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Sailing the Nile in style Ed Cumming April 2018
At last we joined the boat that would be our home for the next four nights. Most cruises start
in Esna, where the river opens out after a long and tedious series of locks, and head south
to Aswan, where the Nile is dammed. Nile Sailing is run by Jane Irving, a Brit who has been
in Egypt for 13 years, and her Egyptian husband.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Nile cruises: the standard variety, in which you are
ferried in a kind of floating block of flats and disgorged en masse at the big sites down the
river, and the quieter sort, where you rent either a cabin or, ideally, all of a traditional sailing
boat, or dahabiya. Our own dahabiya slept 12, with six double cabins at the back of the boat,
each with an en suite bathroom. Jane and the crew slept in the canopied wooden deck
above, about the size of a tennis court. For £75 a night, it seemed impossibly luxurious.
I wasn’t prepared for the food. Four times a day, including high tea, a stream of immaculate
dishes were brought up from the kitchen of the chef, Mahmoud: omelettes and pancakes
and fresh fruit for breakfast, then fresh bread, soups, baba ganoush, fattoush salads, grilled
fish, goulash, tomatoes, piles of piquant chicken legs. On the third morning he was replaced
by another chef, confusingly also called Mahmoud, whose food was still excellent but not
quite the marvel of his predecessor.
Perhaps too relaxed, we conjured jeopardy out of nothing. It is said there are no crocodiles
left south of the Aswan dam but the cattle and donkeys grazing by the waterside looked like
tempting prey. We read about bilharzia, the water-borne parasite apparently lying in wait to
strike Nile swimmers, and gingerly stayed out of the river until Jane insisted that it was
improper not to swim when it was 40 degrees. She was right. On the penultimate evening, a
dust storm swept up the river and, for the first time, we ate indoors.
The next morning we emerged to find the whole boat covered in a film of fine sand, like the
surface of Mars, and the otherwise sleepy river whipped into little white peaks by the wind.
There was hardly any wifi, nor much else to do bar read and talk. Four nights of nothing, like
this, felt indulgent in a world of rushed weekend mini-breaks and frantic guidebook-chasing.
The journey was the whole point. In the few moments we weren’t eating, we lay on loungers
and watched as the 10ft reeds and palm trees and wide fields of watermelons slid past. Calls
to prayer drifted from unseen minarets on both sides of the river. In time the image of the
landscape, that strip of lush green between water and desert, bores into you.