perfectly preserved gateways to the ancient kingdoms.
My guide rattles off the history with vim and vigour. Our tour group includes two American-born Egyptian boys aged 7 and 9. Both know infinitely more about Egyptian history than me, and ask the guide insightful questions about relics, dynasties and gods. To appreciate the richness of Egypt's past, you need to do your homework before getting on the plane. I did. But I quickly discovered that the stories of Egypt's prehistoric times weren't the stories which fascinated me the most.
As the ship sets sail on the last evening of the cruise, I'm more curious about the crumbling mud-brick houses, lined up neatly on the riverside — who lives there? A man and a dog, watching kids jump off a jetty — what is their story? A barge, passing by — why was it flying an All Blacks flag?
My questions go unanswered, but if there is anything to be learned from this journey, it is that the gods and generals of yesteryear are not the only ones who can lay claim to the Nile.
Getting there: Innovative Travel has a nine-day Jewels of the Nile cruise package on the TuYa, taking in Cairo, Luxor, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan. The trip includes two nights in Giza, two nights in Cairo and a four-night Nile cruise. Domestic flights, airport transfers, and some meals included. International airfares additional. Call 0508 100 111 for more details.
Jehan Casinader travelled on the TuYa Cruise with assistance from Innovative Travel.