The next day, we were collected for the short drive to the dock at Luxor. We had checked out of the hotel, and they had confirmed that we would be back in five days time. There were quite a few cruise ships lined up along the bank. Some were very old, and might have been plying the river at the time of Agatha Christie. One still had paddles at the sides for propulsion, but most were modern. Our boat was somewhere between the two, probably a hangover from the 1960s, with no exterior cabins like the old boats, but it had a large open air covered deck at the rear, ideal for watching the river from. Our cabin was comfortable enough, with a double bed, private facilities, and a large window, almost at the water-line. Except for the outside spaces, air-conditioning was provided, and there was a comfortable bar and large restaurant. They had even managed to cram in a tiny shop in the reception area. Inside, the feel was suitably old-fashioned, exactly what we had hoped for.
Our bags were whisked away by friendly staff, and we were gathered to be given information about life on board. All meals would be provided, three times a day. Any extras, alcoholic drinks, extra coffee, and other drinks, would have to be paid for, naturally. But we could settle our room bill at the end of the cruise, and add gratuities if we wanted. This meant that we would not have to worry about any spending money all the time we were on board. They even gave an idea of the prices, which all seemed very reasonable. There would be a party on the last night, and we could dress up in fancy dress, with an Egyptian theme of course, if we wanted to. Any gifts or jewellery bought at the shop would have to be paid for separately, as it was a concession. Excursions would all start early, around 6.30am, because of the heat, and breakfast would be served early on those days. As it was between the busy summer season, and the even busier Christmas rush, there were only twenty-four passengers, well under half-full. Luckily, the same amount of staff would be retained, so we could be guaranteed excellent service at all times. Other than our group of sixteen, there were two small groups of Egyptian holidaymakers from Cairo. I was really happy. Not only did we have the prospect of five great days ahead, we would be spending them on a comparatively empty boat. They also explained that we would travel mostly at night, stopping early, ready to take our trips ashore. When we returned in the late afternoon, we would set off once again, heading for the next place on our itinerary. Our first day on board would start that afternoon, with the journey to our first point of call, during an early dinner.
Once the boat left Luxor, and began its slow journey to Aswan, the real magic happened. Travelling at little more than a walking pace, the feeling of stepping back in time really kicked in. At times, it felt as if the boat was standing still, and the scenery was moving past us, like the old canvas panoramas in early theatrical productions. Across the wide river, traditional feluccas, small sailing boats, carried goods, or fisherman casting nets into the water. The scene appeared unchanged for centuries, with only the modern river cruisers giving any indication of the age. The chugging of our boat engine, and the occasional smell of fuel, were the reminders that we were actually moving south. Otherwise, all was peace. Sitting on the rear deck, enjoying a cool beer, we gazed at the lush strips of fertile land lining both banks. Devoid of industry, splashes of green in a sandy backdrop made us realise why the Nile was so important to sustaining agriculture along its length. People queued for small ferries, donkeys and camels laden with crops or boxes. It could have been 1920, or even 500 BC. The sight of occasional lorries and cars on riverside roads brought us back to reality, momentarily puncturing the reverie that had set in. I could have sat there for hours on end (and I did) watching this scene unfold. I wasn’t reading a book, and only sometimes taking a photograph. Otherwise, I just experienced it. Something I had never seen or felt anywhere else. During the night, we passed through Esna Lock, a sudden burst of light and noise that jarred with the peace of the day. When we woke the next morning, we were at Edfu.
Although this is a large town on the west bank, we were only going to see one thing; The Temple Of Edfu, dedicated to the god Horus, the falcon-headed god. This enormous structure was built from 237 BC, and was later buried under centuries of sand, prior to excavation during the 1860s. The building resembles a large fort, with a colonnaded courtyard within. The walls are covered in carved heiroglyphs, depicting various scenes, and a large statue of Horus stands at the entrance. We were told that it was lucky to touch the beak of the falcon head, so of course, we all strained to do this. I can imagine that it must be getting quite worn away by now, if this is still allowed. Like every structure of this type we saw there, it seemed appropriate to wander around on our own, feel the atmosphere, and try to imagine what it must have been like, brightly-painted, and bustling with worshippers and priests. I have heard other visitors to Egypt describe the experience as visiting lots of temples, each similar to the next, and tiring of looking at columns and sandstone walls. This was not how I saw it. I always felt as if I was privileged to get this small window into a fascinating past, and a civilisation so advanced, at a time when much of the world was undeveloped to any level.
Another peaceful cruise that afternoon, to our next port of call, Kom Ombo.
When we woke up, we could see the temple, raised above the river bank, just across from our boat. This temple is dedicated to the crocodile-headed god, Sobek. It was once destroyed by an earthquake, and damaged by Nile floods. It looks somewhat dilapidated, but impressive nonetheless, in a dominant location. Carvings inside show recognisable medical instruments, and there are some fascinating mummified crocodiles on display, once part of the worship rituals. Strange to think that they could have been there since 150 BC. There is also a carved calendar, showing the days of the ancient Egyptian month, which was explained by a guide. After the tour, we returned to the boat. We were to carry on to Aswan, where we would spend the last two days of our cruise. I was already regretting not choosing the longer cruise option, as I had completely fallen in love with this river, and the amazing sights near its banks.
Aswan is a large city, expanded in modern times and boasting a population approaching 300,000. I had not travelled to Egypt to see large cities. I had come from one of the largest, London, and sought peace and antiquity. There was little of that to be found in this bustling terminus of riverboats, tourists, and crowded markets. However, there were two good reasons to travel here; Elephantine Island, and The Temple of Philae, and we were going to see them both. It was an early start the next morning, for the drive of over sixty miles down to the islands at Philae. On arrival, a serene trip on a small felucca would take our small group to one of the two islands. The Temple buildings had been threatened with flooding after the Aswan Dam was built, and because of this, the temple was moved stone by stone, to its present location. I remember how peaceful it felt, arriving on the sailing boat, and touring the restored buildings with such a small group. On the return trip to Aswan, we stopped at an ancient quarry, where we could see rejected monoliths and carved statues still partly in the rock they had been carved from. If they cracked, or were damaged during carving, they were simply left in place. That night on the boat, they hosted the ‘theme’ party. We attended, but I have to tell you that we did not really enter into the full spirit of it, as we declined to dress in ancient Egyptian style clothing.
The next morning heralded our last night on board. We were taken across to Elephantine Island by boat, where we decided to take the steep trip to the Aga Khan mausoleum. Unwisely, as it turned out, we agreed to pay a small fee to both go on the same camel. Jammed into a double saddle, with a hard wooden surround, we later suffered badly from being rocked back and forth for a considerable time on the back of this unfortunate animal. Days later, we still had extensive bruising from the pressure of the uncomfortable saddle. Later that evening, we ventured into the nearest market to the riverside. Aswan is known for fine quality cotton products, and we purchased a tablecloth and napkin set, with the minimum of haggling on that occasion. We watched the sun set behind Elephantine Island, with riverboats and feluccas silhouetted on the water. It was magnificent indeed. Our last night on the boat was something of an anti-climax though, as we were aching and tired from a long day, and went to bed early.
The next day, we packed after breakfast, and went to the small reception area, to settle our room bill. Despite all the extra teas and coffees, numerous beers, and some wine with dinner, our total for the whole cruise was less than £40, around £8 a day. I even got them to check it, as I thought it was not enough. They obviously thought I was complaining, and presented a meticulous drink-by-drink account. When I told them I thought it was too low, they just smiled. It must have seemed a lot of money to them. I added the difference, to make it the equivalent of £50, and considered it to be money well spent, including gratuities. We left the boat reluctantly, and I gazed enviously at the other river cruisers, still conveying tourists. The return trip by coach took just under four hours, including a short lunch break in a rather dubious roadside cafe. The distance from Luxor to Aswan was about 110 miles. It had taken four days on board, less than four hours by road. Back at the Hilton, we were surprised to get the same room we had left earlier that week. We still had a few days of our holiday left, including the much-anticipated trip to Abu Simbel.
Part Three will follow soon.