Egypt: Setting sail through the centuries

There's an alternative to the big cruise ships that crowd the Nile, says Hamish Mykura. Travel by felucca to experience history at your own pace
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The Independent Travel

I had never tried hailing a felucca before, but how hard could it be? We were standing on the banks of the Nile at Aswan. The river is dramatically beautiful here, and races through channels between scattered lush islands. Everywhere, brightly coloured boats were weaving up and down the waterways. There were painted motorboats, big cruisers off in the distance and the elegantly curving white sails of feluccas, the traditional Arab sailing boats. Self-consciously, we raised our arms and started waving.

A motorboat chugged past. The crew glanced at us, but didn't slacken their pace. Starting to feel a little foolish, we kept on waving. Then, off across the water, a crescent-shaped sail dipped and a boat made a swift turn, and began gliding towards us. We'd snared our felucca.

The captain and his mate were hearty and boisterous in their gallabiya robes. They made a noisy and elaborate theatre of negotiating a price with us, with lots of waving of hands in wild disgust that our offer was far too low. But finally, we had our taxi for the finest water park in all of Egypt, the Upper Nile at Aswan.

We'd come to the Upper Nile with our nine-year old twins. A cruise along the river is one of the world's classic tourist trips, with its seductive Hercule Poirot fantasy of gliding in luxury between temples and tombs, the sunlight warming the sails of the passing boats and glinting in the gin and tonic. But we'd heard off-putting stories from other travellers that the reality of a week's cruising could be a comedown. We'd been told tales of tourist-trap cruisers like container ships, mooring alongside one another at the beauty spots so the evening peace is drowned by the thrum of generators, and cabin portholes that looked straight into the porthole of the next ship along. The posher ships seemed frighteningly pricey, while the little sailing boats offered a Spartan living – and equally Spartan toilet facilities – that were only for the brave. Travelling with nine-year-olds, life aboard a cruise boat seemed distinctly daunting.

The biggest of the islands of the upper Nile at Aswan is called Elephantine Island, the site of an ivory trading post in the days when the Nile was the vital trade route from the interior of Africa to the Mediterranean. So we based ourselves here, settled in, and let the Nile cruise past us. The maximum extent of our river cruising would be short hops of 10 minutes from island to island, with Agazi the felucca captain as our taxi driver.

Elephantine Island is about a mile long, with villages and fields but no roads or cars. With our hats on against the heat and sunlight, we set off to sail around the islands, our pockets crammed with Egyptian pound notes (worth about 12p each) that could be handed around as tips for the amateur guides who would emerge from the shade and point the way at all the better known sites.

At the southern tip of the island lie the ancient ruins of Abu. A little stepped pyramid here is said to have been built by Sneferu, the pharaoh whose son clearly liked what his dad had done, so he went on to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Giza. The purpose of the main temple here was to pray for the river levels. At one point where the river channel flows through a steep-sided canyon, there is a doorway cut into the rock. We clambered through, onto a worn and narrow flight of steps, and found the Nilometer – a water-level gauge with markings cut into the rockface, which was vital for the king's prosperity. As the annual Nile flood flowed into the main part of Egypt from wild lands to the south, the royal treasurer watched closely: a big flood meant a thick layer of silt covering the fields downriver and a bumper harvest; a little one spelt drought. Depending on the level, Egypt's taxes would be set for the year ahead.

Sir William Wilcocks, the British engineer who designed the first Aswan dam, built in 1902, found time to design himself a villa on the island, bagging a spot with the best view across to Aswan town. It's now a dusty museum of ancient coptic and Egyptian finds; the mummified gazelle may have seen better days but the ivory back-scratcher looks tantalisingly ready for use.

The skyline of Elephantine Island is dominated by a squared-off concrete tower that dates back to the moment when Nasser encouraged Soviet-style architecture as the chic statement of Egypt's independence. Now it's the centrepiece of the big and newly refurbished Mövenpick hotel, an immaculate international place that provides a pampered retreat from the bustle of the city opposite, set in the gardens of the traffic-free island. The swanky bar at the top of the tower proved to be a great place to avoid the heat of midday, with the light sparkling across the archaepelago of Nile islands below.

From here, a 10-minute sail – dodging the boys on makeshift surfboards who paddle alongside the boats at startling speeds in the swift channels – brings you to Kitchener's Island, an exotic botanical garden designed by the Victorian general for his own use. Now it's Aswan's top picnic spot, and as we were there on a Friday, the start of the weekend, the whole garden transformed into a great playground of schoolchildren, footballing and dancing and happily waving to our girls to join in.

For children, gardens and ruins and even sailing can start to pall after a while. But the busy centre of Aswan is just another 10-minute hop away on the trusty felucca. Its highlight is its exotic souk – a long street of shops and outdoor stalls that comes alive after dark, with friendly hassle from the shopkeepers eager to bargain for the price of spices, ornaments, scarves, and (the biggest hit for the girls) spangled dresses that looked as if they were designed with belly-dancing in mind.

The inhabitants of the Nile islands don't think of themselves as ordinary Egyptians. They are Nubians, the people of the lands that lie in the south of Egypt where the Nile valley merges into the boundless deserts of the Sudan. The Nubians have a separate culture with their own music and traditions that are a centuries-old mixture of African and Arab influences, and they live here now because of the virtual obliteration of their homelands.

In 1971, the Aswan High Dam was completed. The Nile rose, creating the gigantic Lake Nasser, more than 500km long, and leaving almost the whole of Nubia deep under water. The people were resettled elsewhere in Egypt but their pride in the independence of their culture is as strong as ever. By way of compensation, the lavish Nubia Museum was built in Aswan with the help of Unesco to tell the fascinating history of their culture. But if you want to experience Nubia for yourself, you need to take a 40-minute flight south.

At the far end of Lake Nasser is the village of Abu Simbel. This is a remote village that is right on the main Egyptian tourist trail, for one reason: the fabulous temple of Rameses II, with its row of four gigantic statues of the seated King cut into the rock face. This too would have been drowned by the rising waters that submerged Nubia, but in the nick of time the whole monument was moved in carefully numbered blocks to a new site higher up the hill on the shore of the new lake. Most visitors jet or coach in and out in a day, so that an evening peace descends on the temple and the village.

On the shores of the lake is a cluster of buildings made from the traditional mud-brick. It's called Escaleh – the word for the old Nile waterwheel – and it's a guest house that's also a Nubian cultural centre, made and furnished in the traditional way and devoted to preserving the old culture as completely as possible.

For our children, this place turned out to be one of the holiday's highlights. The roof terrace is a tangle of domes and arched roofs which the children thought was a perfect playground, particularly under the bright starry skies of the desert evening. This is where the local musicians gather for an impromptu evening concert, and, if you're not put off by the hard traditional mattresses, you can stay and wake to a morning in the garden where much of the food that's served at Escaleh is grown, in the company of the donkey and its foal. Here, you can watch the sun rise over Lake Nasser at the dawn of another scorching day.

"Does it ever rain here?" we asked the laid-back owner at breakfast. He thought for a minute. "Yes," he replied. "Once. Sixteen years ago."

Travel essentials

Getting there

Egyptair (020-7734 2343; egyptair.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Luxor once a week. Alternatively, travel by land or air from Cairo, which is served from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and BMI (0844 8480 808; flybmi.com) and Egyptair.

Families Worldwide (0845 051 4567; familiesworldwide.co.uk) offers a nine-day Feluccas and Pyramids tour, which starts at £999 per adult and £899 per child. The price includes either BA or Egyptair flights; transfers; trips to Cairo, Aswan, the desert, Kom Ombo, Luxor and a night on a felucca; accommodation with breakfast; and some other meals.

Staying there

Mövenpick Resort Aswan, Elephantine Island (00 20 97 230 34 55; moevenpick-aswan.com). Doubles start at US$171 (£114), room only.

Eskaleh Eco Lodge, Abu Simbel (00 20 12 368 0521). Double rooms start at €50, including breakfast.

Nile Valley Hotel, Luxor (00 20 231 1477; nilevalley.nl). Doubles start at E£238 (£27), including breakfast.

Visiting there

Felucca trips can be arranged locally through a tour operator such as Aswan-based Minamar Travel (00 20 2 2517 3803; minamar.com). A three-night trip starts at €140 per person, full board.

Nubia Museum, Aswan (00 20 97 319 333; numibia.net). Open daily 9am-1pm and 5-9pm in winter, 6-10pm in summer. Admission E£20 (£2.30).

Red tape and more information

British passport-holders require a £15 visa to visit Egypt (apart from certain Red Sea resorts). These can be obtained from the Egyptian Consulate, 2 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (020-7235 9777; egyptianconsulate.co.uk), or on arrival.

Egyptian Tourist Authority: 00 20 95 237 3294; egypt.travel

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