Only a few hundred metres from the dock in the small southern Egyptian town of Esna, the crew of the Adelaide deftly unfurl the ship's scarlet-and-white-striped sails. As they puff up, catching the strong southerly winds and sending the boat gliding soundlessly upstream, I feel something inside me unwind and expand, too.
We are embarking on a journey to see some of Upper Egypt's most remarkable sites via the waterway that made them all possible, on a type of vessel that has sailed the Nile for millennia.
The 230-kilometre trip from Luxor to Aswan, which normally takes three hours by car, will instead stretch out over six luxurious days on the deck of the dahabiya, a traditional double-masted sailing boat with room for about a dozen passengers, run by Nour El Nil, the Bohemian brainchild of two international entrepreneurs and a veteran Egyptian sailor who have mastered the art of slow travel.
After decades of sailing the Nile on tiny floukas, where passengers sleep on deck and bathe in the river, Enrique Cansino, who was born in Mexico and emigrated to the US, and Eleonore Kamir, a French interior designer, teamed up with Egyptian boat-maker Memdou Sayed Khalifa to revive the art of the dahabiya, and, as Cansino tells me: "Let people have that close experience the river, just with a hot shower and a WC."
I'd been dreaming of that close encounter with the Nile since reading Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile years ago. Christie herself made the trip in 1933, travelling on the SS Sudan, a luxury steamer that ferried Europe's upper crust along the river for a more glamorous rendition of the Grand Tour. The experience, along with her many winters spent on archaeological digs in the country, helped her paint incredible scenes of the ancient world, mingled with the glamour of high society, that have captured readers' (and Hollywood's) imagination for generations.
Versions of those steamers still chug between the Nile's major cataracts — glassed-in, air-conditioned, all-you-can-eat buffet cruise liners that make the trip in three days and two nights. We see them pass, in a noisy, churning line, on the third day of our trip, while we are swimming in the Nile's swift, cold waters from a secluded sandbar abuzz with egrets and kingfishers.
Though the Nour El Nil boats aren't short on style — the striped sails and low-slung sofas, chandeliers and panoramic staterooms decorated with retro airline posters and orientalist oil paintings are all imminently Instagrammable — it turns out that the real luxury on offer is that of having time to do absolutely nothing.
Each morning after breakfast, we set off with our guide to explore one major site along the river, before the heat sets in. In Esna, we tour the Greco-Roman Temple of Khnum, dedicated to the ram-headed god, who supposedly created man from his potter's wheel. Segments of the temple, set nine metres below ground, have been recently renewed, with centuries of soot and grime scraped away to reveal the vibrant greens, blues and reds decorating the capitals of the elaborately carved columns.
After an hour or so soaking in the history and grandeur of these cradle of civilisation sites, we would wind our way back to the boat for an afternoon of purely unstructured relaxation. With (blissfully) limited Wi-Fi aboard, we'd swim, or nap, make headway on the books we were reading or brush up on our backgammon. In the evenings, we'd take walks in local villages. I never once felt bored, or anxious that I was wasting time. The pacing kept each site fresh and everyone perfectly relaxed.
The exception to our one-a-day rule is a late afternoon stop at Edfu, the blockbuster Ptolemaic temple dedicated to the falcon-head god Horus. Built between 237 and 57 BC, at the peak of the Greek rule of Egypt, the temple is one of the country's best-preserved ancient structures. Each nook and cranny of the massive structure is covered in bas relief carvings that beautifully belie their era: though the scenes are typically Egyptian — the Pharaoh smiting captives or being anointed by the gods — the softness and definition of each body is classically Greek.
Part of the charm — and a bit of a gamble — on the cruise is the intimate nature of spending six days with a handful of strangers in close quarters. Meals are family-style, served at a long table under slightly akimbo chandeliers on the deck, and with ample downtime between sites, it's easy to slip in and out of conversations with fellow passengers. "In a way, it feels like being back at college," says Cansino. "You're meeting new and interesting people and getting to have all those exchanges, just without the assignments or tests."
Our cohort comprises such a Christie-perfect cast of characters — among them a film star, a pair of honeymooners, a titanium scrap magnate, a crypto-crazed tech entrepreneur, and, of course, the reporter, taking it all in — that it is impossible not to dream up a whodunit as we laze on the deck of the Adelaide.
(Chapter 1: The Curse of Za-Ra. On our first day, I arrive at the boat in a floaty, green-and-white printed maxi dress from Zara's summer collection, only to find the wife of the titanium scrapper in an identical outfit, and our film star admitting that she, too, has the very same frock in her suitcase — setting up a classic red herring. "I saw someone slip from his stateroom, but they were wearing that dress! Which one could it have been?")
There are, of course, another dozen strangers on the boat to get to know as well: the ship's crew, many of whom have manned the Nour El Nil fleet for decades. When they started their venture, Cansino and his partners were adamant that the crew come from the west bank in Luxor, away from the city's slick and glitzy hospitality scene, and the hustle that accompanies it. "We wanted to train our team ourselves," he says, "so they weren't worrying about tips or taking shortcuts."
Instead, they cultivated a family atmosphere, often times in a literal sense — our boat was manned by a crew of cousins from two different families — and an ethos of fine-tuned service that is attentive and friendly but far from servile. The crew got to know us, gently ribbing me for my Tunisian-affected Arabic greetings, talking football with the Brits, egging us on as we jumped from the side of the boat into the Nile and diving in after us.
On a walk one evening through a small village surrounded by banana and mango trees, our crew's leader, Ashraf, tells me that during the pandemic, when tourism ground to a halt in Egypt, Nour El Nil kept paying their salaries, even as most tour operators let their staff go. They did the same in the hard years after the revolution, when tourism in Egypt fell from its all-time peak of 14 million visitors in 2010, to a paltry 3.3 million visitors by 2016.
Southern Egypt relies heavily on tourism dollars to bolster an economy that is otherwise agricultural. Cansino says that often 15 or 20 people will be fed on a single salary in the tourism sector. The recent cycle of boom and bust — the revolution, a smattering of smaller terrorist attacks, and the pandemic all knocking a rebounding industry back down — has made survival in a hardscrabble region even more difficult.
We get a glimpse into that side of Egypt as well on our nightly walks through the villages where we dock. Mud brick homes line soft paths of Nile silt; alongside old irrigation canals, donkeys heavy laden with sugar cane and a couple of children trot dutifully from the fields.
We stop for tea one evening at the home of a retired water engineer who lives in a retrofitted irrigation management station. As we sip cups of sweetened hibiscus tea, he explains with pride the mural of an airliner and a ship painted on the side of his house: it celebrates the ways he and his wife travelled to perform Hajj after years of saving.
Tourists have started to return to Egypt, but on our trip we hardly notice. The dahabiyas are svelte enough to dock at smaller, less-visited sites that the glassy five-storey steam cruisers can't access. We are completely alone at most of the sites, and even tie up for the night directly in front of the floodlit shrine at Gebel Silsila, the quarry where ancient Egyptians prised sandstone from the cliffs for some of the most important New Kingdom temples, including Karnak.
That night, we turn some 1930s jazz on a portable speaker, and sit soaking in the timeless gravitas of the scene, toasting Tutankhamun, Christie, our crew and the mythical river that swirled us all together.