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The trials and tribulations of sailing up the Nile

I was worried about group dynamics. It showed in my packing. One whole bag stuffed full of books and whisky in case of social meltdown. The last group trip I signed on for was twenty years ago, but the memory of it has not diminished. I can still find myself shaking with fury - the fragile spiritual mood of place squashed by the relentless humour of an international human-herd. It was like taking television’s Big Brother household off to evensong in Wells Cathedral.

And sailing up the Nile is brushing up against a dream world of the most gloriously romantic expectations. I was following in the wake of Lucy Duff-Gordon and Wilfrid Blunt, not to mention the Hadrian of Marguerite Yourcenar’s imagination or William Golding’s Scorpion God

Cairo cannot disappoint, most especially when you arrive during the last two nights of Ramadan - the streets awash with jubilant noisy crowds and the big hotels of the capital filled to capacity with local wedding parties. Three days later we caught the night train to Luxor, accompanied by mountains of luggage, a vast picnic topped up with fresh pomegranates, duty-free champagne and guitar-strumming teenagers serenading the porters. It was in the highest order of animated confusion - a total traveller’s delight.

In Luxor we stayed in a converted farmhouse on the edge of the cultivated land, overlooking barren hills and an isolated Coptic monastery. In the evening our children helped round up black sheep, or hunted for fossils in the wadi beds. The adults had also began to defrost from their careers; a film-maker about to start on an eco make-over, a French photographer in love with gardens, a web designer in lust, an ethno-botanist, an elegantly dressed lawyer, an Iranian artist, a therapist and either four, three or two travel-writers depending on their mood. From the farmhouse you could stroll to the undulating mudstone walls surrounding the proudly carved stone at Medinet Habu and on to the Ramaseum of Ozymandias fame.

However whenever we passed across the Nile and saw a boat my heart sank. Surely it could not be our fate to be trapped as a group in one of these tourist landing-craft, alight with illuminated discos by night or packed-out mini-pool sundecks by day. At every landing station the boats lay packed together like sardines, purgatorial prison-ships of the 20th century, four stories of air-conditioned, 5-star suites locked together in suffocatingly close embrace.

Then it happened. Having sampled the sunken magnificence of a Ptolemaic temple with its roof and painted colours still miraculously intact, we walked down through dusty alleys in the midday heat, then out along the river bank, brushing past date palms and bamboo to reach a flimsy boardwalk. A gang-plank reached out to our boat. I felt the wooden planks give a little beneath my weight, and some inner tension subsided, then melted right away.

For I had boarded a floating drawing room shielded from the overhead sun by a canvas ceiling. Dozens of daybeds were clustered around low tables, against which yellow silk pillows had been sprinkled. A long refectory table did nothing to diminish the sense of space. A glass of fresh lemonade came to my hand from a waiter just before the excited cry from my children who came rushing up from one of the two staircases, ‘Dad, come and see our bedroom, they’re really cool!” It was the right adjective, for acres of Egyptian linen, bolsters and pillows were framed within a wood-panelled room. The light from the waters of the Nile, sliced into lines by latticed shutters, rippled across the white walls and ceiling.

Over the next ten days the crew proved themselves creative and responsive cooks, responding to our enthusiasm for real Egyptian food, such as foul for breakfast. They managed the difficult balance of being both attentive yet discrete but always exhibited the most charming manners (‘madame I have met you twice already, here at breakfast but also in my dreams…’) and beautiful to look at as they criss-crossed the boat in their flowing gallabiya. When we went ashore, once or twice a day to inspect a painted tomb or an abandoned city, they put on matching turbans and carried staffs of cane.

As our first lunch was laid out, the two small fore and aft-decks bristled with action as the sails – made from double-stitched stripes of scarlet and cream – were hoisted to reveal billowing clouds of canvas. The creak of rope on chock, the constant adjustment of sheets and mast-stays echoed by that of the rudder-bar became the background music of our days. On days of slack wind, and in the midday lull, our tug picked up a thick cable and assisted.

But there was never a hurry. We had entered a land where time, the true currency of life, could be relished and savoured. I especially loved the contrast of immediately saying ‘Yes’ when asked to join in some game of chess, cards or backgammon with the children, rather than my habitual “later darling’, a promise so rarely fulfilled.

For me the real, sharp part of the day became dawn, which by the nature of things was a reflective, child-free zone: catching the light, sorting out the sharpening definitions, the fast changing palate of impossibly exuberant colours as the stillness was cut through by the muezzin’s call that ‘prayer was better than sleep.” Then the half hour of bird flight, white egrets, heron and pairs of marbled king-fishers, followed by smoke rising from the Nile villages. This was not a time for conversation, as the otherwise languid photographers and artists moved quickly and decisively to record what they could of all this.

The first pots of coffee and tea would then start to arrive, as the tyro-pyschotherapist and the ethno-botanist unrolled yoga mats and made their salutes to the sun. Then like a gradually ripening harmony of characters our hosts would appear, Madame with her soignée off-the-shoulder French elegance (and supremely well-travelled throughout North and West Africa) offset by a tall Don Otavio-type from Mexico (his eyes either asleep or madly alive) who would oversee the arrival of breakfast proper and greet their guests. Each morning the conversation was inimitable and eclectic, as different elements of the group took turns to lie late in bed. I was now addicted to the group dynamics and hardly dared leave the table except for a quick change of kaftans. Looking back over my diary to recall the details from one gloriously long morning, I see the habitual conversational themes of sibling rivalry, foreign policy, books and the sexual gossip of our mutual friends interwoven with investigations into the identity of the world’s sacred trees, Isis’s missing thirteenth (his cock was swallowed by a perch), the beehive hermit domes common to both Near Eastern and Celtic monasticsm and the stylistic links between Pharaonic tomb shrines and the Ark of the Covenant.

Ignoring any advice to the contrary we swam twice a day in the fast flowing waters of the Nile, drifting down from upstream banks to grab hold of a boom attached to the side of our boat. To protect ourselves against stomach upset we drank several rounds of Tom Collins (made with fresh Egyptian limes and small, sharp local lemons) at dusk while our host read from the diaries of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert when they had also been afloat on the Nile. Beware Egyptian wine, we sent the first half dozen bottles back as corcked before we realised it is meant to taste that way. Only then were the row of four chandeliers, rescued from a junk shop in Alexandria, illuminated to reveal the waiting dinner.

Every evening when we moored, the captain would have a water-pipe lit for himself on the shore and he would puff away while admiring his craft. He was the captain of a dahabiya, in Arabic literally the ‘golden one’. No one who has ever sailed on one need ask why.

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