In the wake of Florence of Ara­bia

Con­tem­plat­ing the Nile from a di­van on the deck of a da­habiya

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - SU­SAN HUR­LEY

IT is only fit­ting that the world’s long­est river has its own boat, cus­tom-de­signed for its waters. Known as a da­habiya, the Nile’s spe­cial boat is shal­low-bot­tomed and Noah’s Ark-like.

Da­habiyas are sailing boats but these days have a ded­i­cated tug­boat for light-wind days, re­plac­ing the row­ers of yesteryear.

They also have a le­gion of devo­tees. Stone re­liefs in the tem­ples dot­ted along the banks of the Nile show the pharoahs and their gods in da­habiya-like ves­sels; they were a sta­tus sym­bol for the Turk­ish pashas, who typ­i­cally had one such boat for them­selves and one for their harem.

In the 19th cen­tury, wealthy Euro­peans would hire a da­habiya for a leisurely three-month trip from Cairo to Aswan.

Many such trav­ellers waxed lyri­cal about their voy­ages. Even at the out­set of her j our­ney, Florence Nightin­gale was a fan. ‘ ‘ We are re­ally off in our da­ha­bieh,’’ she wrote, ‘‘they say it is the best boat on the river.’’

We quickly join the da­habiya afi­cionado ranks when we board the 16-pas­sen­ger, 39m Malouka in Esna, about 50km south of Luxor. Asense of peace de­scends as we set sail and the feel­ing pre­vails for the next five days as we travel to Aswan. Our da­habiya sits low in the wa­ter so we see only the bu­colic Egypt of date palms and su­gar cane, buf­faloes graz­ing and young boys goad­ing their don­keys to can­ter, plus the oc­ca­sional 3000-year-old tem­ple.

The busy road, only a few hun­dred me­tres be­yond the river­bank, is in­vis­i­ble and inaudi­ble. En­rique Cansino, our host and one of the three part­ners in Nour El Nil, the com­pany that owns Malouka, is adamant there will be no daily timetable. ‘‘What time is break­fast?’’ one pas­sen­ger asks. ‘‘When­ever you wake,’’ he replies.

Nour El Nil op­er­ates four da­habiyas. All were pur­pose-built in Alexan­dria un­der the close su­per­vi­sion of Mam­douh, Cansino and his wife Eleonore’s Egyp­tian busi­ness part­ner.

Nour El Nil is a hands-on family af­fair. Eleonore was re­spon­si­ble for the fit-outs. A French dec­o­ra­tor, her style is best de­scribed as shabby chic, with chan­de­liers sourced from flea mar­kets and Egyp­tian-themed knick-knacks.

Our cabin’s spa­cious­ness is en­hanced by its all-white decor and floor-to-ceil­ing mir­rors. The red stripe of the sails is re­peated on the soft fur­nish­ings through­out the boat, cre­at­ing a com­fort­ably el­e­gant ef­fect.

Mam­douh’s wife bakes the bread, us­ing wheat from their family farm on the Luxor west bank, and Miguel, Cansino’s Amer­i­can nephew, co-hosts our cruise.

De­spite Cansino’s in­sis­tence there will be no for­mal sched­ule, we soon set­tle into a rou­tine. Once all guests are up, and pan­cakes, buf­falo feta, fresh mango juice and per­haps an omelette con­sumed, our daily nav­i­ga­tion be­gins.

We as­sume our loung­ing po­si­tions on the up­per deck di­vans, shaded by the roof-like awn­ing, trans­fixed by the Nile.

Malouka heads south, up­stream against the cur­rent but with the pre­vail­ing winds. This max­imises the time we spend sailing rather than be­ing tugged.

Nour El Nil does not of­fer trips back from Aswan to­wards Luxor. ‘‘The wind in your face would not be nice,’’ says Cansino.

Each day he leads one or two ex­cur­sions ashore. Un­like the larger cruise boats, da­habiyahs can moor at the beaches and quiet is­lands along the Nile, so in ad­di­tion to the well-known Ptole­maic Tem­ple of Horus at Edfu and the crocodile tem­ple at Kom Ombo, we visit vil­lage souks, cof­fee shops and lesser-known tem­ples. We see wheat be­ing ground by hand-op­er­ated mills, se­same seeds be­ing pressed.

A Mex­i­can-born Amer­i­can, Cansino had been va­ca­tion­ing in Egypt for 20 or so years be­fore es­tab­lish­ing Nour El Nil about 10 years ago. He has many friends along the Nile and we visit their homes, drink­ing karkady (hibis­cus tea) and ad­mir­ing photo al­bums of the lat­est cou­ple to be­come en­gaged. But as en­joy­able as these shore sor­ties are, we beg to dif­fer from Florence Nightin­gale.

She re­joiced when she could get ashore to ride a don­key and ex­plore Egypt, declar­ing her­self to be ‘ ‘ no da­ha­bieh bird, no di­van in­cum­bent’’.

We pass on the op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­plore the Nile banks by don­key and rel­ish re­turn­ing to the tran­quil­lity of our boat.

There the gal­abiya-clad crew, all young men re­cruited from vil­lages near Mam­douh’s, wel­come us back with date cakes and lemon juice. In the late af­ter­noon they gather on the stern to play draughts; we en­sconce our­selves on the di­vans to watch the sun­set. See­ing us stir, they ask if we would like a drink; we ac­cept a chardon­nay. They ring the din­ner bell; we rise from our di­vans and ap­proach the ta­ble, nowin sight of the moon.

They of­fer cush­ions so we are seated at just the right height; we eat a three-course din­ner of zuc­chini soup, Nile perch and a to-die-for guava sor­bet, all made on the lower deck.

And so it goes. The next day we are back on the di­vans. We un­der­stand why the Nile boat is called a da­habiya — it’s Ara­bic for golden. Like Florence Nightin­gale we develop an at­ti­tude to the big boats that speed past, rip­pling the Nile and our serenity. ‘‘I would never go in a steamer up the Nile, if I were never to see the Nile without it,’’ she said. She re­turned to Eng­land trans­formed after her voy­age, vow­ing to live a life of ser­vice. So be­gan her nurs­ing ca­reer.

We ad­mire, but don’t em­u­late, her re­solve. Per­haps we should have rid­den a don­key.

DY­LAN CHAN­DLER

The pur­pose-built Malouka passes vil­lages and 3000-year-old tem­ples on its leisurely voy­age down the Nile

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