In the wake of Florence of Arabia
Contemplating the Nile from a divan on the deck of a dahabiya
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.
The purpose-built Malouka passes villages and 3000-year-old temples on its leisurely voyage down the Nile