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Cruise Views

Viewing Upper Egypt From a Boat on the Nile

January 29, 1989|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers

DENDERA, Egypt — Early morning rituals along the Nile haven't changed much in 4,000 years. From our boat we watched a woman carefully pick her way down the muddy bank, carrying an earthenware water jug over a shoulder, just like those used in 2,000 BC in the temple reliefs.

At the first rays of the rising sun a flurry of white egrets flapped out of the trees. Fishermen poled their triangular-sailed feluccas out into the river and unfurled their nets, then began to shout and beat their hands against the sides of the wooden boats, flailing the surface of the water with their oars to stampede the fish.

On the bank a man washed in preparation for his prayers, then unfolded a square piece of cloth and kneeled facing Mecca. Curious children came down to the steps to watch our boat tie up, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.

We arrived at this river landing outside Dendera, near Luxor, on Abercrombie & Kent's 44-passenger Sun Boat, one of the smallest, newest and most luxurious vessels of the nearly 100 that cruise the Nile.

Seeing the Sights

A cruise boat is the most comfortable way, perhaps the only feasible one, to visit the great temples and tombs of the Pharaohs in Upper Egypt. A few of them, such as the magnificent temple of Horus at Edfu and the two-god temple at Kom Ombo, are only a short walk or carriage ride from the river.

Even better, the air-conditioned interior and breezy deck of the Sun Boat provide a welcome respite from the dust and flies, heat and traffic that are facts of life in modern Egypt. Even in October, considered the best month for weather, it is sunny, hot and dry, with a parching wind that blows from the desert.

Our group of 18 on this Nile Discoverer itinerary have our own Egyptologist, Mona Saleh, a striking and dynamic woman who doubles as guide, shopping negotiator and den mother.

"You must drink at least three liters of water a day to keep from getting dehydrated," she said. So each of us dutifully clutched a plastic bottle of mineral water everywhere we went.

We boarded the Sun Boat in Luxor the day before, after flying down from Cairo, then caroming in cabs past camel markets and adobe villages to stand awe-struck in the avenue of the sphinxes outside the vast Temple of Karnak.

(Movie fans would recognize it, especially the hypostyle hall with its 134 columns, from the film of Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile.")

In town the temple of Luxor, surrounded by urban traffic, is visibly deteriorating, according to Mona, who takes a tour through it every month. "It will not last another century," she says.

The forecast is even worse for the temple at Edfu, where sewage from the slums crowding against it flow into the ground and seep up into the sandstone and limestone temple, making it crumble at the touch of a finger . . . and many fingers test it.

The day before our visit, we were told, 4,000 Egyptian (about $1,735 U.S.) of entrance fees were collected, but none of it seems to be diverted toward relocating the squatters and saving the temple.

Other days included a trek to the tomb of Tutankhamen, a bus to the Aswan High Dam, a flight to world-famous Abu Simbel, a boat ride to the relocated island temple of Philae and a felucca cruise on the Upper Nile. Tour participants spend several days in Cairo at the beginning and end of the cruise seeing the Pyramids, Sphinx and Egyptian Museum.

Sun Boat I has 22 comfortable, air-conditioned, nicely decorated cabins with big windows for watching the river scenery go by and, we felt, better food and service than in the leading land hotels. The housekeeping and maintenance is also good.

We recommend the deluxe cabins on the two upper decks over the state cabins on the lower deck, because noise from the engines seeps into the latter, in 101 and 102 especially.

The suggested tip for the five-day trip for two is $25, which is pooled and divided among the 40-man Egyptian staff. There is a bar, a modest-size swimming pool and an upper deck with chairs and loungers in both sun and shade.

Meals are single-sitting, with a fixed menu of soup, first course, main course and dessert for lunch and dinner, along with a daily breakfast buffet and afternoon tea. Vegetarian cuisine is available by advance request. The chef proved especially skillful at cheese and dessert souffles.

Abercrombie & Kent's 12-day Nile Discoverer and the similar 11-day Nile Explorer offer small-group year-round departures at seasonal prices from $1,390 to $1,990 per person, double occupancy, plus $929 to $999 for round-trip air fare aboard British Airways' New York City-to-Cairo service via London. Air fare in Egypt is an additional $215.

Bear in mind that a Nile cruise should not be compared to a Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise. It is much more akin to expedition sailing, where the emphasis is on the sightseeing, some of it arduous, rather than relaxation and entertainment.

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