Sure, visiting the temples and tombs and pyramids was fantastic. But so too was simply being on a boat on the Nile.
First, the river boat itself: M/S La Traviata. (M/S means, simply, Motor Ship. Why an Italian opera name for our Egyptian boat, we have no idea.) 40 cabins on three levels. Reception lobby, dining room, gift shop the size of a closet. Roof-top lounging deck to watch the river and countryside go by.
It turns out that there about 200 similar river boats on the Nile. At times, our boat was just one of many in a queue going up or down the river.
At river-side ports, the boats would anchor parallel to the shore, one right next to the other from river bank out toward the middle of the river. During these times at port, our nice cabin balcony became an outdoor room that looked right at cabin windows of our neighbor boat. To get to shore, we’d walk though the lobbies of each intervening boat. Alas, some of the other boats were a bit more glitzy than ours … not that that matters!
One thing that was great about this little boat was that the cabins were rather spacious. They were much more roomy than the cabins on a typical mainstream ocean-going cruise ship.
All our meals were included during the week we spent on the boat. The buffet line was modest in size, but the dishes for each meal changed every day, and they were tasty. Unfortunately the dining room is on the level that is a meter or so below the water level outside. The staff kept the high windows covered with curtains most of the time. It felt like we were eating in a basement hotel banquet dining room.
The best part of our time on the river boat, between ports and visits to historical sites, was spending time on the roof deck. During our week, the weather was very hot: at midday, it usually got to about 38 deg C / 100 deg F. There aren’t any clouds in Egypt, so full sun and hot air. Even so, we could lounge in the shade of overhead canvas, drink lots of water, read our books, take naps, visit with our fellow travelers, and occasionally jump in the chilly postage-stamp plunge pool.
As the sun dropped, so too did the temperature. Awaiting sunset over the desert cliffs was the perfect opportunity to enjoy a local beer, aptly branded Luxor.
Along much of the route, especially to the west, great cliffs of the Sahara rise over the green river plain. As we all know from grade school, the ancient Egyptian civilization developed in part because of the amazing ecosystem provided by the Nile River. Generally, each summer, monsoons in the Ethiopian highlands, about 1700 km / 1100 mi south of Luxor, would send flooding waters north to the Mediterranean. Floods deposited the rich upstream silt and sediment throughout the river valley. Through this annual cycle, the river valley remained remarkably fertile, sustaining the civilization for millennia.
With all that history in mind, here we are: Nile waters in the foreground, fertile plains in mid-ground, and the desert cliffs as a back wall. A fluke of geology provided a track for upland rains to push through the utterly dry desert, flowing 6650 km / 4100 mi to the sea. Behind the west-bank desert cliffs, the Sahara Desert extends almost 3000 mi to the Atlantic. That’s about the same width as continental US. Imagine all the territory between New York and Los Angeles as uninhabitable desert.
The desert cliffs are silent, but the blue and green of the river valley shimmer with life. From our curious little tourist bubble, we glimpsed everyday life of rural river valley residents — human and livestock.
Most of the vegetation that we saw as we floated by were date palms, sugar cane, corn, cotton, citrus trees, and little plots of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes.
Fishers were probably catching Nile perch, various types of catfish, and Nile tilapia.
We also spotted wild river birds such as grey heron and egret.
More wildlife along the banks. And there are camels too.
Here’s an image of the port of Edfu. There’s a significant temple at Edfu, but we didn’t visit it. The reason for not visiting the temple is in this image, although not at first apparent. All the horses and carriages look quaint and inviting, yes? Unfortunately very many of the horses are ill-treated. Some owners even deliberately wound and malnourish their horses so that Western tourists will see their distress and want to give more money to help care for the animals. But the money just goes into the pockets of the owners. Our tour company, and we, won’t support this town’s cruel economy. There is apparently rhetoric about the town’s outlawing this abusive behavior, but actions haven’t yet followed words.
By the way, there used to be herds of hippos and basks of crocodiles (who knew they were “basks”?) all along the Nile. Both were ferocious and deadly. Even today, hippos are the world’s deadliest mammal — after humans, alas. Nile crocodiles are the world’s deadliest non-snake reptile. Good for us, but not for the hippo, they have been extinct in Egypt since the early 19th century. Nile crocodiles went extinct along the lower Nile valley by the 1950s because of the encroachment of humans into their habitat; in the 1960s, the construction of the Aswan High Dam relegated surviving populations to the new Lake Nasser, where they thrive today.
About a quarter of the way upriver from Luxor toward Aswan, we passed through the Esna Lock. It’s always a bit interesting to watch the process of entering a lock, watching the water either flow in or out, and then exiting after great gates open. A poignant moment for us was realizing that along with our relatively large boat, a single-person row boat was also using the lock. The little blue dinghy looked precarious to us.
The iconic boat of the upper Nile around Aswan is the felucca. Feluccas are traditional wooden sailing boats used throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They first appeared on the Nile in the 16th century. Today, many take tourists like us enjoy tranquil rides up and down the river on feluccas.
But local folks use them too for day-to-day work and transport, along with more modern options.
The silhouette of their leaning triangular sail is somehow endlessly picturesque. Delicate grace notes amid the horizontal bands of blue, green and gold.
A last image of local river life. He paddled with great verve from the other side of the river toward us. At first, we thought he was just having a good time on the water. But his destination was, well, us. The commercial spirit starts young.