The Nile by Felucca
by Tim Leffel
"I think I'll start off the day by not writing a letter," said Larry, one of our shipmates, as we set off from the banks of the Nile for a two-night, three-day sailing trip through the heart of Egypt. We were sailing in a felucca, an ancient, graceful sailboat whose design has changed little since the time of the Pharoahs.
It was easy to fall into a pattern of not doing anything on our felucca. With the water gently lapping against the side, the ropes creaking, and the towering white sail filling with wind, relaxation was the natural course. While the cities of Egypt grow increasingly noisier with time, the great river remains nearly as peaceful a haven as ever, the silence only occasionally broken by the distant wailing from a mosque or the sad braying of a donkey.
Ten of us (two Americans, four Australians, two New Zealanders, a South African and a German) had set sail from Aswan in the morning, leaving behind the big boulders and archeological islands reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. Heading north toward Edfu, (Egyptian for "downstream"), the current carried us along when the wind failed us. Our guide, a dreadlocked, Nubian man aptly named Captain Jamaica (a.k.a. Ahmed Gendor), was at the rudder, and had been working on these boats since he was a boy. The captain's colorful vocabulary was culled from 12 years of hosting foreign travelers, which explained his excellent command of English and the multilingual flavor of his cursing!
In "Upper Egypt" as it's confusingly called, the Nile runs cool and clear from the man-made Lake Nasser, devoid of the sediment and algae that accumulates as it makes its way north towards the Mediterranean. The cool water was ideal for an afternoon swim, and, as the heat reached a scorching level, we all dove off the boat for a refreshing paddle, splashing around in the blue water like playful children. Falling off the side of the boat throughout the rest of the day was optional for those who needed cooling down.
Meals on the felucca were plentiful. Our first repast was a falafel and fuul beans feast, complete with salad, fresh local watermelon and cups of tea. Stuffed, we lounged on the cushioned mats covering the entire deck, rested heads on pillows under the canvas shade, and watched the papyrus reeds drift by. There, we spent time getting to know each other, discussing experiences from our respective homes and travels. Another evening, we enjoyed a dinner of pasta and zucchini, salad and pita bread, not to mention the beers and rum that we had dragged along the side of the boat in a mesh bag. Breakfasts were equally sumptuous, with all of us ravenously finishing off boiled eggs, bread, jam, cheese, bananas and a shot of caffeine.
As the sun gradually eased its way down into the mango and palm trees along the banks, the brightly-painted, domed Nubian villages came alive and the white sail of our felucca glowed golden. After docking our boat for the evening with two others and serving us dinner, the crew built a fire, pulled out drums and tambourines, and entertained us with songs, persuading a few volunteers to join them in dancing. As it got late, we all stretched out on the cushioned deck and went to sleep under the roof of our "million star hotel."
A morning swim and a game of cards were the height of activity before we stopped off at Kom Ombro temple for a sight-seeing excursion. An impressive columned affair featuring carvings and hieroglyphics, the temple is just one of many ancient monuments in Egypt. As we ate our lunch of local cuisine, a boy and his donkey stopped to stand by us and stare, most likely confused by the foreign clothing and white bodies contrasting the landscape.
The afternoon was filled with peaceful scenes of nude children swimming and shouting, shepherds bringing their flocks to drink, and women filling large water jugs to carry back to their villages. Occasionally, a desolate brown hill would poke up behind the crops and trees along the water's edge, reminding us of the life the river sustains. Without the Nile, there would be only a dusty desert.
The pastoral scenes were sometimes interrupted by those opting for a less relaxing ride down the river. Occasionally, a big, smoking cruise ship would barrel past, disturbing the serenity and leaving swells in its wake that rocked our small craft like a rubber duck in a bathtub. With their rumbling motors and music blasting on the deck, these floating hotels were a world away from our anachronistic voyage. We were sure we saw some envious looks as the camcorders were aimed in our direction.
After another evening of singing, dancing, and partying with the other two felucca boat passengers and crew, we woke to a glorious sunrise. With the boats and palm trees silhouetted against the serene red and yellow sky, it was hard to accept that our journey was about to end. "We may not make it all the way to Edfu," Captain Jamaica had boomed as we pulled out on Day One. "That is not the purpose of this journey. If Allah sends us plenty of wind we will dock there. If not, we will have taxis to pick you up."
As it turned out, we didn't even come close--the wind had been as lazy as we were. We pulled over at a small farming village, where two passenger vans awaited us. Slinging on our packs, we passed sheep, water buffalo and goats, cutting through an authentic scene that many travelers would never see. Returning the waves of children and smiling farmers, we reluctantly faced our return to civilization.
Felucca trips of up to seven days (Aswan to Luxor) can be booked through Himalayan Travel, often in conjunction with sight-seeing in Aswan, Luxor, and Cairo. For more information, call (800) 225-2380.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Egypt."