The Road Ahead : April May 2007
APR/MAY 07 37 The name 'Egypt' causes travellers to swoon, yet in planning a trip recently we were concerned that as a family with three daughters we might only have a potted experience travelling in an Islamic countr y that trades heavily on its past. Our solution was to take a traditional sailing boat down the Nile to get off the well-worn tourist groove. Since the Pharaohs, the river has transpor ted the massive stone slabs, born of the deser t itself, to create the masterpieces of architecture that line its route. More than that, it has been the lifeblood of a civilisation that evolved without rainfall in the harsh deser t. We boarded the Royal Cleopatra in Esna, an hour's drive south of Luxor. Cleopatra is one of eight passenger-conver ted sandales originally used to transpor t rocks from the quarries in the south to Cairo. The advantage of hiring the Royal Cleopatra is that we have the entire boat to ourselves. It wasn't luxurious but the guest to crew ratio was five to seven. We had a Nubian crew of six plus our guide and interpreter, Mohammed. The Nubians, from Southern Egypt, are renowned throughout histor y as great warriors and even better sailors. We sailed from nor th to south in the direction of the prevailing winds. The boat glided slowly, its two massive canvas sails hoisted on yellow, wooden masts, sweeping across the craft in opposite directions. Below was a small living area where we ate dinner. The kitchen was at one end. There were two spacious cabins, each with three single beds, and two small en-suite bathrooms. Each room was airconditioned. On our first day, we sailed from Esna to near Edfu, enjoying a delicious lunch on deck. The sandy shore was lined with papyrus reeds, bordered by green alfalfa and sugar cane. Date palms were ever ywhere. Rising in the middle distance were the ever present brown hills of the deser t. In the honeyed dusk, fishermen rowed by in brightly coloured boats, smacking the water with planks to frighten the fish into their nets. In the morning light, the crew washed in the Nile and shared breakfast from a communal pot on the back deck. Egrets, kingfishers and herons waded in the shallows. We enjoyed omelettes, bread, cheese and jam. At the Edfu pier, we bundled into caleches (elaborate horse- drawn buggies), for a ride to the massive temple of Horus, the falcon god of the sky. This is the best preser ved temple in Egypt, with its multi-columned hypostyle hall open to the sky. After wards, we wandered through the bazaar, bargaining for embroidered gowns, leather slippers and coloured head scar ves. And so we gradually fell into the rhythm of an Egyptian day. Five times a day, we heard the call to prayer broadcast from the mosques in the mud-brick villages we passed. Each of our crew pulled up a bucket of water from the Nile, washed his feet and hands and pointed his mat to Mecca to pray. As the sun rose, farmers rode donkeys along the shore. In the midday heat, workers rested in palm-frond shelters with cups of sweet tea and water pipes. At dusk, we arrived at the Jebel Silsila stone quarries, on the narrowest par t of the Nile. Two dahabeyas (larger than sandales) are moored alongside and the crews gather on the beach to share a water pipe. The quarries offer a blueprint of archaeological histor y. Massive rectangular slabs are cut from the rock face. Inside, small temples honour the gods. The next golden afternoon we come into Kom Ombo, where the temples of Sobek, the Crocodile God of the Water and Horus the Elder, tower over the quay. Mohammed explains the hieroglyphics, the columns, the statues and under his gaze the kids find clues to the past, from the symbols of the lotus flower and papyrus for Upper and Lower Egypt to the medical instruments and per fume recipes. And always they find the images of eternity so impor tant to the ancient Egyptians. The next morning Mohammed takes us for a walk through the farmland lush with mango and banana trees. A farmer is climbing a date palm to strip bark for rope which is used to hitch buffalo to water wheels to pump water from the Nile for irrigation. All too soon we are cruising into Aswan, awash with the sails of feluccas, its banks jammed with big cruise ships. "At the Edfu pier, we bundled into caleches ... for a ride to the massive temple of Horus, the falcon god of the sky." GOING PLACES RACQ Travel can arrange air travel, tours to Egypt and Nile cruises (on bigger boats). Call 1300 888 449 for details and bookings. If you're considering a trip to Egypt, check the latest travel advice on the Federal Government website, www.smarttraveller.gov.au. ABOVE: The Royal Cleopatra's captain and first mate. Kom Ombo Temple. FACING PAGE: Setting sail on the Nile.
June July 2007