Boating the Nile – in the 1800s and today

Tuesday 8 January 2008: It’s early morning on the Nile. The girls are still asleep. I’m alone on deck. Going down river (north) is windier. The pages of my note pad is blowing fiercly, at times lightly whipping my face. In my imagination, I’m boating the Nile in 1879.

Boating the Nile

Our Nile ship, the M/S Helio, is a medium-sized vessel. According to my book Up the Nile – a photographic excursion 1839 – 1898, Lloyd’s guidebook advised that

life on a Nile bark has a charm which seldom fails to operate even on the most inert mind.

It has that! Despite air condition and mobile phones, it feels like we have been transported to another era.

In the 1800s, there were three basic modes of transport on the Nile: the sailing boat known as a dahabiya, the smaller sail boat cange and the steamer. If time was of the essence, the steamer was the answer. Travellers with time and money (luxurious creatures they must have been) sailed by dahabiya.


Dahabiya and steamer

Looking up, I spot a dahabiya. I expect it has more mod-cons than the one pictured in my book. The old photo of the inside of a dahabiyah in 1879 looks irresistibly romantic. To hire one, Lloyd’s recommended securing the services of a respectable dragoman, “charging him with the responsibility of providing everything needed, such as a cook, a man servant, and an assistant to wash and clean the travelers’ apartments”.

Boating the Nile today

Back in the present – 129 years later – Agatha has joined me on deck. I’ve never spoken with her. Gnarled with arthritis, she has white hair, white clothes, white shoes, white handbag. Only in my mind do I call her Agatha. Seems appropriate. The Nile continues to be fertile grounds for the imagination. Impudently, I stare as she gazes at the meandering river. What’s her story, I wonder? I know she’s German and she looks 85 – 90. I picture her as a young girl during the war, with high wavy hair, a dress, shoes and socks. Her features indicate she must have been very pretty.

Ida is next on deck. She’s a sprightly 80-something Dane who has visited Egypt more than 40 times. Normally, she travels with a friend. But this friend has decided to limit her travels to once a year and that simply will not do! Recently, Ida hired a car and drove through all of Egypt by herself. She is fiercely independent and really cool. My kids adore her!

More and more people mill out on deck. We’re a multifarious lot. A sweet Swedish couple has brought their son and granddaughter along. She’s 13, but looks 18: blonde, heavily made-up eye lids, yet so shy, she can barely whisper her name in introduction. Apart from my daughters, she is the only other kid onboard. Daddy is about 35, big, bald, tattooed and wears a jacket saying “See you in hell”. Two middle-aged Danish couples are rowdy and annoying. “To beer or not to beer”, they repeat to the joy of no one but themselves. Then there’s Yvonne, also travelling on her own. Her birthday was yesterday and she had to endure drums and off-key singing from the crew at dinner.

Can’t see anyone who’d likely commit a murder on board, though. No Mia Farrow or Simon MacCorkindale. Just as well. There’s no Hercule Poirot either, ready to solve a murder mystery. No one seems destined to end up in the pool, face down.

One evening, there’s a galabiyah-party on board. For me, a black galabiyah-ish top suffices as fancy dress. The girls are dressed up in silken skirts with all sorts of jingly bits. Alex even sports a black close skull cap with even more jingle-jangle.

Cat is the youngest on board and everyone’s pet. For most of the journey, she is the only child on board. The crew adore waiting on her: she is always served first and they play and joke with her all the time. And she adores the attention. At the evening’s tombola raffle, the crew makes sure she wins a prize – a stuffed little camel singing an annoying tune. After the raffle and group photography, it’s time for rowdier games. Good thing Cat’s tired. Those things can be a bit of an embarrassment and it’s nice to have an excuse to back out. Who said travelling with children was inconvenient?

Meanwhile, the Nile flows by in the ancient landscape. As she has done for thousands of years.

Along the Nile 5

15 Responses to “Boating the Nile – in the 1800s and today”

  1. Kim 22 April 2010 0859 #

    Love this. Sailing up the Nile seems so romantic.

  2. Marie 23 April 2010 1150 #

    I SO want to do a Nile cruise.

  3. Erich F 3 May 2010 1440 #

    Another great article from you :)

  4. Anne-Sophie 3 May 2010 1458 #

    Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

  5. MIchael Lynch 5 May 2010 0122 #

    Dust-off some more; always entertaining !

  6. CascadiaKids 14 May 2010 1625 #

    Very cool. I went to Egypt at age 24, alone, but haven’t made it back with kids. You make it seem achievable. I really like the descriptions of your fellow travelers.

  7. Makeda Ibasitas 16 June 2010 0815 #

    Hey thumbs up for this blog.

  8. Renee 8 June 2011 0128 #

    Sophie,
    You really do know how to weave a tale. I kept nodding my head with your description of what Agatha must have looked like during the war…..good stuff!

  9. adventureswithben 8 June 2011 0328 #

    I like the comparison of comparing today with the 1800’s.

  10. The Travel Chica 8 June 2011 0413 #

    Sounds like a nice leisurely way to travel.
    The Travel Chica recently posted..Learning to Cook in Buenos Aires

  11. Jeremy Branham 8 June 2011 0740 #

    So beautiful! Would a lovely, relaxing trip! I am not big on cruising but I actually like the idea of river cruises. A one down the Nile has to be awesome!
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..Vancouver- TBEX- travel blogging- and my first modeling gig

  12. The Dropout 8 June 2011 1051 #

    Lucky there wasn’t a murder on the Nile! But it must have felt incredibly romantic to have Agatha right there with you.
    I love this post. I would have been thinking of the 1930s if I was there too!
    The Dropout recently posted..The Mystery of the Bootscootin’ Singapore Senior Citizens

  13. robin 8 June 2011 1213 #

    Nice way of approaching this post! It is one of those great world trips that would get the imagination going :)
    robin recently posted..Playa

  14. inka 8 June 2011 1747 #

    I would have had the same thoughts about Agatha and Hercule. I was right there with you, on deck watching the ancient Nile flow by. Loved the remark about travelers with time and money.
    inka recently posted..Visit Hasankeyf before it’s gone forever!

  15. Wow this sounds so fantastic! A leisurely trip on the Nile watching the world pass you by.
    Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista recently posted..Langauge- A Necessary Part of Travel

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