There are three ways of getting up or down the Nile: one involves having no loo (a Felucca), one involves being with lots and lots of other people (a cruise boat) and the last involves selling a kidney to afford it (a dahbayia). So, with one kidney down, I found myself on a dahbayia sailing up the Nile.
When we were choosing our boat, we learned that due to a relatively quiet tourist scene, many do not commit to a trip until they have what they deem to be enough people. Others will charge you a premium up front if it’s quiet, and reduce it as the boat fills up. Both approaches suck.
We found a boat, the Zekrayat, which will go no matter how many people are on board. So, one kidney down, we actually sailed up the Nile on a lovely boat with 8 crew and a guide, just for the 2 of us. Incredible and we felt very, very spoiled.
A dahbayia is a sailing boat that, pre-steam boats, were the only way to travel up and down the Nike for those tourists bold enough to try it. They are 2 story: cabins, saloon etc on the lower deck and the second level ( the roof of the cabins) with large open areas, with shade blinds, hammocks, sun-loungers and various places to sit. We could sit in a different place for each of the 4 nights we were on board and still have plenty of options. These type of boats started catering for tourists from the mid 1800s and they are often still decorated like they were then.
Mostly, they sail too as they have no engine. Instead, an accompanying tug attaches a long rope when the wind is too light or the distance to be made too long, and pulls you along. When you have wind or time, it keeps its distance to ensure peace and quiet.
It is wonderful, sitting on deck, watching the world pass by, with donkeys, water buffalo, mango trees, banana plantations and rural life. We got fed tasty and healthy food three times a day, were looked after really well and, on one night, ate dinner on the bank of the Nile, on a small island, sitting on rugs and cushions, surrounded by candles. All beautifully done. Even when the entire crew joined us and sang to us, with the guide getting us up and dancing didn’t feel as excruciatingly embarrassing as it ought. The fact that we had brought with us 6 bottles of wine, a litre of gin and could get beer onboard may have helped in relaxing us.
We stopped a couple of times a day to visit something. We visited the temples at Esna and Edfu, (both have the scale wow factor), a quarry where limestone was cut to make the amazing structures we had seen, beautifully decorated nobles tombs (a Km walk away from the river, on the edge of the desert and reached by passing through the walls of the pre Old Kingdom capital of Egypt called El Kab). These walls, built more than 6000 years ago from mud bricks, were, in their day, 11m tall and 10m wide. Guards, four abreast, on horseback used to ride along the top of them. Amazing.
All of this was brought to life by our wonderfully energetic and interesting guide, Aladin, a proud Nubian who was keen to get across the spirit of ancient Egypt to us, rather than just the facts and dates. His stories kept us interested and made us laugh a lot.
One of his finer moments was when he took us on a visit to a camel market north of Aswan. We jumped in a ‘local bus’ that he had hired just or us; a Ute/pick-up truck with two benches and a cover, and headed off to a very much working town in anticipation of a great cultural experience. It might have been just that if it had been a day when it was open…….. When it is not open, it is a large, empty smelly area covered in rubbish and, around the butchers areas, camel bones and discoloured soil where the blood had soaked in. A vegetarians delight. Keen to make up for this, Aladin asked locals, knocked on doors and tipped people to find us camels to say hello to. We saw baby camels, grown up camels and the odd donkey before telling him to relax and return us to the boat.
I have mentioned before that in the tourist areas, we got a bit of pressure from sellers of tourist tat. Outside Giza, this was reasonably easy to shrug off with a ‘La shukran’ and they backed away. In most places down the Nile, there is very little hassle as there are very few shops remaining open due to the huge downturn in visitors since the Arab Spring and ‘The Revolution’. Whilst not getting bothered is nice, we could see that it was at a tremendous cost to the people whose livelihoods depended on such trade and on the families they had to support. I hope tourist numbers pick up again soon……… especially now that we have been and gone .
Interestingly, Thomas Cook was the pioneer of Egyptian tourism, opening hotels, building boats and encouraging the opening of the ancient sites as tourist attractions back in the mid 1800s. Even more interestingly, on some trips they supplied travellers with small hammers and chisels so that they could chip their names into the ancient sites for prosperity. A 4,500 year old masterpiece of a civilisation can always be improved by an amateur chiseling ‘T Glistening-Bellend Esq, 1886’ over the face of Ramses II…. Having said that, I actually liked seeing the story of early tourism done in such a crude way, even at the expense of some irreplaceable artwork. It provided a very visual link to our recent history.
The story of vandalism is almost as interesting as the story of the kingdoms themselves. The first vandalism started pretty much as soon as some of the temples were built, as a new king decided to follow a different one of the Gods, or decided he didn’t like his predecessor and therefore got his followers to deface old temples, removing images now out of vogue. A bit like ISIS in Iraq and Syria but without the huge amounts of explosives.
The Romans and Greeks also did a bit of knocking down and rebuilding, before the Christians came and tried to re-appropriate some buildings as churches as they hid from Roman persecution. After that, when no one cared about the structures anymore and they started to get buried in the sand, people moved into them and used them as houses. Cooking fires covered the art in soot and the superstitious chipped off the faces and features off many of the figures to prevent them from being reborn in what was now their homes. Then came the French soldiers who used some of the statues and artworks for target practice (though the French hierarchy did more than anyone to preserve the sites and learn the history of them), then came the Brits whose desire for fame and wealth led to large scale plundering until Egypt was strong enough to resist it. Underlying this was a constant stream of tomb robbers that have been around as long as the tombs themselves.
It’s remarkable that anything survives, and the fact much of it got buried over time is a significant contributor to this. Tutankhamen is famous, not because he did anything great in his short, 9 year reign as King, rather because his tomb was found intact with all the amazing treasures they found. More of that when I cover the Cairo Museum.
Back on the boat, watching the sunrise and set over the lush green farmland of the valley and the contrasting yellow of the desert, seeing the donkeys in the fields, watching the fishermen doing their stuff is really magical to a degree that more than once it brought a lump to my throat. It was a really, really special four days.
Leaving the boat in Aswan, and going back to fending for ourselves was a little daunting.