The Big Read
Kayaking in Egypt: No fear for those Nile crocodiles
Paddling down the Nile is all about high winds, happy locals and discovering secret places where the cruise boats can't go, writes Matthew Holt
It was just after dawn, the best time to be on the river. The sun inched over the bulrushes, white egrets flitted above the water and a fisherman stood in his rowboat, untangling his nets. It was a scene unchanged for millennia, barring the omnipresent power lines now marching along the bank.
The Nile is much more than a river. Rising in the East African highlands and flowing some 6,800km to the Mediterranean Sea, finding its precise source was the Holy Grail for Victorian explorers.
More pragmatically, the river's annual flood (and natural fertilisation of the soil) allowed the emergence of one of the world's greatest civilisations, over 4,500 years ago.While their European contemporaries were grunting at each other and propping up stones, the Ancient Egyptians were building the Sphinx and Giza Pyramids, inventing irrigation and horse-drawn ploughs, and using toothpaste and eyeliner.
GOING BY WATER
"Everyone has kayaked before?" asked Charif, perhaps somewhat belatedly, as we lined the kayaks up on the bank, about to set off on our five-day journey. There were some sheepish mumbles. "Everyone can swim?" he laughed, with a hint of concern.
Charif Khedr, co-founder of the Nile Kayak Club and organiser of our trip, regularly paddles across the Red Sea to Jordan. The other seven team members were thankfully less zealous - though, to be fair, they'd all kayaked before, barring a buxom German sex therapist, who'd brought two suitcases of strapless dresses, but no sleeping bag.Our starting point was a Nubian village, with spice stalls and camels, just below the Aswan Dam. And our plan was to kayak from here to Luxor, 215km downstream, accompanied by a large double-decker motor boat, on which we'd be eating and sleeping.
For the first few kilometres, we merrily bumped along between smooth boulders and gentle whirlpools, getting to know our crafts - broad red, sit-on-tops made for stability, not speed.
Then, we were passing through Aswan, with its rolling history lesson along the banks. There was Elephantine Island, on which the Pharaonic city of Swenett once stood.
Here, they performed rituals to Hapi, god of the annual flood, sporting a round belly, pendulous breasts, beard and blue skin.
Next up was Kitchener's Island, given to the walrus-moustached British general for brutally crushing the Mahdi's revolt in 1898. He, surprisingly, turned it into a botanical garden.Meanwhile over on the east bank stood the colonial watering hole, the Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile - though, fortunately for us, the cataract itself (white water rapids, where the surface of the water is broken by many small boulders and stones) was bumped off by the Aswan Dam.
A CROC SHOCK
With the current flowing at 5km/ph, I'd foreseen a leisurely trip, but I soon learnt to expect otherwise.
From mid-morning till mid-afternoon, a prevailing northerly wind smacked into our faces and, if we dared to stop paddling, we went backwards. Despite labouring for over six hours, we managed a paltry 24km, necessitating a lift on the support boat to reach our planned overnight stop.That night, we visited the Temple of Kom Ombo, looking ethereal and eternal under floodlights. Ancient artefacts included a calendar, Nilometer (which translated the river level into a tax rate) and drawings of early surgical instruments (which made my innards shrivel).More disquieting, however, was the collection of mummified crocodiles, some several metres long. I quizzed Charif on the likelihood of our encountering their descendants lurking in the reeds, but he nonchalantly assured me it was unlikely that many had made it beyond the Aswan Dam.
A major attraction of our trip was the latitude to pull over and visit antiquities on the riverbanks and - while continually confusing the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms - I was always keen for a break.
At Edfu, we took horse-drawn carriages up to the vast temple dedicated to the sky god, Horus (whose ears were the sun and moon), where a theatrical old guide carolled us into recreating scenes from the wall friezes, even roping in a couple of startled Nubian women in burkas.My favourite site, however, was Gebel Silsila, the site of a necropolis about 3500 years old, which abruptly appeared above the bulrushes as we were kayaking along.
As it's inaccessible to cruise boats, we had it entirely to ourselves and felt like tomb raiders as we scrambled up to small shrines cut into the cliffs.
We were shown around by a guard whose only English words were "giraffe" and "Arsenal", but an archaeologist in our group was able to fill in the gaps.CRUISE BOATS MAKE WAVES
In the early morning, we often shared the river with fishermen in rowboats and feluccas gliding past under sail. Then, for much of the day, the river was empty and our main interaction was with villagers on the banks.
Kayakers on the Nile were clearly still something of a novelty and we were enthusiastically cheered on, like passing celebrities. Once, when we pulled over, a farmer insisted on giving us bulk quantities of coriander, banana flower and, less usefully, sugar cane to supplement our kitchen.
Come late afternoon, the large cruise boats appeared, ferrying tourists between Aswan and Luxor. Travelling in long convoys, they stirred up wave trains that had our kayaks bucking like broncos.We ate and slept on the open, top deck of our support boat, which would moor on the riverbank at night. We spent New Year's Eve in open countryside, venturing ashore to share a smoky campfire and hibiscus tea with some farmers.
Another night, we stomped up and down the streets of Esna, like a gang of lusty sailors just arrived in port - though we quickly had to downgrade our definition of "R&R" to soft drinks and ice creams.
A MISSED BANANA
Just beyond Esna was a small dam and set of locks, through which we were chaperoned by two police vessels, one of which looked like a pocket battleship with a machine gun on the poop deck. In fact, for the remaining 50km to Luxor, we had a constant military escort, though it was soon downgraded to a small motorboat, manned by two chain-smoking policemen.
After leaving Armant on the fifth morning, we had planned to stop at Banana Island for fresh juices, but missed the turn, distracted by an eccentric academic in our team performing yoga on her kayak.
Then, rather abruptly, we were in Luxor, opposite the temple, built 3,400 years ago with stones cut from the quarry at Silsila and sailed down the Nile.One of the most important Pharaonic cities, Luxor also boasts the temples of Karnak and Hatshepsut, and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. Confronted with such a wealth of antiquities, my priorities were clear; I headed straight to our modern hotel for a shower and cold beer.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Nile Kayak Club organises several trips each year from Aswan to Luxor, generally between November and March. The five-day trip costs $680 per person for the basic option (camping on deck, with shared bathrooms) or $1,180 per person for the luxury option (with private, en-suite cabins). No prior kayaking experience is required. They also run half-day kayaking trips on the Nile in Cairo.
If you'd prefer to relax and have someone else get you up or down the river, several companies in SA arrange Nile cruises with varying itineraries. Here is a sample:• Uniworld River Cruises: 12 days cruise and land, priced from R71,900 per person sharing for eight days onboard and four nights in Cairo. Call 011-280-8450 or see uniworld.com.
• Pentravel: A three-night, five-star cruise from Aswan to Luxor from R17,489. This includes flights from Johannesburg. See pentravel.co.za.
• Insight Vacations: Wonders of Egypt is a nine-day cruise and land package from R36,500 per person sharing. Call 011-280-8400 or see insightvacations.com.
• Luxury Gold: Seven-day cruise and land package from R39,400 per person sharing. Call 011-280-8400 or visit luxurygoldvacations.com.