The complete guide to the Nile

The River Nile is Egypt's life - it is the source of its fertility and prosperity and the engine of its history. And its tomb- and temple- littered banks tell the story of 5,000 years of civilisation.
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THE ANCIENT Egyptians didn't know where the Nile came from. Its annual inundation laid a thick carpet of silt on their fields, but they didn't know how, or why. Their crops thrived under the clear skies and their civilisation didn't end for 3,000 years, until an unhappy asp got the better of Cleopatra, its last pharaoh. These three millennia gave us a fantastic collection of historical sights. Travelling on the Nile, through that fragile ribbon of fertility, is perhaps the only way to experience Egypt as the ancients would have.

Go on then, tell us about the Ancient Egyptians

Their civilisation started around 3,000 B.C. Shortly after that, they started building pyramids, the greatest being the aptly titled "Great Pyramid". The fact that this civilisation produced some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world within such a short time, is astonishing. Most pyramids are in the north, near Cairo, and were built in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2,600 to 1,500 BC). In the following New Kingdom, the major building work took place around Thebes (modern Luxor), and gave us the massive temple at Karnak, and tombs like Tutankhamun's, in the Valley of the Kings.

What is there to see in Egypt today?

Lots. The historical sights around the Nile are the main attraction, and even if your interest in history was stifled at an early age by teachers with beards and tweed, you will be impressed by the pyramids and temples (of which the best are: Karnak, Medinet Habu, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo and Philae).

A trip on the Nile for a few days turns a good holiday into a great one and the best place to do so is probably the area between Luxor and Aswan, in southern Egypt. There are a wealth of sites to see, the river is at its most picturesque, and many tour operators offer packages including a two-three day cruise or a felucca (traditional sailing boat) trip. You can either book a package in the UK or arrange it in Egypt, as an independent traveller (for details see below).

If you get the chance, do some background reading on Egyptian history. There are some excellent non-specialist books on Ancient Egypt, from publishers such as Thames & Hudson, and the British Museum Press. As far as getting to the sights (which are often out of town), either take the local buses or hire a taxi in Cairo - or a bicycle in Luxor.

Many Egyptians speak English, and are only too happy to help you if you get lost (just be aware of getting enticed into a perfume shop in the process). Women should prepare to get attention from the local men. It's safe, but best to cover shoulders, arms and legs. For general information, contact the Egyptian Tourist Authority at 3rd Floor West, Egyptian House, 170 Piccadilly, London, W1V 9DD (0171-493 5282).

Can I go all the way down the Nile?

No. Unfortunately, much of the Nile runs through parts of Sudan that are definitely not recommended for tourists at the moment. Even if you could travel safely all the way upstream to Lake Victoria and beyond, you'd have to change boats and walk regularly, due to the cataracts and swamps along the way, making this a trip only for the hardiest (and extremely wealthy) explorer.

So, should I book an organised tour?

If you're going for the first time, organised tours including a few days on the river are a good option and those offered by the more adventurous operators such as Explore Worldwide (01252 319448) and Exodus (0181-675 5550) often have quite imaginative itineraries.

Exodus, for example, offers a 14-day Egyptian Discoverer tour including nine nights in a three-star hotel, a three-night cruise on the Nile and one night on a sleeper train. The trip costs from pounds 825 per person including flights, accommodation and transport.

Alternatively, Dragoman's (01728 861133) Nile Explorer is a seven-and- a-half week overland trip from Cairo to Nairobi which offers a day's drive through the Blue Nile Gorge up to the source of the Nile, Lake Tana and a walk around the spectacular Blue Nile Falls. The price (from pounds 1,650 plus kitty) includes transport, accommodation in hotels and tents and some meals.

Most tours will visit Cairo, Luxor and Aswan - look for one which gives you some free time to go exploring yourself.

For something more cerebral, Andante Travels (01980 610555) specialises in archaeology and ancient history and does a 12-day Ancient Egypt trip that costs pounds 2,380 per person including flights, local travel, bed and breakfast accommodation (in a five-star hotel near the pyramids, colonial- style hotels in Luxor and Aswan, and a standard hotel in central Cairo) and some meals. The trip is led by Dr Fiona Richards.

What if I want to go it alone?

Egypt is also a country well-suited to independent travel. British Airways and Egyptair fly daily from Heathrow to Cairo, while Egyptair also has a weekly service from Manchester to Cairo, and from London to Luxor. The lowest fares are likely to be through discount agents.

If you don't mind rickety buses and the odd cockroach, you'll be able to see the sights where few tourists go. It's easy to locally book a trip for a few days on either a cruise boat, or a felucca, to take you between Luxor or Aswan. Get a good guide book - both the Rough Guide (pounds 10.99) and the Lonely Planet (pounds 12.99) Egypt guides are excellent, and Insight Guides' The Nile (pounds 4.99) is a good choice for basic general information.

Do I need a visa?

Yes. These are issued by the visa section of the Consulate-General at 2 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (0171-235 9777; 09001 887777 for the 24-hour visa line, a premium-rate number). After the Luxor attack two years ago, the pounds 15 visa fee was waived, but it has now been reinstated.

Where will I stay?

Anywhere from fleapits to five-star international chains. You generally get what you pay for - it's possible to find a room for EGP7 (pounds 1.30) a night, but you'll have to share with the cockroaches. For somewhere a bit more elegant (or just nice places for a G&T on the terrace), try the Old Winter Palace in Luxor or the Old Cataract in Aswan.

Abercrombie & Kent (0171-730 9600) can tailor-make an itinerary for you incorporating a hot air balloon flight over Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and staying amongst the tropical gardens of the Old Winter Palace or at the Old Cataract in Aswan, on a granite bluff overlooking the Nile.

Big cruise ship or small sailing boat?

The cruise ships are like a cross between The Love Boat and a Cross Channel Ferry, and a felucca is a traditional Egyptian sailing boat with a triangular sail. I mention The Love Boat because one of the ships featured in this pinnacle of 1970s television is now plying the river between Luxor and Aswan (apparently the purser hasn't seduced anyone yet). Many of the cruisers have small swimming pools and a shop on board, and all have a bar, restaurant and sun-deck. It's rarely worth paying extra for a luxury cruise, unless you feel you really can't go without the fake velvet cushions and complimentary fruit.

To get an idea of a typical package, Discover Egypt (0171-407 2111) offers tailor-made itineraries and Nile Cruises. A seven-night cruise on the four-star Princess Eman costs from pounds 379 per person including return flights, full-board accommodation and excursions to sites such as the Valley of the Kings and Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, Medinet Habu and the Colossi of Memnon.

Alternatively, the Imaginative Traveller (0181-742 3113) offers a Nile Valley and Red Sea package. The 15-day trip from Cairo, includes a three- day Nile cruise, visits to Aswan and Luxor and a journey across the Red Sea to Hurghada where you'll be able to relax and go snorkelling. It costs pounds 495 per person, including transport, all activities and museums, most meals and the services of a tour leader and Egyptologists. It excludes flights.

Should I try a felucca?

If you don't mind roughing it, travelling by felucca is a fantastic way to see the Nile. It's possible to travel either way between Luxor and Aswan on one of these beautiful sailing boats.

If the wind drops for a few hours, all the boats come equipped with oars - and you must follow in the Egyptian tradition of singing as you row. The locals on the bank never cease to be entertained by the strains of popular favourites such as "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" drifting across the water (most likely changed to "She'll be Rowing a Felucca"). It's very relaxing, lying in the sun, with a gentle breeze blowing, alternating between reading, dozing, and watching the scenery go by.

To travel by felucca as part of a package, Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007) includes a four-day sailing trip down the Nile on a felucca as part of its 15-day Red Sea and Nile Felucca trip. You need to bring a sleeping bag and be prepared to sleep toe to toe, moored at the bank on foam mattresses.

The trip costs from pounds 659 per person based on two people sharing and includes flights and all meals on the felucca.

Alternatively, Explore Worldwide's (01252 319448) 10-day Nile trip includes a visit to the pyramids, a two-day camel trek to St Simeons monastery, a felucca cruise to Edfu and a donkey trek to the Valley of the Kings.

The price (pounds 475) includes return flights, transport, five nights B&B accommodation and full-board accommodation on the felucca.

Other companies offering trips to Egypt which include a cruise down the Nile are Hayes and Jarvis (0870 898 9890), Bales Worldwide (01306 741526) and Kuoni (0171-589 8959) but it is also possible to arrange something in Egypt.

Each boat holds five to eight passengers, and in the evening you pull up on a beach, light a barbecue, and the boatmen get out their drums. If you're travelling independently, it's best to club together with some other travellers to hire a boat.

Get the tourist office in Luxor or Aswan to recommend a boat and captain - the cost should be about EGP70 (pounds 12) each plus EGP10 tip, for a group of five to eight people.

What if I want some peace and quiet?

There are several small cruisers operating on Lake Nasser, to the south of the Aswan Dam (if you're booking, one of the best boats is the MS Eugenie). The lake is totally different to the rest of the Nile, and not just in scale either, as you'll be surrounded by the silence of the desert rather than fields and villages.

It's possible to cruise from Aswan to the temple at Abu Simbel, visiting deserted temples such as Kalabsha and Mandoulis along the way.

5 NILE FACTS

1. It's over 4,000 miles in length.

2. It originates in the Kagera River, in southern Burundi (not in Lake Victoria).

3. It splits into a delta in northern Egypt (called Lower Egypt since the ancient Egyptians looked the other way), the bread-basket of the Roman Empire.

4. It travels through Uganda and Sudan as the White Nile, and is joined by the Blue Nile at Khartoum.

5. The building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s created Lake Nasser - the world's largest reservoir. It also stopped the silt which fertilised Egypt's fields.

WHAT TO DO IN ASWAN

ASWAN IS an excellent place to recuperate after the historical excesses of Cairo and Luxor. It's in the ancient area of Nubia, whose badly armed and disorganised tribes were crushed by the mighty Egyptian army in Clintonesque campaigns.

For the full Nubian story, head to the acclaimed new museum at Aswan, which has displays on just about everything from prehistoric rock art to the recovery of Nubian sites. The most famous of these sites is Ramesses II's temple at Abu Simbel, which can be visited on a day trip from Aswan. It sits embedded in a man-made mountain above the shores of the new lake, a few hundred feet above its original site. Another rescued site is the temple of Philae, now resting on an island a few minutes from Aswan. The nightly sound and light show here is the best in Egypt.

WHAT TO DO IN LUXOR

IF YOU'RE on a guided tour, you'll be taken to the Valley of the Kings, Hatchshepsut's temple, and Karnak temple, but you often have to choose between a selection of the other sites, missing out on some great places.

Take advantage of any free time to visit Luxor's fantastic museum - which puts Cairo's Egyptian Museum to shame. The museum and the Luxor Temple are open till 9pm.

Getting around Luxor by bicycle will allow you to get up to the Karnak temple, and around the west bank, where most of the sites are. Hire a bicycle for EGP5-10 (pounds 1 or pounds 2) per day, and get the ferry across the river. All of the tours will take you to at least three tombs in the Valley, but there are many more worth seeing, so two trips is a good idea.

Some of the best tombs are from the early 18th dynasty (around 1,500 BC), including those of Amunhotep II and Thutmose IV.

Independently, it's possible to get out to the Valley of the Kings by bicycle, but don't try it if you're not used to cycling - it's not much fun when you have a headwind, it's 45 degrees, and the springs start poking through the saddle on your hired bike. The other option is to walk, or take donkeys over the cliffs into the Valley. This should only be tried in the cool of the early morning but at least you get to see the sunrise for your trouble. Luxor donkeys have been bred carefully over centuries to bring out particular character traits, and Luxor bicycles are usually more intelligent.

Finally, the west bank has some great sites which few tourists venture to, and the tombs of the workmen who carved the king's tombs are amongst the best in Egypt.

Try to see the massive temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, with its 3000 year-old paint still fresh on the walls.

WHAT TO DO IN CAIRO

A FANTASTIC (and unusual) place to start your holiday is the Cairo Tower, on the island of Zamalik. Built in the late 1960s with Russian help, it offers a view over the whole city, and all the way out into the pyramids.

This way you'll start your holiday on a more cerebral and scenic plane than most visitors, who spend their first hour in Cairo traffic on their way to the pyramids at their busiest time.

If you're on an organised tour, it'll include a visit to the Egyptian Museum. However, two visits are a good idea whether you're travelling in a group or independently.

Most guided tours look at the treasures of Tutankhamun, and then it's back to the bus and on to the carpet shop. There's lots that you'd miss on a single trip, like the mummies of the greatest pharaohs of Egypt.

Nearly all of the pyramids are near Cairo (there are nearly 40 major pyramids), and the two pyramids of Dashur are not to be missed. Built when the Egyptians were still experimenting with pyramid building, the first was started at too steep an angle, and had to have a rather major design change half way up, hence the name: "Bent Pyramid".

The other is nearly as big as the Great Pyramid at Giza, and the massive burial chamber can be appreciated in spooky silence, without hoards of other tourists. They can be visited in a half-day taxi trip from Cairo. Taxis are easy to use, and cheap - EGP60 (pounds 10) or so for half a day, plus a tip of 10-12% (tipping is very important in Egypt, for any type of service).

The famous Pyramids of Giza are visited by every tour group, but it's hard to appreciate them when surrounded by other tourists and the din of coaches. Instead, go in the evening, when it is possible to hire camels or horses and go out in the desert to see the sunset - and take some arty photos.

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