The Nil's New Wave
It’s sunset and a violonist is serenading the gin and tonic crowd on the packed veranda of Aswan’s colonial-era Old Cataract Hotel. Beneath the graceful balcony where Agatha Christie breathed in the dry desert air and imagined murder on the Nile, boulders bear the 3 500 year-old cartouche of the pharaoh Amenophis I and inscriptions thanking the river god Hapy for the annual flood that kept famine at bay. Today’s ebb and flow of tourists keeps the precarious Egyptian economy afloat. From the terrace, I watch the lateen-saild feluccas circling Elephantine Island, chase by tiny Egyptian boys who frantically paddle homemade dinghies in search of tourist handouts.
Down on the Aswan Corniche, the big cruise boats are docked six abreast. More than three hundred of these boxy floating hotels ply 125 miles of river between Aswan and Luxor, usurper-descendants of dahabeahs, the two-masted native sdailing ships that transported early European travellers –soldiers, scientists, artists and aristocrats – up and down the Nile before the advent of trains and steamships;
British travel agent Thomas Cook sent the first tourist steamer up the world’s longest river in 1869, launching the era of mass tourism in Egypt. “Under the desecrated colonnades, slathers of people circulate”, complained the French artist Pierre Loti after mingling with “the Cookies” in the Karnak Temple in 1907. One shudders to think what Loti would make of the Mc Donald’s now facing the Luxor Temple, the KFC at the foot of the Giza Sphinx, or the record six millions tourists who visited Egypt last year. Despite temporary lulls following terrorism in the 1990’s, 9/11, and the debut of the Iraq conflict, Egypt’s ancient mystique, bolstered by increased security measures and tour operator discounts, is attracting more crowds than ever.
Although I live in Cairo, less than one block from the river, I’ve never seen the attraction of the classic Nile cruise, which, given the numbers, seems a formula for standing in long lines at tomb entrances and for catchinging stomach bugs from buffet salads. (The U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit conducted a three-year study of the epidemiology of diarrhea in Egypt, collecting piles of data from Nile passenger ships.) But word drifts north about a handful of entrepreneurs offering imaginative alternatives to the pharaonic package tour. I sign on for a three-day fishing trip on the crocodile-infested Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan High Dam, followed by a weeklong Nile voyage on a restored nineteenth-century dahabeah. By using new and resurrected modes of travel, I discover, it’s again possible to experience the Nile in ail its aspects—wild and tame, past and present— while avoiding the tourist hordes.
I’m in Aswan to meet Tim Baily, a rotund white Kenyan who grew up in the bush with his “nannies,” Wamburu tribeswomen with filed teeth who taught him to respect and love wild places. He runs his Lake Nasser safari business, African Angler, with an Egyptian partner and assigns me one of his most experienced guides, Yousef Dowy, a lithe, twenty-eight-year-old Nubian who favors blue jeans and Ray-Bans instead of a traditional djellaba. The absence of a large-scale fishing industry over the past three decades has enabled perch in Lake Nasser to reach enormous size; the current record stands at 392 pounds. We’ve brought “Lake Nasser Special” rods, made by Britain’s Harris Angling Company, Penn Power Graph 1000 reels, and a box of scary-looking lures from Finland and Australia. Green, orange, silver or black, the lures are designed for different conditions, from shore casting to trolling, but all have multiple treble hooks and are longer than my hand.
My friends Louise and Andrew fly from Johannesburg to join me, and Tim drives us out of town and into the desert, past the Aswan High Dam and to a Lake Nasser dock. We board Yousef’s launch, the Sobek, while a Cape Town couple, Dermott and Jennie Baigrie, embark on a second vessel, the Bushera. Our routine will be simple: Rise at dawn, fish, motor to a new part of the lake, fish, eat lunch, fish, and move on. In this vast waterscape dotted with granite islands and edged by sandstone cliffs and desert dunes, our boats double as casting platforms and tents. Moursi, the cook, pilots the Gazal, our double-decker mother ship, which holds the kitchen, bathroom, and shower—comforts designed for people who want to focus on nature, not five-star facilities. Moursi’s cherubic assistant, Ali, provides the sound track, singing Nubian love songs for hours on end.
When I ask Yousef where he’s from, he points at the lake surface and replies softly, “I come from down there.” Completed in 1970, the High Dam drowned the ancient land of Nubia. Although the international UNESCO campaign to relocate Abu Simbel, Philae, and a handful of other monuments to high ground was successful, many Paleolithic, Pharaonic, Christian, and Islamic sites were lost underwater along with contemporary Nubian villages. Uprooted from ancestral homes, some 120,000 Nubians now labor in Kom Ombo’s malodorous sugar mills or work in Cairo as domestic servants.
From the air, Lake Nasser looks like ink spilled over wrinkled parchment. The newborn ecosystem is still finding its balance, life returning in the form of wild geese or a calligraphy of cormorants flying low over the water. Cut off from civilization without maps or a satellite phone, ancient temples beneath us, I feel transported into a realm that seems timeless, apocalyptic, and pristine. Hydrologists estimate that silt carried down from equatorial African lakes and Ethiopia’s Blue Mountains will fill the basin within five hundred years. A nanosecond from now, in geologic terms, the lake will die. Conceived as his everlasting pyramid and miracle of progress by the late president Gamal Abdul Nasser, the High Dam will have to be rebuilt.
The repository of the country’s past, present, and future, Lake Nasser stores floodwaters that descend each July with the onset of the monsoon in Ethiopia’s highlands. The government taps water at will, creating electricity for every town and village in Egypt and permitting year-round agriculture in a country that once spent unproductive months submerged. Stockpiling multiple flood years, the lake eliminates the natural cycle of high and low floods that in the past caused crop failure, famine, plague, and political weakness. Moreover, by the year 2017, the multibillion-dollar Toshka pumping station and canal, a megaproject begun by current president Hosni Mubarak, will be in operation and will, in theory, enable the government to reclaim vast swaths of western desert, liberating seventy mil lion people from a thin green ribbon of Nile farmland and moving them into the unused ninety-six percent of the country.
This promise—not a guarantee—of prosperity embodied by the High Dam has come at a price. Instead of renewing the soil, Nile nutrients now sink to the bottom of Lake Nasser, and the chemical fertilizers necessary for crop production are creating unforeseen environmental hazards downstream. The flood no longer nourishes shrimp hatcheries nor does it flush out Mediterranean sand and salt water from the mouth of the Nile Delta. The altered ecosystem is thus threatening the traditional livelihoods of fishermen from Damietta to Rosetta and has led to a shrinking of coastal agricultural land already under pressure from rapidly growing population. Perpetual irrigation, meanwhile, bas caused the water table to rise in the Nile Valley. The water transports salt and other minerals to the surface, forming a crystal crust that further reduces the land’s natural fertility and infiltrates and defaces modem and historic buildings.
There’s more. Geologists believe that the weight of Lake Nasser’s water makes Egypt more earthquake-prone. And the lake remains at risk from political tremors too. Last December, Kenya abruptly announced its intention to withdraw from the 1929 Nile Basin Treaty that regulates water consumption in the ten countries through which the river flows. Tanzania has followed suit, and Egypt now fears that Ethiopia and Sudan will also abandon the pact. Though negotiations have always been friendly, nobody can rule out the possibility of a future water war.
Indeed, the world seems more uncertain today than it did five thousand years ago, when people believed that a fat hermaphrodite god called Hapy might fail to make the Nile rise if he woke up in a bad mood.
Fortunately, there’s nothing like a little fishing to keep angst at bay.We’ve motored five hours from Aswan when a sandstorm obscures the horizon with a curtain of orange. As whitecaps build, we seek shelter on a small island, once the tip of a granite mountain. It’s an arachnophobe’s nightmare: All of Nubia’s marooned spiders seem to live here, and they race for their holes when I disembark for a walk. Joining us are a handful of Nile cruisers on the three-day run from Aswan to Abu Simbel, and the archaic wooden ice boats that pick up catches from fishermen camped for weeks at a time on tiny islands. The fishermen, who cast nets and long lines from crude wooden rowboats, form a low-tech emergency survival net work. “If we get into trouble,” Yousef confidently promises, “they will help us.”
When the weather clears, two wild-haired boys row over from their nearby desert is land. The crew greet them like long-lost friends, handing out cigarettes and bread and trading a packet of South African jelly beans for a string of tilapia—small African whitefish—which we eat for supper.
The next morning, ospreys patrol a fjord lined with black-striated cliffs, but our trolling produces only nibbles and we head for a submerged cataract where a vise of granite boulders once squeezed the Nile into a narrow rapid. At lunchtime, we stop by a sandbank where Moursi serves chili pasta and sweet potatoes. It tastes fine to me, but the South Africans grumble about having to eat “boarding school grub.” Take-charge Dermott stalks off with his rod to catch something better. Expletives break the desert silence. We come running in time to see him waving the rod in one hand and the reel in the other as a man-sized Nile perch explodes out of the water. He manages to put his broken rig back together without losing the fish, which turns out to be all size and no fight.
Fresh-caught fish may be part of the meal plan, but African Angler encourages a catch and-release policy for leviathans. Ahmed, the Bushera’s guide, leaps into the water to unhook Dermott’s catch; it must weigh more than a hundred pounds. Forgetting ail about the crocodile population, Dermott wades in to help. They cut the line, flush water over the gills, and heave the creature toward the deep. It swims off weakly, looking blind and pre historic with its luminescent golden eyes and tiny mouth out of proportion to the rest of its huge, humped body.
Fishing is usually ail about patience. This is instant gratification. Standing on a granite ledge, I see more flashes of silver. Within minutes we each have hits, and I land a perch that stretches half my height.
Back aboard the Gazal, Moursi confides tome that he once lived in a palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and cooked for King Fahd’s uncle; he wins over the epicureans among us by baking a twenty-pound perch for supper. The skin is crispy and black, and the soft white flesh tastes lightly of cumin. As dark ness falls, we hear fish leaping and jackals calling. The desolation is as delicious as our dinner. With the desert at our back and the lake’s plenty at our feet, it is easy to imagine the anxiety and wonder of the ancient world, where a river could become an ocean and where a single fish might feed a multitude.
On my desk in Cairo, I keep a nineteenth-century photograph of the Nile in full flood; the river stretches to ward the horizon, where waves lap at palm trees dominated by the Giza Pyramids. Mud left by this temporary sea turned a desert valley into fertile farmland, making civilization possible in hot, rainless Egypt. Even if travellers didn’t worship isis or Osirus or believe in the pharaoh’s divinity, they witnessed the Nile’s miracle with awe. In the fourth century B.C., Herodotus marveled at “villages marooned like islands in the Aegean.” Unable to sow crops, Egyptian farmers navigated the floodplains in papyrus ships and spent three months a year building tombs and temples while waiting for their fields to dry out.
Half the population of Egypt is too young to remember what the world looked like when the Nile flooded, yet Cairenes heed its promise of relief and renewal. On hot summer nights, families escape stifling apartments by sleeping in cars on the river’s breezy concrete bridges. In this crowded, chaotic capital, men fish and young couples court along the cairn Nile riverbank. On Fridays and public holidays, overloaded ferries transport singing party-makers from Cairo to Qanatir, the point where the Nile branches into the delta. These outings echo the ancient Feast of Opet, when temple priests took golden statues of Mut and Amun from their respective sanctuaries and placed them on sacred boats for a conjugal river visit before returning them to the solitary gloom of the naos, the temple's innermost shrine.
With its flood contained behind the High Dam, the Nile in Cairo is both tame canal and schizophrenic time machine. Waterskiers and sailboarders share it with fishermen out of a tomb painting. Between banks of modern skyscrapers, two-masted feluccas ferry pyramids of grain from green islands where farmers still live in mud-brick houses that have hardly changed over the millennia. On the Giza corniche, Egyptian weight lifters pump iron in a floating Gold's Gym modeled after Cleopatra's barge, and Nubian men dressed like King Tut's soldiers welcome guests to The Pharaohs, twin floating restaurants with belly dancing shows.
In 1849, Gustave FLAUBERT chartered a dahabeah and sailed up the Nile from Cairo. He and his companion, Maxime du Camp, had a French government stipend to photograph pharaonic temples, but Flaubert was much more interested in conducting his own intimate survey of courtesans who had been exiled to Upper Egypt by the sultan Mohammed Ali, bent on ridding Cairo of female dancing and prostitution. A century and a half later, I arrange a voyage between Aswan and Luxor with Didier Caille, another French lover of Egypt (in the platonic sense), who has restored a nineteenth-century dahabeah. Dahab means gold in Arabic; dahabeahs were originally gilded houseboats. With two lateen sails and an elongated-dagger prow for oarsmen, they ferried harems on Egypt's river highway, sailing south with the prevailing wind or rowing north with the
Today, Luxor's winter colony aesthetes - Paris designer Christian Louboutin among them - have begun transforming dahabeahs into floating vacation homes. The projects including new commissions and rehabilitated antiques, number fewer than a dozen, but they have the potential to become Egypt's version of the Moroccan riad, or medina house, appealing to travelers' yearning for back-to-the-future chic. Didier has christened his white-and-blue ship the Vivant Denon, after the chief artist from Napoleon's 1798 expedition, and indeed it looks like a plate out of La Description d'Égypte.
A self-taught Egyptologist and former Club Med bartender with a ready grin and shaggy blond curls, Didier was the first to offer dahabeah sailing trips, it's less a business than a word-of-mouth venture originating with referrals from friends, and he runs just ten dahabeah cruises a year. His English is a little rusty, but he has a storyteller's gift for making dry history come alive and he keeps an extensive library of old travel journals and reference books on board so guests can catch up on the details. Didier is also an expert at stealth travel, timing temple visits to avoid periods when they are saturated with package tours and steering us to treasures the big boats skip.
On a conventional cruise ship, you're stuck with rigid schedules and loads of potluck companions. Sleeping just six, the Vivant Denon is perfect for a family or friends who want to design their own itinerary. I've taken along my eleven-year-old daughter, Sophie; Conde Nast Traveler editor Alison Humes and her ten-year-old son, Aidan; and photographer Cathrine Wessel and her assistant. Our quarters consist of a salon and four whitewashed cabins decorated with simple cushions, old Nile lithographs, pharaonicinspired Art Deco ashtrays, and a few wellchosen antiques. The master cabin at the stem has two window seats; this is everyone's favorite nook for playing cards, reading, or bird-watching. Leaning out a window, I dip my fingers in the river. We can hear frogs croaking, and our Nile views are so intimate that one morning I slide open my shutter to discover a gray water buffalo peering back. On the river, Didier is a delightful host, whipping up magret de canard or tender veal fillets while joking in Arabic with his nine crewmen. Onshore, he seems torn, eager to communicate his fascination with Egypt but horrified at the idea of playing the bazaar dragoman. When we ask to go shopping, he escorts us to the Aswan market only to abandon us on a crowded street comer with blithe instructions to "head up there." We dive in, looking for Nubian silver bracelets, and come up with fake antiques.
The Nile flows north to the Mediterranean, but the wind blows south, so we can't use the Vivant Denon's sails when we leave Aswan for Kom Ombo. A blue tugboat pulls us into the current, past Elephantine Island and obsolete iron towers once used as navigation aids during the flood. Two feluccas slip under a bridge, tied together to make the most of the wind, sails opposed like butterfly wings. Soon we see the first parade of thirty cruise boats. The tourists aboard these noisome floating beehives rush to the deck railings to snap our retro photo. I pull my sun hat over my eyes to avoid the sight of a woman in her underwear on her "private" cabin balcony and a fat man in a thong.
A Ptolemaic-era shrine to the deities Horus and Sobek, Kom Ombo Temple sits near sandbars where crocodiles once basked. (There are none today because the turbines of the High Dam grind up any that try to escape Lake Nasser.) Though I despair of ever remembering all the pharaonic dynasties or the soap opera cast of the Egyptian pantheon, I do start to understand that religion in Egypt is also a river, fed by Africa's natural phenomena and nourishing younger faiths such as Christianity. Didier explains that the story of Saint George slaying the dragon originates in images of Horus spearing Seth, a god with aspects of a hippo, a dog, and a crocodile, to take revenge for Seth's murder of Osirus. Everything comes from Egypt, it seems even the expression "the walls have ears.'' There's a pair carved into an outer wall of Kom Ombo. Denied access into the inner sanctuaries, pilgrims stood here to whisper their prayers.
It's possible, with good timing, to avoid tourists but not the Egyptian security police. Tourism is the country's third-largest source of hard currency, and with an eye to the safety of foreign visitors, the government monitors their ebb and flow as attentively as the priests who used Nilometers to measure the Nile's rise in cubits. After Islamic extremists massacred fifty-eight tourists at Queen Hatshepsut's temple in Luxor in 1997, the government devoted massive resources to preempting another attack. Every temple now has multiple military perimeters, tour buses and taxis are often required to travel in convoys with police escorts, and in Luxor the lush sugarcane fields have been cut back about three hundred feet from every road to prevent terrorist ambushes.
In the village of Daraw, the end point of the forty-day caravan route from Sudan, we try to visit the camel market incognito. We anchor by a banana field on the riverbank and hire a local "taxi," a battered Toyota pickup. We're at the gate of the corral when the black-uniformed police swoop down with sirens, alerted by a network of village informants whose unseen presence seems to us both reassuring and alarming. Outnumbered, six hobbled camels think twice about spitting.
We moor the tug at the ancient quarries of Gebel Silsileh and sail south for a few hours. The Vivant Denon turns absolutely quiet, and I immediately regret not having booked the whole trip in this direction. At Fawza Island, farmers arrive in feluccas to work fields of bananas, basil, and peanuts. A fisherman rows by and sells us a bucket of catfish and still-flopping tilapia, which we eat for lunch, fried with tomatoes and eggplant.
In Edfu, our stealth plan fails again. We arrive during the cruise boat lunch hour, so there are no tourists, but today is a school holiday and the best-preserved temple in Egypt is overrun with children who fall on us as a chance to practice their English. I surmise that "What's your name?" and "What time is it?'' form the base of the national English curriculum."Oh, thank goodness, here comes their teacher,'' Alison says, motioning to a mustached man in a beige suit walking toward us. Actually, he's a cop with a semiautomatic machine gun under his arm. Ostensibly here to protect us from terrorists, he takes a firm, amused stance between us and a group of schoolgirls.
The windless Nile is smooth as oil at sunset, reflecting pink plaques of cloud. Tiny papyrus islands shelter yellow-footed cattle egrets, black moorhens, and a lone heron, which hunches into itself like a cold man in a gray pullover. The hoopoe, the kingfisher, and the ibis are living hieroglyphs, and on a beach, an Egyptian man has brought a cassette player and is dancing with a curved staff to ancient tabla rhythms. The sky turns indigo behind silhouettes of ivory palm trees whose fronds look like hair and whose branches mimic women raising their arms in supplication.
For us, dahabeah life is lovely and serene, but the sailors miss the comforts of home. A generator powers the kitchen and provides light for a few hours in the evening; when it comes on, they immediately pull out a small black-and-white television and watch Cairo soap operas out on the prow. The men sleep on the deck, wrapped in turbans and rough blankets. Didier's attitude, as well as the style of his boat, tends toward the colonial. He generously pays for any necessary surgeries or unexpected domestic crises, yet he doesn't teach his employees French-"I don't want them to understand what I'm saying to the guest," he says and he doesn't know the Arabic for "I'm sorry."
After five days we arrive in Luxor, home of ancient Thebes and the world's richest antiquities site. Near the mortuary tomb of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, we meet another Nile entrepreneur, Zeina Aboukheir, a Lebanese photographer who has built the first luxury hotel on Luxor's west bank. Named Al Moudira ("The Boss Lady," after its owner), Zeina's Oriental palace of domed suites and courtyards features old mashrabiya doors from Cairo houses and antique inlaid chests from Damascus. A regal figure with long black hair, wearing dark-red lipstick and beaded lavender mules, Aboukheir berated the puzzled authorities into giving her a desert construction permit. To me, her idea makes perfect sense. On the outskirts of a small sugarcane-growing village with mountains at its back, the fifty-two-suite Al Moudira is an easy bike ride to Medinet Habu, the Ramasseum, and the Valley of the Queens and offers an ascetic respite from the urban east bank's touts, megahotels, and tour-bus hordes.
The Valley of the Kings is a mob scene. Didier guides us instead to the valleys of the Artisans and the Nobles, where watchmen use broken mirrors to direct the sun's rays into cool, dark chambers, illuminating images from the past, and let us linger in tombs for as long as we like. This is the ancient Egypt I've longed to see: carved rivulets of plaited hair the painted joke of a tabby cat stealing the pharaoh's duck eggs, yellow butterflies, and a farm girl removing splinters from her little sister's feet.
A ferry conveys us to the east bank, and we wander the stone forest of Karnak Temple. One hundred and thirty-four columns shaped like bundles of papyrus and lotus stems supported a massive weight on a shifting floodplain while symbolizing the primeval swamp where life originated. Aidan wants to see obelisks, Sophie wants to trace hieroglyphs, and Cathrine wants to take advantage of the twenty minutes of good light left before sunset. We all run off in different directions. Didier darts around like a madman, trying to explain everything at once. Keeping track of us in the vast complex is like trying to herd cats.
On our last day in Luxor, Didier takes us to meet his great friend and mentor, Alain Fouquet Abrial, a retired Egyptologist who lives on a white dahabeah moored on Luxor's urban corniche. Alain was born in a château in the Perigord. Despite years of academic training, he spent most of his career managing the Cairo Club Med. "Faced with the choice of spending my life in the attic of the Louvre or in Egypt itself, I chose Egypt,'' he explains. He bought his dahabeah in Luxor in the early nineties with a loan from a visiting friend, the Maharani of Kapurthala, who happened to have the cash handy in her purse. He wears black patent leather slippers, serves us tea, and is terribly kind to Aidan, who is squirming with a case of pharaoh's revenge. Alain lives alone but has a busy social life. He dines with archaeologists during the digging season (''They all despise one another") and hosts French politicians and assorted aristocrats on Nile sailing voyages.
"At my age, you begin to look at the other side," he says when I ask why he chooses to, live on a relic. At first I think he is talking about his dahabeah's fabulous western view of palm trees rising above the Nile, distant temples, and purple-streaked mountains under the fierce blue desert sky. Seeing the melancholy in Alain's face, I know I'm wrong. He is contemplating the inescapable lesson of Egypt's river: The world is beautiful but unstable. Out of the life we build, death provides the sole gate to the eternal.