A felucca and a train along the Nile

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Africa » Egypt » Upper Egypt » Aswan
February 2nd 2019
Published: February 2nd 2019
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It feels as though Aswan has been welcoming tourists since the concept of tourism was invented. From Churchill to Omar Sharif, everyone has visited and many books have been written about Aswan and the Nile. Aswan gets busier, noisier, more built up every year and yet there is certain unchanging magic about the place.

Forty years ago the Old Cataract Hotel was very old, very dusty and unloved. Today the Old Cataract Hotel is proud to be old. It had a major facelift in 2012 and is now “a legend” and it is, once again, beautiful and loved. They have removed the cobwebs but the view of the Nile is unchanged; we see the same view as Agatha Christie saw while writing “Death on the Nile”. Feluccas sail by on the sparkling Nile; palm trees sway on the rocky islands; and the sand dunes on the far bank stretch from the river to the horizon.

We are only at the Old Cataract for lunch on the terrace, we are staying in a Nubian guest house on Elephantine Island in the middle of the river. Our guest house is run by Osama, who was born on the island, and his Italian wife ... and their two young sons. They spend their winters here and their summers in Italy.

To get to our guest house, we take the local ferry, 25p return, from the noise of Aswan to the tranquillity of island life. There are no cars on the island, just dusty paths, a little local shop and wandering dogs, sheep and goats. Our apartment’s terrace faces the Nile and, across it, the Aswan Botanical Garden, set up by Lord Kitchener. We watch herons and cormorants fish and Nubian music drifts across the water.

Obama’s cousin offers to row us anywhere we need to go for a couple of pounds. He takes us across the river and we climb into the desert to visit a ruined Coptic monastery. Roofless but there are still frescoes on its crumbling walls, and graffiti from passing Moslems on their Hajj pilgrimage. Today, the only other visitors are a group who explain that they are Coptic Christians coming to discover their past. In Egypt they are now a persecuted minority.

We walk off across the unmarked desert for a hour in the hope of finding the Tombs of the Nobles. How does anyone navigate in such featureless terrain? Luckily, we have the green strip of the Nile to help us and we do find the Tombs. Built into a hillside 5000 years ago, their wall paintings are still full of colour and the hieroglyphic descriptions still clear. Some of these tombs have been unearthed in the last ten years but their discovery is not without problems. One tomb’s painted ceiling has recently fallen in. It had survived so long undiscovered but was unable to survive the removal of the sand that filled the chamber.

On our final day we take a felucca up stream to the first cataract, the cataract that stopped boats sailing further south. Today it is rather tame, the waters being controlled by two dams upstream. Sailing in the felucca is a great way to see the river but the boat seems best suited to running with the wind. Heading back to town against the wind, the old boat’s tacking abilities were not great and progress was very slow. The boat man, Mohammed, says we could sail to Luxor in just four days. No thanks, we say, we'll be taking the train.

Getting the train ticket is the most challenging part of the journey - queueing is not an Egyptian strength. But they are helpful and a local young man in the scrum interprets for us, checks the tickets and checks that we get the right change!

For 90 LE (£3.90) each, we travel first class for the three and a half hour journey. It is only 90 miles and this ”Special” is not fast, but the train is clean, it's air conditioned and we arrive a few minutes early.

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