We arrived in Aswan late at night after a beautiful train journey along the Nile River. Budget backpackers may seem cheap by never flying anywhere, but they get to see the countryside that jet-setters simply miss out on. Aswan is a stunning city set on one of the most scenic areas of the greatest river in the world, so we knew we wanted to have a view from our room.
We found a nice hotel right on the Nile with huge windows that opened up to let the breeze in with perfect Nile vistas. We bargained the manager down to a price we like to pay and as always in Egypt it includes breakfast. Who said you can’t get great rooms on a budget?
We spent a few days just enjoying the pace of life on the Nile and checking out a few of the markets. Aside from the scenery, Aswan has a great charm, but it’s somewhat dulled by what budget backpackers call: “tourist pricing” and the general tourist prejudices that come with it. It’s hard to get a fair price for anything (even passport photos) and everyone is out to get a buck. Fortunately we weren’t here for haggling, we were here for the felucca (sail boat) ride down the Nile River to Luxor.
We had agreed to meet our friends, Bernie & Toni at a Nile side restaurant at a certain date and time, and had offered our other new friends Michel and Chisa to meet us there as well if they liked. Turns out everyone showed up and got along well. 5 Canadians and a Japanadian, of course we got along, we’re all fellow backpackers!
In fact, somehow Michel and Chisa had already met Bernie and Toni. Anyway, Michel had met a few other Canadians in the Western Desert who had already taken the felucca journey and recommended a good captain. So a couple of days later we met the captain, Magdy, and went over the specifics. He only seemed a little dodgy, so we thought we’d go with him.
He insisted that we make up the menu for the 3 night 4 day trip that was to follow. As we read out our somewhat extravagant cuisine selection he nodded and agreed with each and every unlikely ingredient we had requested. We thought “Sweet! Whatever we want”. Of course our time in Egypt could have rendered clues that this was not going to turn out how we expected but we carried on anyway to take a look at the boat with our new captain.
Sure enough, the boat looked glorious! Its sparkling new sail gleamed proudly in the moonlight. We thought, “Great! That boat’s way bigger than we thought!” Then we accompanied the captain, Magdy, back to his house for sheesha, he confirmed that sheesha would be free and there would be many flavours on the boat. We bid our farewells after a seemingly productive night of preparation and planned to sail two days later.
So the day came and we all got ready in our hotel and sure enough the captain was there on time. Only the first of many problems arose on the way to the taxi. He didn’t buy enough beer. Ok, no problem, he went to the beer store and replenished it.
Then we get to the boat and it was a COMPLETELY different boat, it’s sad sail dangling dirty and frail in the morning sun. Then as we hopped on the boat our supposed captain waved goodbye from shore! Ummm WTF? haha, he had left us with a completely different crew then the one we had met prior.
We all complained and grumbled a little bit, becoming all too aware of the scam which was unfolding. However, we weren’t going to let a shifty captain, new crew and a haggard boat ruin this amazing experience.
We sailed to the police check point (as all boats do leaving Aswan) there was some problem and it took awhile but we eventually began sailing again. The views from the boat were breathtaking. The Nile is like glass in parts and the village life remains as it has for thousands of years on each of its banks.
As we pulled away from the City of Aswan and into the more rural regions a curtain of modernity slowly lifted revealing the age old, timeless traditions of farming and harvesting. Kids ran along the banks waving hellos, while their sun weathered elders stood, doubled over, picking stocks of grain from the ground in the lush green farmland that stretched to the horizon.
After our first couple of hours sailing, our first lunch was being prepared by Ayeman, our deckhand/cook. Ayeman was nice but spoke little English so couldn’t quite answer when Bernie asked, “what’s for lunch?”
So we looked back on our planned menu to see what it was we were smelling. Okay we all agreed, today should be tuna salad, dates, banana, melon, and bread. MMM.. can’t wait. What came out was still delicious but it lacked any protein, meat or fruit. Hard to complain at this point though, looking out at the Nile we ate the delicious potato veggie stew and talked and laughed amongst each other.
After a great day of relaxing and watching the Nile go by, we prepared for dinner. Our menu suggested we would be having a roast chicken meal with potatoes and veggies. Needless to say it was a surprise when the falafel and bread hit the place mat, but again it was tasty, we all ate it up and continued chatting.
When it came time for bed we pulled up on shore at a slightly noisy village and the crew of Ayeman and Jimmy (Jamal) closed us in to protect us from mosquitoes.
The only problem was the 6 foot gaping hole in their protective cover. I guess it would siphon out all the mosquitoes that are too dumb to follow their nose to the massive opening, but for foreigners from a country with bug born illnesses with names like “the West Nile virus” we weren’t to happy to be on the Nile exposed to the bugs.
Luckily Ayeman remedied this small draw back by using mine and Dariece’s blanket to cover the hole. Being such spoiled foreigners we explained that we needed a blanket to sleep, so with a polite apology Ayeman ran into the village and brought us back a blanket.
No matter how many things were to go wrong over the next couple days we soon came to realize that it was not Ayeman or Jimmy’s fault. They were also duped by Magdy and would do whatever they could to help us feel more comfortable.
So, Ayeman ran into his home in the village and grabbed us a new blanket. All we know is that somewhere in that village a camel was cold that night because Ayeman had taken its blanket to give to us. The blanket smelled like feet so we pushed it aside, but we were still touched by his generosity.
We all slept pretty rough on the 2X4’s with couch cushions that night and woke up to the sun rise a little stiff. But as soon as we moved our blanket and peaked out the hole in the cover all our complaints were washed away by the morning sun.
The village we were parked at was just waking up too. Donkeys and goats walked along the banks followed by young boys with sticks. Men dressed in traditional jellibas (dress length collared shirts) and head wraps sat on their porches having morning tea.
Little school kids skipped their way to school or work and the glass calm Nile reflected the sunrise perfectly, its colors danced in the sky and on the surface of the water with equal beauty. We all started to see how epic this trip would be. This is what backpackers live for.
As budget travellers, we should be used to eating light. Well, day two started with what appeared to be deep fried eggs, deep fried toast, and a side of oil. Each day the bread became more stale but Bernie explained how he liked the bread. “The bread’s great,” he said overjoyed, “It’s just a little TIGHT.” We all laughed and the expression “tight” became a humourous catch phrase in the group for stuff that wasn’t up to par.
We cracked some early morning Stella beers at around 9am and sailed towards a temple called “Kom Ombo”. We stopped for a swim/morning bath in the Nile on the way. By the time we reached Kom Ombo it was pretty hot. Bernie and Toni had seen so many ruins in Egypt already they claimed to be “ruined” (pun intended) and so they stayed back on the boat.
Michel, Chisa, Dariece and I headed up and checked out the temple. Kom Ombo is a massive temple overlooking the Nile that was built in the 19th dynasty in honor of the Crocodile God. Its massive pillars and hypostle hall are perched on the rivers banks creating an almost ominous glow reflecting off of the water. We walked through the maze of reliefs and carvings in awe of how something so massive could have been created thousands of years ago.
When we were done weaving our way around the pillars we returned to the felucca and ate the delicious fish lunch that Jimmy had prepared. He explained to us how he had caught the fish with some drawings and hand gestures. We vaguely understood that he used a trap near the village the day before.
The fish itself was amazing, we were finally eating well but we found it slightly odd that we had gone the entire first day without any meat, and in this second day lunch we had Nile fish with a side of canned tuna.
Anyway… after we ate we started sailing again. We sailed for a couple of hours to reach some rock tombs that were carved out of the cliffs and again loomed right on the edge of the Nile. We all attempted to hike up to see the tombs but one by one we all succumbed to the intense heat of Egypt and returned to the felucca without actually entering any tombs.
No one was in a rush to go anywhere so the guys waded and drank beer in the Nile while the girls relaxed on the boat. At one point a giant cruise ship went by and Bernie, Michel and I couldn’t resist, we had to moon it. The tourists on the boat quickly scrambled to get their cameras and take a shot of the three white Canadian backsides on the Nile.
Something I’m sure they weren’t promised in their brochures.
After the excitement died down we boarded the boat and prepared to leave. There’s no way to explain how surreal the views were from our position below the tombs, except to say that it was yet another moment in travel that I will not soon forget.
After swimming for a couple of hours we set sail again, only this time in search of the sheesha we were all promised. Ayeman finally spotted a tiny grass hut with what looked like sheesha pipes glowing in the late afternoon sun just as the day was coming to an end.
We got off the boat and sure enough there was a little “cafe” in the middle of nowhere complete with sheesha. We all sat down and the young man who lived there offered us all coffee. We all accepted, expecting the usual Nescafe that comes in Egypt.
Instead he brought out fresh coffee beans in a small metal container. He lit a fire and while we smoked away on the potent sheesha pipe he roasted the beans over the fire.
The aroma was better than any Starbucks has ever smelled. He added a little bit of ginger into the beans which seemed odd at the time but actually gave the coffee a nice flavor. The young Egyptian took a liking to Bernie and after they had talked for a while Bernie gave him a necklace he was wearing.
Clearly touched by Bernie’s generosity, he thanked him in Arabic, “Shukran, Shukran”, and got up to run into his small hut. When he came back he was holding a small glass vile which he gave to Bernie in return. The vile contained an Egyptian cologne which we all doused ourselves in before saying goodbye to our new friend with the coffee shop in the middle of nowhere.
Our sleep on that second night was much better and we all woke up rejuvenated as the sun peered over the horizon and once again, set the green pastures aglow and brought the villages to life. This is what backpacking is all about. The entire day was spent relaxing, reading books, playing backgammon and just talking as life went by us at a slow pace down the river. We stopped for more swimming, had more surprising combinations of meals and napped repeatedly.
That night was our last night together on the Nile so we planned to celebrate with a few beers and the roast chicken dinner we were promised by Magdy back in Aswan.
Of course Magdy had failed to tell Ayeman and Jimmy about this chicken dinner so Ayeman had to captain the boat while yelling “Firakh! Firakh!” (“CHICKEN! CHICKEN!”) Finally we pulled up to a village that had chicken so Ayeman went into town to find it. He came back with 3 small chickens and another young man who lived in the village but spoke perfect English.
Finally we could explain to Ayeman and Jimmy what we had been complaining about for the past few days. We explained about the boat Magdy had promised us, about the meals we had agreed to and not received, and about all the little scams he had managed to pull on us.
Ayeman and Jimmy, now finally understanding our concerns translated to them in their language, seemed genuinely apologetic and we agreed to a price reduction. They explained that Magdy was a “clefty man” and that we should write about him online so that other tourists and other boat captains don’t fall victim to his scams. Michel has written a warning for all potential Aswan boat customers on Trip Advisor.
We all slept soundly that night and woke up around 8 am on our last day of this epic journey. Ayeman had arranged a truck to drive us to Edfu. We said our goodbyes to Jimmy and Ayeman and paid them the reduced price, plus a tip which seemed to make them both very happy.
Ayeman’s face lit up and he kissed each of us on both cheeks (a typical friendly gesture in Egypt) and said “shukran” repeatedly. We boarded the truck and drove through some very rural villages on our way to Edfu. The short 30 minute drive was beautiful. Kids rode bikes and ran behind the truck yelling “hello!”, men riding donkeys strolled down the paths alongside their farms, and our truck stopped to let the goats on the road cross in front of us.
When we arrived in Edfu we could already see the massive temple we were heading to. Michel, Chisa, Dariece and I were looking forward to the Temple of Horus in Edfu more than any other temples on the Nile. Bernie and Toni were still “ruined” so they watched our bags for us while we went in to see the temple.
From outside Horus looked like a massive “U-Shaped” block. But as we entered we realised that it was actually an enormous maze of hypostle halls, ancient libraries, perfecly preserved reliefs, and nilometers (ancient tools to measure flood levels of the Nile).
The Temple of Horus in Edfu is Egypt’s best preserved and completely intact temple. Some of the carvings on the walls looked like they were done yesterday when in fact they had stood, unchanged, for more than 2000 years. It contained inside it, 56 massive columns all with a different shaped capital carved on top that connected it to the marble slab roof.
This ended up being, by far, the nicest temple we saw in all of Egypt. All the temples before it and even the temples in Luxor paled in comparison because Horus was so well preserved. It was hard to believe that something so massive, was covered by sand and rocks just 200 years ago before it was discovered, and excavated by Auguste Mariette in the 19th centery.
It seems impossible that a building so enormous and elaberate, could have been built without the use of modern machinery. It is temples like the Temple of Horus that create legends of aliens helping ancient Egyptians build structures. It seems that there would be no other way to build something so incredible.
What a great way to end such an epic journey down the Nile with our friends. This boat ride could have ended up many ways. We could have had no problems with shifty captains and bad food. We could have had that nice boat we were promised. Sometimes budget backpackers have to forgo certain luxuries (like good food), but in the end, the trip couldn’t have been any better.
We had excellent experiences, some beautiful pictures and great company. We made some new memories and new friends which is what travel is all about. And who knows, maybe one day we will cross paths again with our fellow backpackers, Michel and Chisa, Bernie and Toni. “Insha Allah.” (God willing) Either way, the felucca trip down the Nile will be another one for the books.