Gliding up the Nile

Words by Simeon Gready - December 2014

The ferry ride up Lake Nassar, and across the Sudanese/Egyptian border, was noteworthy for two reasons: as well as being the first boat trip of my journey, it was the first time that a scheduled public transport trip had left early.

While attempting to eye out any late arrivals sprinting to the dock, we set off and were soon slicing through the clear waters of the lake. It seemed as good a time as any to explore the vessel, with Oli and Hugo, two Australian brothers I had met the day before. The ferry was full, and noticeably the women and men were separated, kept at either ends of the boat. We had booked tickets for the 2nd class compartments, which was crowded by hard plastic seats in three blocks, fronted by a grotty dining class compartment. The floor above held the 1st class dorms, consisting of 4-bed sleepers, which to my eye seemed largely unbooked; this was fronted by a smaller but significantly cleaner dining room compartment. This room had been monopolised by the Egyptian immigration officials, who filled the room with cigarette smoke while stamping passport after passport. Loud music blared throughout.

Finally, the deck lay on top, with space to roam and placidly watch as the ferry glided down the centre of the channel. Two large orange lifeboats were securely fastened above each side of the boat. At this point, the body of water on which we motored was not particularly wide, perhaps 2kms at most, and the land that stretched out to the East and the West were strangely opposing: to the East, the baked land rose and fell into hills masquerading as mountains, bare of any foliage; to the West, the land lay immensely flat, disappearing with the horizon.

Sunsets from a flat horizon are always special; yet, from a ferry chugging up Lake Nassar, towards the Nile, with a medley of Sudanese and Egyptian music floating up from the floors below, it seemed even more so. The orange-red globe filled the sky with effervescent golden light as it lowered itself around the earth, and small fishing vessels scuttled in the calm waters around the ferry, leaving vivid trails of yellow, purple and pink.

As night fell, Oli, Hugo and I played the card game Yanif in the dining room, revelling in the room and relative comfort that the ferry offered in comparison to the cramped night buses that I had so often frequented.

In saying that, efforts at a good nights sleep revolved around two pretty limiting options: either, we make do with sharing the hard plastic seats in the 2nd class compartments, on which it was impossible to fully stretch out, or brave the plummeting temperatures on the deck and watch the stars. Armed with a sleeping bag, I chose the latter, alone. Once on top, I eyed one of the lifeboats as a likely option and clambered in, optimistically hoping to shelter myself from the wind, covering my face against the burning lamp that hung from the top. The floor of the lifeboat was made of unforgivingly hard plastic, and a little bit sticky; additionally, the passages down the side were too narrow to sleep comfortably, and the ends too short to fully stretch out. I had committed, however, and could not sheepishly retreat down below: it would have to do.

Ignoring my discomfort, I tried to focus on what was above me: the sky, resplendent with bright smiling stars, glinting against the deathly black backdrop. I tried to make out various constellations as I fell asleep twisting and turning in the narrow corridors of the lifeboat.

I made it, quite impressively I thought, until 3am, when I could bear the cold no longer. I jumped out and sought refuge downstairs, soon finding a cramped spot on the hard plastic chairs, and somehow slept deeply until the calls of sunrise prayers echoed around me. The ferry stretched, yawned, and rustled awake with activity. I went to ask for tea, but was charged 4 pounds – I had no money left on me at that point. Sunrise was equally as impressive as the sunset the night before, made more calming for the hum of prayers resonating from the praying men on the deck, kneeling in the direction of Mecca. The rest of the ferry ride passed in a happy daze, warmth slowly re-entering my body, and we arrived in Aswan, Egypt at 9am.

One of the men I met on the boat was called Abdul, a big man with wobbly cheeks and a scarf wrapped around his neck. He laughed a lot, slapped me on the arm, ruffled my hair, affectionately called me ‘Seaman’ over and over again, and helped me get my Egyptian stamp when the immigration officers were being particularly difficult. Once off the ferry, he also organised a cheap minibus taxi for the three of us to the centre of town.

I stuck with Oli and Hugo after the ferry, as we all had similar plans to catch a quick overnight train to Cairo. The lull that the ferry had brought us down into was quickly and roughly disturbed; though we had been forewarned about Egyptian tourism, it was certainly a testing experience in Aswan. We were constantly shouted at or pulled at, for taxis, food, souvenirs, money exchange, clothes. I thought ahead to Cairo, my temperament having shortened after a long time on the road.

At the train station, we approached the ticket desk to organise our train journey that evening. “Foreigners can only buy $100 sleeper train tickets,” we were told abruptly. This is something I had read about ahead of time – while a one-way ticket from Aswan to Cairo cost less than $10, foreigners were charged over 10 times that price; there was, however, reportedly a way around it. We had to simply board the train at the right time without a ticket, and we could buy a normal one from the conductor when he comes around to our carriage. We would have to rely on that.

In the meantime, we had a few hours to kill in Aswan. A good-natured hotel owner let us keep our bags in his storage room while we explored. We ate Kushari, an Egyptian dish of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas and crispy fried onions topped with a spicy tomato sauce, drank coffee, and wandered around the markets to the edge of the Nile. Aswan in general was busy and manic, with nothing seemingly significant to my untrained architectural eye; the markets were pushy, and we garnered plenty of attention: “Where are you from?”; “Come and see my shop!”; “Want some hash?”; “Want some beer?”; “I am a boat captain – want a trip on the Nile?”

We fetched our bags from the hotel owner and boarded the train just before it started to pull away from the station at 3pm. Thankfully, in line with what I had read online, buying tickets on board (for the cheaper price!) proved to be no problem at all. The 2nd class compartment was even very comfortable: cushy seats that reclined, plenty of legroom, air-con, large viewing windows. The train track itself occasionally dipped down to race alongside the Nile: glistening water, lush green riverbanks, fishermen drifting in boats in the diminishing sunlight, graceful swooping birds; on the other side lay dry dusty hilltops, barren and brown. Once again a contrast formed, with the train acting as the dividing line where the ferry had before.

I had been greatly looking forward to another train ride – the rhythmic chug of the engine, the screech of the wheels, the long arcs of turning carriages. Admittedly, I had plenty of time to appreciate it all as I slept fitfully – we had not taken into account that those that did book in advance (in a way we could not) had booked specific seat numbers, while we were floaters. As such, at every stop, it turned out that we were in someone’s seat, and were roughly awoken. It was a game of musical chairs, but not the fun kind.

Finally, at around 5am, we arrived in Cairo. I looked in groggy wonder at the sign that displayed Cairo in small block letters underneath the Arabic spelling – I had made it. Cape to Cairo, in 7 weeks, on public transport, having met a hundred people with a hundred stories; it was an indescribable feeling. I implored Hugo to take a quick snap. Of course – the journey was not quite finished yet: I had a few days in Cairo itself.