"Take your time,” announces our excellent tour guide, Mustafa Aziz, to the stragglers who’ve lingered to take a photo of The Nile. “And hurry up,” he adds, helpfully.
While Mustafa’s comment is accompanied by a knowing wink, it’s a neat illustration of the contradictions and ironies that make Egypt the place it is. While many of the original statues, carvings and hieroglyphics on the hundreds of temples across the country have been defaced and destroyed, the “hooligans” responsible were Romans and Greeks, so even the vandalism then is of historical importance. The country itself is vast. But most of it is infertile desert, so some 95% of the population squeezes into the Nile Valley, which makes up just 4% of the land area. The political riots and protests that have overshadowed the country of late saw the educated middle classes take to the streets in genuine frustration at the government: contrast that with our own chav-led petty acts of destruction last summer.
In a similar vein, while we wouldn’t ordinarily cover a country that, even recently, is still seeing violent protests, clashes and, yes, deaths, it’s also a great time to visit. Let’s face it, tourists are at no more risk in Egypt than in hundreds of other places worldwide but, sadly, the crowds seem to be staying away. Or happily if, like us, you’re able to walk around temple after temple without having to battle through hordes of sweaty visitors.
In yet another irony for a country so bustling with life, with the population squeezed into such a tiny band along the river, a Nile cruise is perhaps the single most relaxing thing I have ever done. The most obvious reason for this is a steadfast refusal to keep data roaming on when travelling – a mistake you only make once if you’re paying your own phone bill – and the not unexpected lack of wifi access on The Nile. Our ‘Nostalgic Nile’ cruise from Aswan to Luxor is a reminder of how infinitely more pleasant life is when you’re not at the beck and call of that bastard red light on your Blackberry. We work out that it’s the longest I’ve been offline since January 1998, although those pre-modem days are not exactly the nostalgia to which our tour operator Bales Worldwide is referring.
The name of the cruise is more a reference to the mode of transport employed. While the Nile can get clogged with monstrous modern cruise liners, Bales use The Amber, a traditional dahabiyya, an elegant wooden sailing ship that harks back to simpler days, albeit with modern touches such as an engine and generators. The maximum capacity is just 12 passengers, and the dahabiyya thus serves as transport, luxury hotel and private dining room all in one. For the hours of travelling, there is nothing to do except sip a drink, read, watch Egypt float by, enjoy the breeze and feel your stress levels fall minute by minute, and metre by metre, as the expert crew keeps the ship moving – and the meals coming. While street vendors and restaurants carry their own – ahem – special risks, The Amber’s private chef means there are no such problems on board. The other staff are also excellent: we’d swear blind that the steward was psychic, appearing Mr-Benn-shopkeeper-like at precisely the point you decided you needed a cold drink. And whoever cleaned the cabins each day was a dab hand at frequently hilarious towel origami.
The dahabiyya had another advantage too, its relatively small size making it possible to moor at quiet spots and private islands along the Nile, far away from the noise of the busier ports. The pitch black of the night in such spots, coupled with the gentle breaking of waves is conducive to incredible sleep – even when interspersed with the occasional bleating of a passing goat.
You can’t visit Egypt, however, without seeing its remarkable history and this is also taken care of, led by an onboard, English-speaking guide. In the case of Mustafa, a very entertaining, intelligent, open-minded, frank-talking and highly-educated guide. His enthusiasm makes each temple visit a joy. In other hands, it’s easy to see how yet more hieroglyphics and tales of ancient history could easily be dry and repetitive but his enthusiasm is infectious, and brings each location to life, so much so even now, since being back, I find it possible to tell my Karnak from my Kom Ombo – and not just because Karnak is the temple that pops up in The Spy Who Loved Me. Regardless, the sheer scale of the temples and the tombs, the quality of the stone masonry and the intricacy of the ornate carvings leaves you reeling at the hundreds of years of work that were involved.
It’s very hard to pick a highlight of this all-too-brief dip into Egyptian history and stunningly relaxing break but, if I must, it’s the one that involves the inevitable irony of what would normally be a painfully early start. It’s amazing how quickly bleary eyes clear in a balloon drifting gently above The Valley of the Queens, a trip that demonstrates the incredible scale of this country’s remarkable history and the great contrast between the greenery of the river valley and the red and golden sand of the rest of the land. (I can also confirm it’s a lot more enjoyable than riding a camel, an experience I won’t forget in a hurry and nor, I suspect, will the laughing locals taking photos on their smart phones. Or, for that matter, the camel.) The overwhelming memories though are of the country’s bustling energy and The Amber’s decadent, relaxed luxury. A contradiction? Yes. But what else could it possibly be?
The eight-day Nostalgic Nile itinerary with Bales Worldwide costs from £1,795. This includes scheduled flights and accommodation on The Amber. The price includes English-speaking guides on-board, a private, air-conditioned vehicle for transfers, and a sightseeing itinerary. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing on a mixed-board basis. Prices are based on departure date of 1 September. To book or for more information, call 0845 057 0600 or visit balesworldwide.com