Five Days on a Felucca on the Nile
Trip Start Feb 28, 2013
10Trip End Mar 22, 2013
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Making Final Choice of a Felucca
What is a Felucca?
A felucca is a traditional low tech sailing boat used in the protected waters of the Red Sea, eastern Mediterranean, including Malta, and along the Nile. They can carry 8 to 10 passengers, who lounge on a padded deck, and a crew of 2 or 3. Fellucas carry those who wish to enjoy a peaceful journey carried along solely by a gentle breeze and the current (no engine or electricity). Only the adventurous take part in multi day trips, as accommodation is primitive.
Meeting New Arrivals to Aswan
When we were fresh of the plane in Cairo, we spoke to a couple who were on staff at the Department Archaeology at Michigan State University.
Looking for Other Felucca Options
Shaggy’s felucca the Rendezvous was the only option acceptable to us of the ones we had talked with so far.
During our journey to Abu Simbel, Dave had asked a local tour-guide for yet another recommendation for felucca captain. The guide put us in touch with "his brother", Nadeem. We spoke by phone to Nadeem who gave us a reasonable quote which included him meeting and guiding us at the two temples on the way. But he was engaged in Luxor for a few days and could not actually meet in person or join us on the felucca. He pushed hard for us to sail with him but Dave insisted on seeing the boat and meeting the crew before we made any commitment.
Any Interest in Joining us on our Felucca?
We had finished our breakfast and were cooling our heels in the hotel lobby waiting for follow-up meetings with our felucca contacts. We greeted the new people to the hotel who arrived in Aswan on the morning train. We gave them the lowdown on restaurants, the Abu Simbel transport options, a warning to watch out for sleight-of-hand experts, and let them know we were looking for people interested in sharing our felucca trip to Edfu.
We spoke only briefly to Tee and Vicky from Great Britain who seemed to be on a very tight schedule. Andre and Jan from Germany didn't have time in their plan to join us either because they wanted to allocate more time to the Red Sea. Too bad because they are interesting guys and we chatted with them for a long time. They started an import business, mostly importing items from Bali at this point. They may expand later.
Final Selection Process
Nadeem’s Captain belatedly strolled into the hotel lobby. He didn’t seem to know much about our discussions with Nadeem or what was proposed. But he knew that we wanted to see his boat and crew. They were a disheveled bunch. The boat was a disorganized mess too and we waited 10 minutes while they cleaned up before we could board.
The Love Boat captain tracked us down and cut his price to 1400Le. He seemed like a shifty dude and I would not go with him under any circumstances. We missed our appointment with the hotel tour agent and he had gone home early for the day. Dave agreed to give Shaggy another hearing.
We met Shaggy and his nephew, Ramadan, again by the river. We went over the plan and they had remembered every detail of the offer and our special requests. We decided we would go with Ramadan or not do the felucca at all and made them an offer. They met us half way and the deal was stuck. All four of us were pleased. They because they do not have much business at all and us because we finally found someone we could live with for five days. On parting, we asked Shaggy how it would change the deal if we added more people. He said he would need to leave later in the morning because he would need to get permits and he would charge extra for more food only, about 120Le per person.
Tee and Vicky Surprised Us
We spent time in the afternoon strolling Aswan. We found a line at the bread baker. We peered in to see what the excitement was about. Low and behold, it was just for the hot out of the oven bread. We were invited in for a tour of the bakery. It was nice until they asked for baksheesh. It was an unfortunate but not a totally unexpected request. We got away with ...'No, but thank you for letting us visit.’
We stumbled on a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the snarl of alleys behind our hotel. This one was called Al Shawesh also. We'd go back there in a heartbeat.
We were surprised and happy Tee and Vicky wanted to hear more about our felucca plan. They had concluded that Abu Simbel was just too long of drive (over 7 hours in the car in one day and Vicky gets carsick easily). But, they didn't have 6 days to be with us either. Dave said, ‘no problem. Join us to Kom Ombo and, on day three, take a train to Luxor from there. We will split the cost of the felucca prorated for just the days you are on it. And you pay Shaggy for the extra food and permit fee.’ The three of them huddled over the itinerary. It took Tee and Vicky just one minute of discussion to consider their options. "We are in,” they announced. Nice company we thought.
Friday, 8 March to 13 March 2013
Aswan to Edfu by Felucca Sail Boat
5 Days Sailing Down the Nile - 1700Le ($250) total for two passengers (before 120Le each add-on adjustment for adding Tee and Vicky for 3 days)
Sailing Day 1 - Feeling Giddy
Friday is a holiday in Muslim countries and the permit guy wouldn't be in the office until after 10:00 am. Shaggy suggested we plan to leave shortly after noon. No big deal. That will still give us 4 to 5 hours of sailing before dark, the usual amount.
Shaggy met us at the hotel at noon and, by 12:30, we were giddy with excitement when we boarded our gorgeous felucca with its gigantic tall sail, thick colorful padding covering its spacious deck on which we would be spending the better part of 5 days. It looked so inviting. Imagine, this is how Egyptians have traveled up and down the Nile for hundreds of years.
The four of us settled in and lounged on the pillows as we glided silently along the broad Nile. The feluccas coming from the opposite direction had to tack because they had a headwind. We docked briefly to have our permits checked and before proceeding beyond the sight of Aswan.
It seemed to take hours before the mosques and buildings of Aswan disappeared from view. We were not complaining, just enjoying each and every moment.
Today, feluccas have a steel hull but the basic layout has changed little over centuries. They don't have a keel, but a heavy center plate which is raised in the shallow water near the bank. The sails are seriously low tech affairs made of native cotton.
Ramadan, our unassuming boatman, manned the immense sail and Masoud muscled the enormous rudder. We felt in good hands. Ramadan speaks basic English. Both are mild-mannered and a bit shy.
Around 2:00, we pulled over and watched Mosuad prepare a delicious meal for us. Our felucca carried an ice chest with a large block of ice in it which keeps the perishables and water cool for a few days. We’ll restock in Kom Ombo.
The boys prepared a tasty kushari (a typical Egyptian dish of small macaroni in tangy tomato sauce with vegetables, a wonderful blend of herbs and spices topped with crispy fried onions), tomato, cucumber and bell pepper salad and whole wheat Egyptian flat bread, like pita and by now our favorite drink karkadai (hibiscus tea)
We enjoyed easy conversation with Vicky and Tee. Tee is originally from Sri Lanka and immigrated to England at such a young enough age that he forgot his native Tamil tongue.
This area is famous for hibiscus tea. Big mounds of various qualities are sold in the bazaars. It has a deep burgundy color. The inferior one from Sudan is a lighter shade we were told.
We watched village life on the banks of the Nile. Small donkeys carry (seemingly) too of heavy loads including big men often on top of additional baggage. We see camels, buffalo, a few goats, people working in fields, then stretches of desert sand, nothing but dunes, and a few palm-trees.
Most of the larger 2-sail Dahabayyas we see were being towed by tugboats. Ramadan told us the wind must be from the right direction in order for them to sail because the sails cannot be turned enough to go back and forth like our smaller felucca.
The wind picked up in the afternoon and we moved at much faster pace. We snoozed. We talked. We relaxed and enjoyed the, at times hypnotic, glide down the Nile.
Around 5 pm, we pulled over on the western shore next to the new Dahabiyya Shaggy is having built. We got a tour. Ramadan unlocked several rooms. Total includes 4 small rooms and a suite with balcony at the aft. It has a large covered top deck. It is almost finished we imagine he got it started during the fat years when many tourists visited Egypt. Right now, prospects of filing it with tourists are slim. Ramadan said they will charge 35000Le ($5150) for the boat for a six day cruise. There is room for ten people.
Ramadan erected the toilet screen on shore for us. It has a toilet seat on metal frame so we don't even have to squat. That's what I call luxury!! Vicky had spent a year on dive boats in Fiji where she had learned to hang it off a dive boat to go and suggested we do that here. She could teach me how to dance on the pole too, she offered. I can see it now… Sadly, Ramadan nixed that idea.
We noticed a few mosquitoes and put repellent on. We watched the sun disappear behind the palm trees behind us. Mousad cleverly fashioned a hurricane lamp out of plastic bottle and candle. We ate by candle light. Dinner was kofta (Egyptian sausage), vegetables, salad, rice and pita bread.
By about 9 pm, we spread out the sleeping bags the crew provided. They were clean but I was happy with my own liner. It was comfortably cool and soon we all were in deep sleep under our canopy under the stary stary night.
Because Vicky and Tee only have about 14 days in Egypt total, they will sail with us for three days before continuing to Luxor by train, Vicky hates to travel by car or bus. She gets sick.
Sailing Day 2 – Nubian Village Visit
I awoke just in time to watch the golden disk of haze shrouded sun peek over the east bank of the Nile. Vicky didn't sleep so well. A rat had ran over her and scurried away along the edge of our boat. We slept right through her bloodcurdling scream.
We visited Ramadan's Nubian village of Kobanya where Shaggy's family was expecting us. We walked past alfalfa fields, crossed a narrow irrigation canal then climbed on sandy path through the village. Many homes were painted with large flowers or boats or Mecca, in the Nubian style, telling stories of the families living in them. On top of the bluff, Shaggy's father came out to greet us.
The phone rang and Ramadan handed the cell phone to me. Sadly Shaggy could not be there. He had gotten another felucca job. Of course, that takes priority.
The Nubian houses have high arched ceilings and small rooms. The one we were ushered into had a ceiling fan. We were joined by a slew of well-behaved little kids. Shaggy has 7 with his 2 wives; 6 boys and one girl. His brother has 4 boys and one girl and we wondered if gender selection played part in family planning.
We met both of Shaggy's wives who each have a small house off the courtyard. Shaggy had told us that they get along well.
The grandfather left us to smoke his sheesha. He used to be captain of felucca and helped build the business.
On the way back to the boat, we notice a wood-fired oven used for baking bread in a courtyard. I asked if Nubian bread was different from Egyptian bread. Yes, it is different. Ramadan picked up two Nubian breads his mother had baked. She bakes them every day, he said. The breads are whole wheat and the size of a Frisbee and about 2 inches thick.
By 10 am, the wind kicked in and we pushed off. The sail bulged and we tacked in zigzag pattern from shore to shore. We were lounging on the pillows of our felucca and being propelled by the wind. We stopped at a grassy reed-lined spot for lunch and cows grazing peacefully. It reminded me of Holland.
Again, our crew went all out and spoiled us with an incredible spread for lunch. The Nubian bread became our favorite bread. It has a course crumb and the faintest hint of cinnamon. Great with the salty feta like cream-cheese and baba ghanoush the boys served us.
Half empty cruise boats pass us and several Dahabiyya pass us as they seem to be pulled by tugboats almost exclusively.
We pulled over early for our night spot. Here the desert sand borders the Nile. A few palm frond huts indicated that people live here. Another felucca pulled up next to us. Vicky and Tee had met this group of tourist on the train to Aswan. Coincidentally, one of the guys lives in Cambodia. He co-owns several hotels there and does volunteer work with an NGO he set up with partners. They scheduled a dinner date for July.
The walk-plank to shore is like a balance beam to me. Ramadan noticed and secured a pole for handrail. They are so attentive. We did well by choosing them.
Masoud busied himself with preparations of another elaborate dinner of okra, fried chicken, salad and rice while we explored the shore and did what we do best..... relax and enjoy the moment.
Ramadan covered the sides of the open area with fabric and mosquito netting. Still large gaps were unavoidable. The mosquitoes didn't bother us a lot, perhaps because we had Vicky as bait... They love her.
"Tonight we'll listen to Nubian music," Ramadan told us. He was really looking forward to it. Ramadan and a boatman from the other felucca got a nice fire going under a low palm tree. Soon they were joined by several local men with drums and huge tambourine. We listened under the starry night on the bank of the Nile for hours to the rhythmic beat and hypnotizing voice of Abdelaty. I suggested he'd make some CDs of his music. We would have loved to buy one.
Day 3 – Daraw Camel Market and Kom Ombo Temple
The call to prayer from the east-bank awoke us around 5 am. We dozed and watched the sun rise an hour later. The Nile was mirror smooth, not a breath of wind.
We washed up with wet-ones and brushed our teeth over the side of the boat. We didn't even bother to change clothes.
By 9:30 am, a light breeze began and we were on our way. We watched the stretches of sand dunes and small villages fade from view. We passed several sizable islands.
At 11:00, we stopped at Daraw to visit its camel market. We boarded a kabout, a small covered Isuzu pick-up truck with two benches in the back for the 20 minute ride to the camel market.
It was Sunday, while the main market days are Tuesday and Thursday, so we didn't know what to expect. It was bustling with exotic looking turbaned and scull-capped men and boys. Next to a camel butcher, 3 poor camels stood tied up watching their mate being carved up. There were hundreds of healthy young camels at the market. Most had their left front leg folded and tied up and still some hobbled away and had their owners chase after them. Some protested loudly as they were being herded onto trucks. A two year old medium size camel can be had for 5000Le ($735) while a big boy can fetch 10 to 15000. A 6500Le camel bought here can be resold in Giza for 8000Le, we were told. Let’s get one and ride it to Giza!
It was a fun side trip made more fun as we made two shopping stops in town. I bought some hibiscus tea while Ramadan resupplied with fresh food and fish. I asked him to buy 2 kilo navel oranges for us, they are the best.
Back at the boat, we sailed to a nice spot for our last lunch with Vicky and Tee. We then caught the wind in the sails to Kom Ombo and watched as the large pillars and columns of the Temple of Kom Ombu came into view on east bank. We easily spent an hour and half at this temple which is dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek and Haroeris (Horus the Elder). We even took in the crocodile museum which explained a bit about crocs in Egyptian mythology and even included little mummified crocodiles.
Ramadan had called ahead and negotiated for taxi to take Vicky and Tee the 4 km to the train station 20Le. They booked Boomerang Hotel in Luxor when we did so we hoped to see them when we arrive there on Wednesday. Hopefully they made the 3 pm train.
Now it was just the 2 of us and our crew and we had so much space. For dinner Mousad fixed delicious fish, too many bones for Dave though. Another felucca pulled up near us as the sun dipped behind the dunes behind us. We didn't know how many people were in the next boat but every now and then the breeze carried the sound of an agitated female voice speaking English.
We told Ramadan to skip the side covers and mosquito netting which turned out to be fine. A nice breeze kept the skeeters away.
Day 4 – Sailing by Gebel Silsila Stelea & Sandstone Quarry
It was another gorgeous day along the Nile. I must say, that initially, we were not sure if 5 nights on felucca would not be too long. But here we were on day 4 and we still loved every minute of it. And we gave up the idea of getting any reading done. We wanted to stay in the moment and enjoy this experience fully.
I can understand how this mode of travel is not for everyone. Someone with bladder problems, or someone who would have difficulties coping without a proper shower for 5 days, or a person who needs a chair to sit in instead of lounging on pillows, or the person who gets antsy when the speed of travel depends on the wind. Yes, sometimes we are powered by the slow moving current for hours on end when the sails are limp.. Yup, if any of that bothers you......a lengthy felucca trip wouldn't be for you.
Most mornings the river starts out mirror smooth. I loved watching the the many birds, especially the kingfishers, with their special chirp, skim over the water, rise high, then plunge in after a fish.
Our peaceful bliss was disturbed when we met Hildagart (I don't remember her real name). She was having loud altercations with her boatman. She came over to our boat and told us more than we wanted to hear. She did a lot of talking and had no patience to listen. She was dissatisfied with the food and she felt they could go a lot faster if they didn't zigzag so much. And she didn't want to hear about wind-direction. I didn't understand what she wanted from me. She spoke in a loud voice and didn't seem to even hear anything I said. She did want to make sure we stopped at the same places which I could understand since she was a woman traveling alone, we agreed. Once this loony toon walked off, Dave said if we make a blog entry about her, we should title it "Deaf on the Nile" (Apologies to Agatha Christie) As we pushed off, Hilda was arguing with her boatman again. Both parties looked bad. We were glad that we did not have that kind of negative energy on our felucca and counted our blessings that we had Ramadan and Masoud taking care of us.
In the afternoon we planned to stop at Gebel Silsila. We floated by scant ruins with cave-like fronts spread out over a km or so. On the trail, we talked with some German girls who said, yes it was a nice walk but not worth the entrance fee. We decided to explore the sandstone quarries to the right instead of left to the rock-cut shrines to Horemheb, Seti I, Ramesses II and Merenptah. Ramadan joined us and he guided us between the canyons to the sandstone quarry that was used to build this and other temples. We had to scramble at times but again it was a great side-trip.
Day 5, the Final Day of Sailing :(
At 7 am, a school boat, with boys in the back, and girls in the front, motored by on their way to school.
The day was spent sailing and floating with the current. There seemed to be less wind today. We noticed during our brief time on the Nile that morning wind is rare. Wind is reliably strong in the late afternoon. Sometime in between, the breeze will start, sometimes as early as 10:00 am or as late as 2:00 pm.
At our lunch spot, Hilda came to our boat and said she wanted to speak to me, "under 4 eyes." We were just served our lunch so I told her, ‘later.’ Both Ramadan and Masoud went to her felucca. Apparently some part of their sail had broken. After lunch they returned and said all was okay. It was fixed. I waved to Hilda to come to our boat but she insisted I come over there. I had to climb under barbed wire over an onion field to get there. I should have refused. She rambled on that she didn't trust the fix. I told her 4 experienced boatmen trusted the fix. She didn't hear me out and said she was going to walk to the next village. Had she not been nuttier than a fruit cake, I would have asked her to come with us which likely was what she was fishing for. I didn't want her negative energy to disturb our peace. The best I willing to offer was for our feluccas to stay near, which they did. In the end, she calmed down and her boat performed just fine.
The boys promised more Nubian songs after dinner. A Dahabiyya moved next to us. Their generator made a big racket until 10 pm.
Ramadan pulled out his big tambourine/drum and led us in a final call-back song. He is a pretty good musician, nice voice and he can keep in rhythm.
Day 6 – Disembarking at Edfu and the Temple of Horus, Then on to Luxor by Shared Van
It was our last morning on the boat. We awoke at 4 am from calls to prayer sounding from mosques all around us. The Dahabiyya left at around 5 am. No screened toilet was set up for us. I presume that Ramadan figured there was enough cover. We made due, no problem.
After breakfast, we floated about 20 minutes to the landing next to the Edfu cruise boat dock.
Shaggy had kept in touch with us every day. He said he checked to see if there were more people to share a taxi to Luxor with. The best he could do was 250Le for a stop at the 2000 years old Temple of Horus (the Falcon God) then the 108 km drive to Luxor. We declined and decided to go it on our own which turned out to be a good choice.
It was an easy negotiation with one of the many horse carriage drivers. 10 Le got us to the temple (2 km).
There, we were able to leave our pack at security screening while we took our time at the temple. We arrived in the Temple with the cruise ship crowd. Still, we had plenty opportunity for picture taking and some solitude at choice spots.
Temple of Horus, having escaped Nile floods, is known as the most completely preserved temple in Egypt. This site was very worthwhile. Colossal pillars with beautifully preserved reliefs stood at the entrance, in the Court of Offerings and the Inner and Outer Hypostyle Halls. On our way out, we stopped at the Visitor Center to watch a 20 minute documentary Nat Geo had made on the temple.
The horse carriage guy who had driven us here from the Nile found us again and was anxious to take us to the minibus stand across the Nile. Again we negotiated and off we went. He was happy. He dropped us off at the minibus stand to Luxor which is on the east end of the bridge, the opposite side of the river from the Temple of Horus.
Our pack was loaded on top rack of the 16 passenger van and secured with rope, which eased Dave's mind. 10 Le per person ($1.47) for the 118 km ride was not bad. The shared vans leave when they are full and we had to wait about 20 minutes. We were dropped off somewhere in Luxor. Dave pulled out his GPS on phone which guided us several km through colorful bazaar, a great way to enter a town. I loved the many bakeries where they churned out hundreds of Egyptian breads (or pitas) and, more often than not, with a line of people waiting to catch them hot out of the oven. 20 for 1 Le. Camel butchers are popular here as well. Enormous flanks hung in open air and chunks were cut off as needed.
We stopped for lite lunch of mediocre humus and baba ghanoush and our favorite cool hibiscus tea. It was the hottest part of the day. Google Maps left us in front of Luxor Pyramid and not our hotel. By the time we found Boomerang Hotel, we were sweating bullets.
The hotel has 100% positive reviews on TripAdvisor and for good reasons. It is spotlessly clean, has nice backpacker atmosphere, free wifi, and a friendly helpful staff. At 120 Le ($17.70) for air-con en-suite room, it was a bargain. Breakfast at 15 Le per was decent and a huge step above the ‘free’ breakfasts typically included in Egyptian hotels.
First thing on our agenda was a shower. Vicky and Tee were out and about. We had been in contact via emails and agreed to meet for dinner at the atmospheric Sofra Restaurant, fifty meters down the street from our hotel.
Bonito and his partner joined us as well. We all had Egyptian mezzes, a series of small dishes; we could choose 4 cold dishes and 4 hot, served with delicious whole wheat Nubian bread. Cold hibiscus tea rounded off this delicious meal. Bonito and his partner had arranged their felucca trip from home and had fewer days and paid more than double what we had paid.
Vicky wrote down some recommendations and tips about some sites around Luxor which helped us a lot. They let us know the public minibus and ferry routine to help us avoid scams. Locals spot and zero in on newbies. If you exude confidence, and know the fees, it means "don't mess with me"
Would you like to contact our Captain to arrange your own Nile Felucca trip?
Shazly Ali "Shaggy"
0111 61 22077 (Aswan Egypt)
00 2 0111 09 38727