Sailing Like An Egyptian (slowly down the Nile)

1980: The year of Rubik’s cube, of the eruption of Mt St Helens, of the establishment of CNN, the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the murder of John Lennon…and Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.

All important events, of course, but…more importantly 1980 was the year we sailed the Nile. I say we meaning myself and a random group of French travellers I met in Aswan. As one does. We had all arrived (I think) – or at least I had, the previous day from Abu Simbel.

For those in the know Abu Simbel is both a  monument to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians and the rank stupidity of modern industrial society. Abu Simbel is not the temple’s original name – it’s named after a young Egyptian boy who led explorer Giovanni Belzoni to the site – the main temple was called “the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun“. Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC.

Abu Simbel

The temple is entirely a monument to Ramses II’s ego – nothing changes with Kings and politicians –  and twice a year, (October 22 and February 22), allegedly his coronation and birth,  the sun strikes directly through the temple door and illuminates the statues of Ramses and two of the three Gods with whom he is seated. The fourth is the God of the underworld – so stays in darkness.

Legend has it that for all of modern science and engineering it proved impossible to site the temples to recreate, precisely, what the ancient Egyptians had done – so the sun now enters on different days that it would originally have done (this may be an urban/desert myth, I’m not certain – in other words fake news).

In the 1960’s when Nasser, in his wisdom, decided Egypt needed to tame the floods of the Nile and generate some hydro power, it also meant the flooding (and consequent relocation) of Abu Simbel, one of the great monuments of the ancient world.  This was a massive US$300 million project (in today’s money) that took 20 years.

Lake Nasser, behind the dam, is huge. It stores nearly six trillion cubic feet (157 km3) of water! This is about four times the amount of water stored behind Hoover Dam (USA, Lake Mead) and Three Gorges Dam (China) (Chao et al., 2008).

But more importantly, in terms of important globally understood yardsticks this is 340,000 Sydharbs approximately (1 Sydharb = 500 gigalitres) – more Sydharbs than you can poke the proverbial stick at (but perhaps my maths is wrong – it seems a lot). For the uneducated, Sydharbs are the global volume measuring standard – based on the amount of water in Sydney harbour)

On the Nile: women and girls gather water; Nile fishermen

The construction of the dam meant that millions of tonnes of silt normally carried to the Nile delta were now stopped by the dam – meaning that farmers now had to fertilise their crops with superphosphates. Aside from that there were the 90,000 displaced Egyptians and Sudanese, the erosion of the Nile delta and associated increase in salinity and the increase in prevalence of schistosomiasis/bilharzia among other things.

That is not to say there were no benefits from the Aswan High Dam. It produces a significant amount of electrical power (enough originally for about 50% of Egypt’s needs, now less than 15%) that allowed electrification of “rural” Egypt. It controlled floods, it allowed permanent irrigation of many areas and it led to a fishing industry on Lake Nasser.

Having arrived in Aswan, I wandered down to the Nile from my Aswan Hotel – I don’t remember a lot about it after 39 years except it was on the 2nd floor, it had a bed (nothing else, nada), tiled floor and it’s walls were white – strange what sticks in the memory. My mission was to try and get a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailing boat). But being on my own made it almost impossibly expensive, especially on my budget, never mind much less interesting than travelling on a boat in a group. So I wasn’t hopeful.

The beauty of the Nile

Unlike today, where if you turn around you will trip over a tourist or possibly 40, 1980s Aswan was largely devoid of tourists. So a group of five white people haggling with Saiid, a Nubian, stood out like the proverbial dogs balls. I wandered over – it was my big break. They were leaving next day for Luxor, five days  and 216 kms downstream (or, as the Felucca sails, nearer to 300-350 kms since you cross and recross the river with the wind). They agreed to take me as an extra passenger (and financial offset) and I was off with four non-English speaking Frenchies.

My six companions were, Saiid, our esteemed Captain, Francoise, Alain, Bernard,  Miriame and Caroline. We spent some three weeks travelling together, down the Nile, visiting Karnak (in Luxor), the valley of the Kings, Alexandria and Cairo. I even flew back to Paris with Caroline. But unlike today where, if we like the people we travelled with, we are forever linked by social media, I never heard from or saw any of them again and I occasionally wonder where they are, what they did with their lives and if they are all alive or not.

Clockwise from top left: Bernard and Caroline on the way to Valley of the Kings (VOK); Alain at Giza, Alain and Bernard on the oars, The crew (l to r Francoise, Caroline, Bernard, Alain, Saiid, Miriame), Alain at Philae, Bernard and Francoise on the road to VOK

Feluccas are the traditional Nile boat, single sail and they travel by tacking backwards and forwards across the Nile using the winds out of the desert. In 1980 few people were taking the felucca trip down the Nile, so we were  source of constant interest to everyone we met – in this case no one other than locals. While we saw a couple of large cruise boats heading upriver, from a tourism perspective we felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe.

Before leaving Aswan we had to visit the Philae temples, which sit on an island in the middle of the Nile below the original Aswan (low) dam. Like Abu Simbel these temples would have been flooded by the original dam and to save them an entirely new island was build and the temples were reconstructed there.

Philae temples below the Aswan low dam

Ancient cities such as Edfu were entirely deserted. After a brief taxi donkey ride from the river we spend several hours exploring the complex entirely undisturbed by anyone else.

On day three we ran out of wind. This required a us to bring our best rowing experience to the fore, taking it turns on the oars. By midday, however, the initial burst of olympic like enthusiasm for the task at hand and confronted by the prospect of another few hours of rowing in the heat the crew succumbed to the lure of a tow and we hitched the felucca to a cargo boat heading downriver.

Nile taxi (left); tea break on the Nile; Nile sunset (bottom right)

Nights are spend camped on the boat, where we eat, drink and smoke into the middle hours of the night; days are a gourmet feast of Egyptian sights and sounds, ancient cities, small villages, groups by the Nile, water taxis. And each day is embraced at both ends by golden sunsets and warm breezes. It is the blue riband of travel, scarcely to be found these days. And each day and night the Nile flows by carrying its myriad sights and stories. It’s the backbone of Egypt, its lifeline, its water supply, its power supply, its sewer, its drinking water, its bathing and washing water, its highway.

Five days after leaving Aswan we arrived in Luxor. Like all good tourists we visited Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. It was a rather different experience to today, I imagine. I remember wandering Karnak, both in the mornings and the evening and during the son et lumière with no more than 20 others spread around the temple complexes. We had no worries about security, terrorists, crowds. Nothing needed to be booked or arranged in advance.

Karnak

Our trip to the Valley of the Kings involved simply jumping on six bikes and heading off for the day. Along the way there were numerous side trips to fallen monuments and opportunities for visits to small traders. From high on the hills you can see the sliver of green, in the desert, that is the Nile. Never was any country so dependent on a single river. In so many ways it is truly astounding that this country built such a rich heritage and history from such a poor land and the Valley of the Kings simply serves to emphasise this. Astounding wealth and beauty in an empty, hostile and largely barren (and least for human purposes) landscape.

Clockwise from top right: The tomb of Seti, tomb of Ramses VI, Hassan Araby’s daughter, fallen statue of Ramses II, The Nile valley in the distance

From Karnak and the Valley of the Kings we travelled south by train to Cairo and Alexandria.

Saiid Hassan Araby and Family on the road to the Valley of Kings; Deir El Bahari and Temple of Hapsetshut

Cairo, for me, is my childhood home and the place where I grew to love (most) aspects of Middle Eastern culture and hospitality (see: The hospitality of Strangers in a Strange Land). I spent five years here between five and ten (1960-65) and this was my third trip back to the city. When we lived in Cairo it had a population of 3.5 million. Today that is closer to 20 million and it remains one of the world’s fastest growing city.

City of the dead (centre); Mohammed Aly Mosque (right)

Cairo has its roots in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now 24 km southwest of the city. It was founded in 2,000 BC and ruled by King Menes who united Upper and Lower Egypt. It remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities and, if you suspend your tourist “danger” monitor, one of the most friendly and interesting.

Glass blowing (left) – in Cairo

Wandering the ancient souk (markets) near the city of the dead and  Al-Azhar University and having walked across Cairo from my hotel, I was approached by a friendly Cairean. Like a myriad other names and places his name is long forgotten but I shall call him Ahmet, after our Egyptian cook (yes, colonialism at its best).

As usual he wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. At this point he told me he was the “guardian” of several closed mosques and would show me up the minarets if I was interested. At this point all the stories about idiot travellers robbed and left for dead in the backstreets of strange cities came to mind.

Cairo

“Ah, well, I thought “nothing ventured nothing gained. So commenced a day of experiences only open to idiots who cast aside the normal warnings. After trips to the top of three locked minarets, he (whose name is long forgotten) invited me back to his flat.

Now I saw the headlines about tourist kidnapped, drugged, operated on for their kidneys and left for dead. But I accepted regardless. Five minutes later he opened the door to his tiny flat. Inside were approximately ten other men all in a lather of excitement. It turned out the occasion was a soccer game: Egypt versus some other African nation.

A childhood in Cairo

I spend an hour in a room with a dozen frenzied Arabs screaming and throwing things at the television, calling down Allah’s curses on the opposition. If the second coming was happening in my guide’s front room they couldn’t have been more excited. About 4 pm the match ended (yes those were the days when football happened during the day). I prepared to leave. Mustafa grabbed my arm. He requested five dollars (about $20 in today’s money). When I asked what for, he replied “You wait”. Fifteen minutes later he returned, grabbed me and two others remaining and we went off to the tea house. Except it wasn’t. In my naivety I had assumed all of these little cafes with people smoking were tea houses.

Temple of Edfu; getting a tow on the Nile; gathering water.

It turns out a significant proportion were hash cafes and Mustafa has just used my $5 to buy a big nail of hashish. We sit in the cafe for about two hours progressively smoking the entire amount via a water pipe as the proprietor brings us charcoal to heat the hash. Now anyone smart, knowing that these guys probably smoke hash for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I have only consume drugs once every blue moon, would probably have made off after half an hour in a reasonable ambulatory state. But no. Yours truly waits until it is late, dark and he is totally shitfaced.

At this point, several kilometres from my hotel, in one of the seedier parts of Cairo, with no taxis or other transport visible, I lurch off into the night trying to head in what I think is the correct direction. I have no idea where I am going. The streets are dark and unpaved.

This is normally the point in the story in which the Idiot Traveller ends up in the gutter, robbed and mugged, at best, or dead at worst. Fortunately, I am still alive to tell the tale; an hour and four kilometres later I turn the corner and see my hotel. It is the closest thing to a Damascene miracle since Christ was a boy. Except in this case, in Cairo.

The pyramids at Giza

Hash and football nights aside, Cairo and the nearby sites of Giza, Memphis and Sakkara are so rich in history and glorious buildings and sites that one could spend a lifetime exploring. Our time, on this occasion was limited to a week, just enough time to visit Giza, Sakkara and Alexandria. Then it was time to part never to meet again.

 

The Valley of the Kings (left top and centre); Sakkara stepped pyramid; above the valley of the Kings, 1980

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