Florence Feehan and Jean-Pierre enjoying a lovely lunch.

Travel: Six-day sail down the Nile with Humpty

This is the second in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”.

There were only 15 guests on board the Malouka: nine polite Americans and our group of six raucous Canadians. We were on a six-day sail up the Nile River. The vessel was a traditional double-masted dahabiya, part of the Nour el Nil fleet. Dahabiyas have been plying the waters of the Nile for millennia. But this was a cleverly-constructed, modern, luxurious craft for us clever, modern, luxuriant folk.

In addition to the crew – who outnumbered the guests – we were graced with the presence of Jean-Pierre, a gentle man with a charming Parisian accent whose only job (from what we could glean) was to hop from boat to boat, entertaining the guests with his relaxed septuagenarian spirit – and to act as unpretentious “bodyguard” to Eleanor, one of the fleet’s owners. Eleanor, an elegant French lady, had her quarters on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe.

Every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was served in style on deck in the open air. The food was amazing. We were waited on like Pharaohs and Queens: fresh-netted Nile perch, crisp fried falafel and baba ghanouj; straight-from–the-oven flatbread to scoop up the tahini, hummus and yogurt sauces. Each afternoon, we were offered the refreshing juice of some exotic fruit. After dinner, often just a simple desert of dates and figs.

We quickly bonded with the crew. Where English/Arabic language issues arose, the occasional knowing nod, some common courtesy and a mutual admiration for the beauty of the Nile, sufficed. The Egyptian crew was polite and attentive. And even the most hardened of seamen displayed a boyish sense of humour.

Each time we neared shore to dock for an excursion, the captain – whom the staff had inexplicably nicknamed Humpty Dumpty – commenced a routine of alarmed shouts directed at the crew up front – while simultaneously engaging in a frantic arm-waving ceremony toward the helmsman. As we neared Edfu, and before he could start this inevitable daily performance, I jumped into his station at the bow and began gesticulating and yelling in my best pidgin Arabic.

Humpty looked at me in astonishment. The crew was momentarily dumfounded. Then one-by-one they burst into hysterical laughter. The cook, abandoning the galley, fell to the floor, pounding his fists on the deck with unrestrained glee.

I looked at the captain apologetically and said, “Asif.” But I wasn’t really sorry – Humpty was laughing just as hard as the others.

The sun began to redden over the Nile. The barge passed fertile fields of cotton and sugar cane; lush orchards of pomegranates and figs. Galabiya-clad shepherds looked up from their flocks. Women washed clothes in the fading light. Children leapt into the clear warm water. A startled grey heron squawked. A young boy astride a thin donkey waived hello. Everything was fun and games. Then the squall hit.

The sudden gale propelled the dahabiya sideways. We were headed for an inevitable collision with shore. All hands were on deck as the bow slowly crushed into a thick grove of papyrus. I looked at the captain. He was not laughing now. Orders were shouted. Two crewmen jumped overboard with tie lines in hand, frantically swimming through the thick reeds. On shore they pounded grounding stakes into the hard bank. Then the entire team, from first mate to cook, hauled fast the lines.

When you are a ship’s captain you are on duty 24/7. Even if your name is Humpty.

As quickly as it started the squall ebbed and all was well again.

After the calm we resumed our drift. Near the Temple of Horemheb we tied up for the night, went ashore and visited a small village. We popped in for tea (shai) at what can only be described as the neighbourhood pub, although no alcohol was served. The place smelled of desert grime seasoned with stale tobacco smoke. In the dim murky light an animated group of men were huddled around a table, taking turns smashing domino tiles down upon the battered old piece of furniture. They offered us shai and thick, sweet Turkish coffee, then invited us to join the game and share shisha – a water pipe. The local tobacco is flavoured with fruit and the taste is very mild. Even a deep inhale doesn’t burn the lungs. Or so I’m told.

It was evident that the people here were desperately poor. And yet they welcomed us politely, with expressions of sincere gratitude for our visit to their country. Payment for the shai, coffee, shisha – and our domino debts – were all firmly refused.

Egypt needs visitors. Tourism has been hard hit by an unfortunate series of events: 9/11, middle-east concerns, terrorist threats – both real and imagined. The 2010 “Arab Spring” democratic uprising was, ironically, particularly devastating. Tourist numbers plummeted to near zero, but are now recovering. Still, only about 150 of the 350 tour boats that formerly plied this section of the Nile are operating.

We left the village and climbed to a high vantage point overlooking the mighty river. It began to rain. Soon we were all soaked to the skin. Sawi, Alberto and Mahmoud (our on-board waiters and off-board protectors) danced gleefully in the desert downpour. This part of Egypt had not seen rain for four years.

In the morning, docked below the high dam at Aswan, we enjoyed a solemn breakfast while watching a last sunrise over the Nile. Our toast was served with marmalade and melancholy. Our time aboard the Melouka was over. Jean-Pierre and Eleanor came to bid us adieu. All of the crew were emotional. Mahmoud’s eyes were glued to the floor. You know how I hate to see a grown man cry. I avoided mirrors.

We walked the gangplank off the dahabiya. A van awaited us dockside. There we were introduced to Sayed Mansour, from Exodus Travel, who would be our guide for the rest of our Egyptian adventure. He hurried us into the van. A plane awaited us. We were bound for Abu Simbel.

Gerry Feehan, QC, lives in Red Deer. For more stories visit gnfeehan.blogspot.com

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/‎

For the dahabiya: https://www.nourelnil.com/

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