Every river has a personality -- a story to tell -- and the Nile is no exception. Sail its waters on an unhurried river cruise, and you'll see ancient landscapes that have changed little since pharaohs ruled the land.
Boys bathe their donkeys in the river. Farmers till their land with hoes; burros and camels are this region's work horses. As a result, spying a tractor is a rare thing and is cause for conversation. Families still live along the shore in traditional mudbrick houses, just as they have done for 5,000 years.
Cigar boats, water scooters and modern pleasure crafts have no place on the slow-paced Nile. For that matter, there's not much in the way of commercial boating, except for occasional self-propelled barges and the traditional feluccas, sailing vessels, used today to ferry tourists around. What you will see are other river ships -- lots of them. More than 280 ships cruise the waters between Luxor and Aswan -- the site of the nation's best-preserved monuments -- and it can get crowded during the high season (between early September and late May). Cruising is also the easiest way for tourists to engage the Nile and the famous temples and tombs -- Luxor, Karnak, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Dendera and the Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings -- that straddle it.
A not-fun fact: Cruise ships are limited to touring Luxor and Aswan on the river, a result of security concerns that followed a terrorist attack at a temple near Luxor in 1997.
Until recently, visitors in private vehicles, driving between Luxor and Aswan, had to travel in an armed military convoy. As of December 1, 2008, the road opened to normal traffic between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The heavy security presence that remains part and parcel of the region is jarring at first, but it is a fact of life in modern-day Egypt. Perhaps not coincidentally, there have been no terrorist incidents along the Nile in more than a decade (although that cannot be said for the rest of the country).
There would be no Egypt without the Nile. Eighty million people live on four percent of the land -- a green belt, up to nine miles wide, that follows the longest river in the world. The Nile runs 4,184 miles in length and winds through nine nations, from Lake Victoria in Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea near Alexandria, Egypt.
Unlike most rivers, the Nile flows south to north. So, Upper Egypt, the site of Nile river cruises, is in the southern part of the country; Lower Egypt is in the north. It's upside down, but it's true.
It doesn't take more than a quick look to appreciate the value of the Nile. Against its banks lies the nation's breadbasket: fields of corn, alfalfa, wheat, sugar cane and sesame. That constant throb you hear, like a heartbeat, is the sound of irrigation pumps. Not surprisingly, agriculture is the region's second largest industry, after tourism. Move away from the Nile, and all that is left is desert.
Historically, the Nile has had three seasons: flooding, farming and harvesting. And, since the Aswan High Dam went online in 1971, the river depth has been regulated, depending on the needs of navigation and irrigation.
Today, Nile river cruises -- lasting three to seven nights -- are a component of most package tours to Egypt. Here are some tips:
Even as the Nile runs through the middle of Cairo, the city itself is not part of your cruise itinerary. But, many tour operators do build in pre- and/or post-cruise stays in the city. I recommend you take your cruise after your land tour of Cairo. The city can be fairly frenetic, so cruising after feels like a real treat.
Typically, Nile River vessels carry fewer than 140 passengers and pretty much all have the same layout: four decks, plus a sun deck with a pool. There are restaurants and lounges, and cabins are air-conditioned with TV's, mini-bars and floor-to-ceiling windows that open. Balconies are not always an option. What does vary is the quality of the ships. Some are shabby, some chic. Companies with more upscale offerings include Grand Circle Travel, Abercrombie & Kent, Movenpick, Sonesta Nile Cruises, Nile Exploration Corp. and Travcoa. If you're considering a splurge, check out The Oberoi Philae Nile Cruiser.
It can be crowded in port, particularly at the hugely popular destinations of Luxor and Aswan ("high" season is typically from October to April). It's common practice for ships to tie up together. So, if you're on an outer ship, you may have to walk through two, three, four or more vessels to embark and disembark. It's interesting to see what the other ships look like. The downside: If you're on the interior, there is no view, except a close-up of a neighboring ship.
The biggest difference between cruises that last three days and those that last a week is the number of ports visited. On most trips, the major port stops along the Nile include Luxor, Aswan, Esna, Edfu, and Kom Ombo. Longer cruises may also call at Dendera and Qena (and spend more time on-shore, to boot).
There's no glitz -- no casinos or Broadway-style shows. Entertainment, if you will, revolves around two venues -- the dining room and the top deck. Dining is typically a buffet affair for breakfast and lunch, with a sampling of entrees served at dinner. Ships will often host a galabeya party, with passengers dressing up at dinner in traditional Egyptian robes. (Buy yours at local markets during port stops.) As for the top deck, it's the place to sunbathe, read, take a dip, enjoy a beverage and ponder the view. The ships do have lounges, where port talks, lectures and crew shows are staged. Of course, there is also bar service, on the top deck and in the lounge, but there's no emphasis on pushing cocktails. In fact, there are a 464 percent (that's not a typo) alcohol tax and a 19 percent service tax on bar menus -- a fee imposed by the government, not the cruise lines.
Who's Driving the Boat?
Don't ask to meet the captain of your ship. There isn't one. The pilot is the chief navigation officer, usually someone who grew up on the river, started his training in childhood and spent at least 12 years learning the Nile's intricacies. The river can get quite shallow, so even the largest boats have a maximum draft of 1.5 meters (less than five feet). Another big challenge is navigating the crowded moorings.
Tour operators recommend that passengers not drink the water onboard. For a better price point, it's a good idea to stock up on bottled water and soda from local merchants. It's also a prudent practice to carry a water bottle with you on shore excursions, as it is easy to become dehydrated, due to the heat. Also, avoid raw vegetables, peel fruits before eating them, and don't swim in the Nile or its canals because of the risk of exposure to bacterial and other infections.
Items to put in Your Travel Tote
Bug spray, tissues, a small flashlight, a hand fan, binoculars, hand cleanser, sun screen, a hat and anti-diarrhea medicine. Also, always carry small denominations of the local currency, the Egyptian pound. It is customary to tip toilet attendants one pound -- about 20 cents U.S. If you don't have change, you may be denied use of the facility.
Mother always said to wear sensible shoes, and in this case, she was spot-on. The surfaces at the monuments can be hilly and sandy, and a lot involve steps or uneven stone flooring that date back centuries. The to-ing and fro-ing across ships can also be a challenge.
This is an economy where just about everything is negotiable. This is especially true of the vendors, who sell all manner of souvenirs near the monuments docks. Their pitches seem benign enough: "Welcome to Alaska!" and "No worry, no hurry, no chicken to curry." But, they can be unbelievably aggressive, once they have your attention. A general rule of thumb: Offer half the asking price to start, and don't hand over any money until your purchase price has been settled, and the item is in your hand. Also, take care to study your change. Pound notes and the much smaller piaster notes look similar. A good word to learn is la, which means no.
Dress not just for the heat, but for the culture. This is a conservative, Muslim culture and should be respected accordingly. Women should refrain from wearing short shorts, see-through clothing or swimwear when on shore excursions. In mosques, for example, women and men should wear clothing that covers both their legs and upper arms. Note: There has been an historic problem with sexual harassment in Egypt, and in the past year, both the U.S. Embassy and British Consulate in Cairo have reported an increase in incidents involving sexual groping and assault. Women are advised not to travel unescorted.
Shore excursions are first-rate with travel in modern buses. Some are equipped with toilets, but they seem to be off-limits. By law, every bus tour is accompanied by an armed guard. As tightly focused as Egypt is on security, it can get a little ridiculous at times. In some of the museums -- the first-rate Luxor Museum, for one -- visitors routinely set off the alarm of the screening machine and are whisked through anyway. Many of the armed guards at monuments are more interested in palming tips and posing for photographs than anything else. Even the airports can seem lax by U.S. and U.K. standards. It's generally okay to take water bottles through security, and there's no need to shed shoes or jackets.
-- by Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore