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Softly up the mighty Nile without an engine

As the wind got up, I watched closely as an Egyptian sailor, barefooted, shimmied up the huge yard-arm attached to the mizzen-mast, to shake out the sail furled to it.

This was our January adventure, sailing up the Nile in a dahabiya with 14-16 friends. Our boat Mary Rose is a 43-metre boat of the kind beloved by Edwardian travellers, with eight twin cabins and two masts – one at each end. The sails were “lateen”, from a French word meaning “Latin” or latin-rig, a triangular sail on a long yard mounted at an angle on the mast, and running in a fore-and-aft direction. The owner told us that a dahabiya could only be registered if there was no engine aboard.

Setting the sail (photo: Robin Minney)

We arrived at midnight on 7 January at Luxor, which in ancient times was Thebes, capital of Upper Egypt, direct from Heathrow. We were met by a taxi, and conveyed across the river to the wharf where Mary Rose was moored.

As I climbed to the upper deck the following morning, first impressions were of agreeable wrought iron railings, and well-varnished, well-trodden pine planks. At 7:30am our breakfast included delicious freshly baked flat-bread.

At 8.15 a.m we piled into a minibus for sightseeing ashore near Luxor. The tombs of the Valley of Kings (1,600 – 1,100 years B.C.), though impressive for their size and long inscriptions quoting passages from The Book of the Dead, mostly featured drawings of the kings’ enemies decapitated, a row of identical figures with blood gushing from the headless necks.

Bas relief at Temple of Horus in Edfu (photo: Robin Minney)

By contrast, more interesting were the bas relief on tombs of the “nobles”. These glorified the office, such as being a collector of tithes or in charge of organizing royal banqueting. The noble would be depicted in large size supervising, and there were vivid details of the produce brought in payment or the food at banquets including courgettes, grapes and roasted water-birds. The colours were as bright as when the walls were first painted, because the pigment was made from ground-up precious stones, not from natural or chemical dye.

We were on the move upstream (heading South) the next morning by 7.00 am, palm-trees going past our window in an orderly procession. Yet there was no vibration, no smell of diesel, and there also seemed to be no wind. Peering through another window I saw the tow-line, and many metres away a boat towing us.

More fun was when the wind got up, and I watched closely the sailor climbing to shake out the sails. I noticed small wedge-shaped steps for him to use, both on the yard-arm and on the two masts.

Lock near Esna (photo: Robin Minney)

The same wedge-shaped steps on the masts came in useful as we entered a huge lock, built to carry us up past the sandstone dam at Esna, built in 1906. The tug would take us into the lock – but with no engine on board to put into reverse, the problem would be to stop the momentum once inside the lock, and not ram the wharf. The sailor shimmied up the mast to throw ashore a light line attached to a heavy hawser to hold us. I watched as men on shore caught the line.

We sailed close to the shore, flanked by a wall of reeds, possibly papyrus, and to our delight watched a kingfisher close-up, hovering and diving, undisturbed by our quiet passing. Swallows were darting around in pursuit of insects above the water. I was told that this was a species of swallow unique to Egypt in that they did not migrate, and had bright red rumps and tummies. Darting about a few feet higher above the river were swifts, and there was an abundance of elegant white egrets.

Our boat was able to tie up at smaller sites than the noisy cruise ships with 120 passengers, which meant we had more peaceful visits. Our party enjoyed many more visits, carriage rides, the massive mud-brick temple wall at El Kab (former Nekheb, a 5,000-years-old site) probably built 800-300BC and in places bigger than Hadrian’s Wall; a fascinating Pharaonic stone quarry at Silsila where you can see the precision of cutting out huge blocks; and more beautiful bas-relief views of farming and other daily life from other sites we visited.

Another highlight was the Temple of Horus at Edfu, one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, built between 260 and 50BC, and the area has fascinating traces of 3,000 years of history until it became Apollinopolis Magna in the Hellenistic era (πόλις μεγάλη Ἀπόλλωνος) and then was conquered by the Romans after 30BC and acquired a bishop later.
Every day we shared meals on deck, interesting conversations, visits ashore, and wonderful birdwatching. Our week went by much too fast.

If you want to try sailing, we recommend Nile Sailing run by Jane Irving and brothers Alaa, Mohammid and Hagag who inherited a family boat business started 30 years ago.

Boarding dahabiya (photo: Robin Minney)
Breakfast table (photo: Robin Minney)

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