Travel: An unforgettable sail down the Nile

  • Feb. 26, 2019 11:30 a.m.

By Gerry Feehan

The Nile River is a mind-boggling 6,853 kilometres long.

It is the longest watercourse in the world. Mind you, we were only sailing about 200 kilometres of it, from Luxor to Aswan, on an Egyptian dahabiya. But since we were relying on the prevailing north wind to carry us upstream — to the south — even that took nearly a week.

Dahabiyas are shallow-bottomed, barge-like vessels. These two-masted craft have been plying the waters of the Nile, in one form or another, for thousands of years.

We were on the Malouka, a 45-metre-long beauty, part of the four-boat Nour el Nil fleet. Our captain was Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty (the crew had given each other some rather entertaining nicknames) was a musical fellow. When he wasn’t shouting orders, he was humming quietly to himself.

As my travels have repeatedly confirmed, music is the world’s great unifier. Thus, on our second evening aboard, I uncased my ever-present ukulele and began strumming a few tunes.

Soon, the captain and a couple of other crewmembers wandered up from below deck, listening appreciatively, attentively — and patiently.

Then, it was their turn. In moments, the entire crew had gathered on deck, instruments in hand. They began clapping as the captain sang out an Arabic folk song.

The loud thumping of the cook’s doumbec filled the Nile Valley with contagious percussion. The floorboards reverberated as every soul on board bounced wildly in unison.

Our quiet jam session on a soft Egyptian night had quickly evolved into a raucous international jamboree. It was magical.

In the morning, we were enjoying a reflective, leisurely breakfast when Eleanor, one of Nour el Nil’s owners, casually floated by, drifting in the river.

Eleanor’s cabin was on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe. For the entire voyage, all four boats in the fleet sailed together in a flotilla.

We were invited to join Eleanor in the water. I had no idea that swimming in the Nile was safe — or part of the agenda.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire. The procedure was simple: walk a few hundred meters upstream, jump in and simply go with the flow.

Drift down to the dahabiya, swim to shore and … repeat. This unexpected treat — and respite from the hot Egyptian sun — quickly became a daily ritual.

Surprisingly, the Nile River is not overly wide. But it has a subtle incessant strength. A dip in this great watercourse reveals its unmistakable power.

Each of us tried futilely to buck the current and swim upstream. None made any headway, all eventually succumbing to the Nile’s deep, relentless, perpetual force.

Ancient Egyptians relied on this coincidence of opposing wind and current to build the greatest civilization the world had ever known. It is what enabled the construction of the Great Pyramids at Giza 4,500 years ago and the monumental Temple of Karnak at Luxor 1,000 years later.

Vast blocks of granite and sandstone were quarried and, during the annual flood, floated downstream and unloaded. Then the barges were sailed back upstream and loaded anew.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops near Cairo contains more than two million blocks, each weighing in excess of a ton, every stone stacked in place by hand. That’s a lot of barging – not to mention heavy lifting.

There is no more luxurious – or relaxing way – to see Egypt and appreciate its spectacular ancient tombs and temples, than to embark on a quiet sail up the Nile on a dahabiya.

Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages ostentatiously gilded these barges the colour of the sun. The name is thus derived from the Arabic word for gold.

Each day, we moved a little further south. We’d dock, disembark and, after enduring a gauntlet of incessant, tenacious, persistent street hawkers, we’d be in the portal of one of ancient Egypt’s incredible monuments.

All the sites are located a short walk from shore, just above the high-water mark of the historical Nile flood.

First we visited Esna, then Al-Kab, then Edfu and Horemheb. Our final stop was Kom-Ombo and its Crocodile Museum, where 3,000-year-old mummified reptiles stared at us, teeth bared, looking malevolently alive.

The pharaohs venerated these beasts, preserving them for their mutual journey to the afterlife.

At each stop, we were met on shore by Adele, an Egyptologist, who guided us through the complex history of these wonders. He patiently explained the ancient hieroglyphs that adorned the sandstone walls – but only after our group gave him our complete attention.

Any noisy transgressors received a stony stare until they were embarrassed into silence. Then, in a quiet but commanding baritone, the lesson would begin.

And God forbid you were caught snapping a photo of a frieze from the middle kingdom during one of his talks. Another cold glare would ensue, together with the admonition, “Time for pictures later.”

On the hike to Al-Kab, I noticed Adele fidgeting with something in his hands.

“Why the worry beads?” I asked.

“Prayer beads,” he corrected.

He didn’t look like the devout type.

“I’m trying to quit smoking,” he explained sheepishly.

Inside the tomb, Adele was showing us how to read a 30-century-old cartouche carved into the stone, pointing out a few of the multitude of gods worshiped by the early Egyptians.

Osiris, god of the dead. Horus, with his falcon head. And – lest we forget – Isis, Horus’s mother.

We all stood, obediently quiet in the dim sweltering closeness of the crypt. Then, with a flashlight, he pointed out some additional markings in the rock: “John Edwards 1819.”

We looked closer and saw many other similar autographs. British soldiers had clumsily scratched graffiti into these magnificent ancient works 200 years ago.

Kilroy, it seems, has been just about everywhere.

Next Wednesday: Sailing the Nile on a dahabiya continued.

Gerry Feehan lives in Red Deer. For more stories, visit

Useful links

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure:‎

For the dahabiya:

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