The Nefertari Adventure 10 Nights
The Isis Adventure 13 Nights
by Joyce Carta
The flight from Cairo to Aswan was, of course, an early one which followed, just as naturally, a very late night…a night spent at the Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant in the Khan Al Khalili. This restaurant took its name from its most famous patron…the 1988 Nobel Prize winning Egyptian novelist who died in 2006 at the prodigious age of 95. The dinner last night was in honor of two of my guests who were just completing their third Egypt tour with Egypt Magic. Three times to Egypt (plus another trip they did with us on safari in East Africa)…they hold our record for most repeat guests! It had been a perfect evening – good times, much laughter and excellent cuisine. And it was lovely to meet these two ladies in person after a 6-year email acquaintance.
The day was bright but very cold and windy and as we descended over this, my very favorite city in Egypt, you could clearly see the Soviet/Egypt Friendship Monument built to celebrate the completion of the High Dam. There were hotels to visit on this stay in Aswan, including a revisit to the Old Cataract, and this clear, sunny day showed off the glorious view of the Nile. It’s always a comfortable feeling to return to a place and find that it’s exactly as you remember – especially if the memories are exemplary. But the main reason I was here was to take the Lake Nasser cruise. I’d heard very good reports, but needed to have the experience myself.
We drove out past the High Dam to the boat dock where the M/S Eugenie and the M/S Kasr Ibrim have their private docking. The entrance, through the port authority building, which may have once been impressive, now seems just a bit depressed, but this feeling is quickly dispersed once you spot your destination.
The sister ships, most especially the Eugenie, are very good recreations of the bygone elegance that was cruising. The Eugenie was launched in 1993 and was the first to inaugurate Lake Nasser tourism…dark woods, restful colors and lush upholstery give the interiors a comfy clubby appearance. The staterooms are good sized for an older boat with a large (and very clean) window and a private balcony. The “step back in time” environment includes no in-room TV, no internet access and, once we leave Aswan, we’ll also be out of cell range for most of the journey. However there are in cabin telephones for intra-ship calling. No nasty outside intrusions of the electronic age here – just the sailing experience to see some of the rescued monuments of Ramses the Great, among others, in comfort and in style and with, as I understand, excellent cuisine.
Lake Nasser is the world’s largest man-made lake, about 310 miles long and in places reaching depths of about 600 feet. The Lake is excellent for fishing (and we were to enjoy some of the fruits of this in meals on board) and someone told me there were 38,000 Nile crocodiles in residence. I don’t know if this is true, but if so, would LOVE to know who had the scary job of counting them!
So once we’re settled in our staterooms, off we go, myself and dear friend Azza who’s taking this journey with me, to the sound of the ringing bell to our first meal. Lunch is a buffet. And that is the understatement of the century. The array of breads, cheeses, hot and cold “bouche amuses,” the salads and tempting concoctions plus the selection of soups – followed by steaming salvers of chicken tenders in mustard cream, carved veal roast and perfected grilled Nile perch (the King of Egypt’s fishes as far as I’m concerned), and perfectly sculpted scalloped potatoes, delicious oriental rice, braised squash and crisp steamed broccoli – and then the desserts…at least 10 of them offered, from elegant gateaux and pistachio pies to creamed creations, tiny pastries and actually couldn’t see any further as now the crowd in front of me was four people deep. Everything I sampled – and this was possibly 10% of what was available, was just delicious. Clearly everyone else thought so, too, as the stream to the buffet obliterated its view. I quickly decided lunch would be my main meal of the day…but dinner at 8:00 PM would come all too quickly.
We assembled in our language groups for the afternoon tours of Kalabsha Temple. The Eugenie has 52 cabins for a passenger capacity of just over one hundred guests and this sailing was at about 2/3 occupancy. There were 8 English-speakers…3 couples from the UK, me as the sole American and Azza as the “honorary” English-speaker (her English is, in fact, excellent), and our guide was Magti (“just call me ‘Magnificent’ – it’s easier to say and you’ll remember it”). He had been described to us at last night’s dinner as my two 3-time Egypt ladies took this same cruise the week before. (Their Lake Nasser cruise was my ONLY exception to offering a tour or excursion before I had done it myself, but I felt as if I knew them both very well and absolutely trusted their judgment.) They had been very pleased. I was particularly pleased with Magti’s style of putting into context the significance of the Nubian civilization to the ancient Egyptian kingdoms, not only for their wealth in gold and other resources but for the eventual “merging” when the Nubians did finally come to rule all of Egypt.
On the first day of the southbound cruise you go by open launch boat to visit Kalabsha temple, along with Beit El Wali and the kiosk of Kertassi. All of these were rescued and moved to the present location in 1970 to escape inundation from Lake Nasser. Kalabsha was the largest free-standing temple of Egyptian Nubia and its design is emblematic for the Ptolemaic period with pylons, courtyard, hypostyle hall and three room sanctuary. Beit El Wali was a Ramses II Nubian construction and the Kiosk of Kertassi with its magnificent Hathor columns dates to the Roman period. You can read excellent descriptions of these and all the sites visited on the cruise elsewhere, so I’m just going to concentrate on the cruise experience in this narrative.
(And as a note…both the UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites websites have detailed information on the massive monument moving project.)
I had visited Kalabsha many years previously, via a tiny rowboat to what was then an almost never visited site…this was before the inauguration of Lake Nasser cruising…and the changes were dramatic. The cruises really put Kalabsha on the tourist radar screen, and Magti’s explanations were clear and in context.
We took the 15 minute boat ride back to the Eugenie in time for Afternoon tea: tea, coffee and cakes were served in the Lounge (to hold us until dinner…HA! As if lunch hadn’t been enough!). But honestly when dinner came at 8:00 PM we’d been on the boat all of 9 hours and how enjoyed our third feast. The food is truly wonderful on this cruise…plenty of selection to suit every taste and preference. And yes, like Napoleon’s Army, I “travel on my stomach.”
After dinner, we were introduced to the cruise manager who very kindly took Azza & me over to tour the Kasr Ibrim. This is a larger, newer boat, broader beam and longer with about 30% more capacity. It features African décor (appropriate for its Nubian heritage) with patterns of safari themed cloth, animal pictures and prints and figures from Egypt’s past and deep Africa’s present…these were clearly chosen to emphasize the spaciousness of the boat. Cabins and baths are larger but the basics are comparable. I liked the Kasr Ibrim with one exception…the cabin interiors are covered on every surface with blond planked wood. Which is lovely at first but, to my taste, I think all that wood after the first day or so would get just a tad claustrophobic. But tastes vary and this is only my opinion. Azza definitely prefers the decor/style of the Eugenie, even given the fact that the suites on the Kasr Ibrim are far more roomy.
Our first night on the boat was completely comfy and restful – UNTIL 4:00 AM when the boat started to move. This is the only nighttime sailing that they must do in order to keep to the schedule and both Azza & I are both glad to that. The engines woke us both and the balcony door rattled…but this problem I solved with judiciously placed toilet
I woke up at 7:30 AM (wonderful to sleep this late!!) and generally feeling terrific and looking forward to the day. And then I took my shower. Excellent water pressure, good temperature control…or so I thought. The Eugenie has the sort of plumbing where a nearby toilet flush usurps all available cold water. Disconcerting, to say the least…but, once you realize this, forewarned is forearmed! I did mention this to the boat staff and don’t really know if this is fixable, but advance knowledge is power. I mentioned my experience later to Azza who was then very careful when she took her shower and avoided a problem.
We met for breakfast at 8:00 PM, which was another vast array of fruits, breads and pastries, cheese, scrambled eggs and sausage, vegetables of all sorts, omelettes to order and fuul, the traditional baked bean morning Egyptian fare. The fuul was excellent with tomatoes & peppers and was lightly seasoned with cumin. I can’t remember when I’ve had better. The day was now off to an excellent start!
It was in fact a beautiful day…clear and bright and thankfully a bit warmer. We headed up to the salon to see the “Saving of Abu Simbel” movie made by UNESCO in the 1970’s. I’d seen parts of this before but it was fascinating to watch the entire description of the breadth and complexity of the Lake Nasser Monument Reclamation Project.
In total there were about 60 Antiquity sites threatened by the High Dam and the Lake’s creation, and of these 23 were saved. Some, like Abu Simbel, were cut and moved jigsaw puzzle-style to higher, safer ground, and some, like the tiny Temple of Dendour, lifted in entirety to a new home. Dendour resides at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (the other 3 moved temples are in Holland, Spain and Italy…all as “thank you” gifts to nations who contributed to this colossal international effort).
Philae Temple was a special challenge as the original Philae island site was submerged. Workers built a barricade around this site, pumped the water out and then hand shoveled the silt so the stones could be marked and cut for moving. Meanwhile Philae Temple’s new island was under construction and when the temple was reassembled, decorative palms planted, the beauty and serenity of the site, where religious services to Isis continued until the advance of Islam, were preserved. Excellent film and as many times as you see this story you are still struck by the determination to save that which could never be duplicated. Watching the workers carrying the silt baskets I was thinking that very possibly it was their own ancestors who, 2000 years earlier, built Philae the first time.
In the meantime the sail took us across the Tropic of Cancer so to celebrate, a delicious apricot/banana fruit punch was served as a toast. There were a few hours free before lunch…a good opportunity to explore the boat, or watch the passing scene, or, as I did, to update the journal.
Lunch was served on the sun deck as it was nice and warm. There was a similar wonderful assortment of salads and tasty appetizers (sardines! just adore sardines!) plus barbecued meets, chicken, a beef roast and kofta, another particular favorite. And of course this latter was flamed and skewered to perfection. Honestly I keep writing about the food but it WAS wonderful.
Right after lunch it was time to depart, again by small motorboat to the 3 temples of Wadi El Seboua, Dakka and the Greco-Roman era temple of Meharakka. Again we boarded the motor launches for the quick ride to the shore. Wadi El Seboua, named for the lions guarding the entrance (Seboua in Arabic) was dedicated by Ramses II to Amun Ra and to Ra Harmakis. Dakka was a temple of Thoth, divine god of wisdom, science and learning. Meharakka is more recent construction (Ptolemaic) and the temple wall art is fascinating for its transitional treatment of Egyptian classical art fusing with Greek influence. There is a bit of a walk involved from temple to temple here and if you prefer, there are ample camels ready to rent at around LE 20 per person.
Back to the ship…Azza & I had been invited to join the other 6 English speakers for afternoon tea and also for dinner. “Tea” was served on the sun deck and I just missed the nicest sunset photos, so must plan to get these tomorrow at Abu Simbel Of course the sun will set behind the monument but perhaps with rays peaking out that will make an interesting shot.
Dinner was the “Candlelight” meal with set menu. The dining room looked very lovely and the menu was elegant. The staircase going to the dining room (situated on the lowest deck) had been decorated with luminarias and all tables glittered with candles. There was a tiny savory “amuse bouche” to begin, followed by smoked salmon, then a delicious tomato cream soup, in turn followed by a small spinach and cheese lasagna and then the main event: beef tenderloin filet, beautifully presented however, just a bit on the tough side. Flavorful, but tough. Oh well, can’t complain with everything else having been superlative. Dessert was a layered chocolate and strawberry gateau. Feeling more than comfortably full, it was time for bed as the morning wake up would come all too early at 6:00 AM.
On returning to our cabins, WHAT A SHOCK to find a MAN in my bed! A very white, tightly wrapped Man, made of towels, as it turned out and borrowing MY sunglasses to read MY paperback!! Clever and creative cabin attendants!! Turns out everyone had a “surprise” awaiting this night…made from towels, bedspreads and whatever was easily findable
The wake up call came exactly at 6:00 AM, and after a very quick breakfast we motor launched over to, for me, the surprise highlight of the cruise. The Amada Temple was originally constructed in the 18th Dynasty reign of Tuthmoses III and its walls display significant historical themes, continuing through the reign of Ramses II. BUT, the preservation of the colors…if you can use “vivid” to describe walls that are some 3500 years old, that would be appropriate.
The Temple of Derr is one of the Ramses rock-cut edifices, this one to celebrate the 30-year Celebration of his Reign, but was constructed possibly not so much to display might and glory than to enable a worshiping place closer to what was once a populated area. And finally you stroll down the lake bank to visit the Tomb of Pennout, who was Nubia’s chief administrator during the rule of Ramses VI.
And on the way to join the launch for the return trip to the Eugenie, you could, if you so desired, have your picture taken holding a baby (2-1/2 foot long) Nile croc (with mouth firmly clamped shut). “Cute” would not be the right word to use for this baby, but the picture would probably only set you back LE5 in baksheesh for the privilege!
My Eugenie orientation tour was scheduled for later that morning so I thought I’d pop back to the cabin for a quick shower. THIS time on my bed was a hissing COBRA! The snake displayed all the ferocity a cobra could who was constructed from towels…the eyes and spitting tongue had been contributed by the rose bouquet I’d received from Ahmed, our Flywell representative in Aswan when we landed…petals for the eyes and a sprig of baby’s breath for the spitting part. Azza got an enormous Nile crocodile which gave her QUITE a start when she opened her door. Bet it takes the staff not more than 5 minutes to make these up and that performance is something I’d love to see in action!!
Joining our guide for the boat tour we visited the Health Club, Doctor’s Office, Turkish Bath and Sauna with showers and bathroom, all on the lowest deck. The boat is powered by three 150 hp engines and there are 2 generators in use with a third as backup. It was the absolute cleanest boat Engine Room I’d ever seen and clearly the engineering staff was proud to show it off. We went up to the Bridge and met the captain who was the original Eugenie captain from its inaugural voyage in 1993…and has for some 25 years been sailing Lake Nasser and the Nile. The boat cruises at 15 knots and top speed is around 20 knots. It draws 2 meters (I put these details in for any boat enthusiasts.) For more non-boating guests, the key point is that Lake Nasser is a very calm sail and for the most part, the boat is very quiet. The best cabin location is forward (away from the engines of course) and there are two suites. The Eugenie can accommodate triple occupancy but only on the lowest deck…there are 4 decks altogether. When we toured the kitchen (which is always fascinating to see how storage and prep area can all fit and turn out phenomenal meals for one hundred plus guests in such a confined space) we were very impressed with the hygiene and overall cleanliness. There were nine cooks working to assemble lunch.
Back up on the top deck we slowed as we approached Kasr Ibrim (the site, not the sister ship). This “tour” was conducted from the deck as the captain skillfully maneuvered us close to and around the site. Kasr Ibrim is an active British archaeological dig and entry is not permitted. Most of the artifacts are still underwater here at this once critical military outpost and what you can see above ground is the remnants of a centuries old church.
In the distance you can just make out the equipment and construction towers of the new dam/canal project to bring water and power to the Western Desert. The canal will be 100 km long and was begun in 1992…schedule to finish (“Insha’allah”) in 2017.
Lunch was another lovely buffet with more of my favorite Nile perch, lightly fried this time and succulent, plus kotfa meatballs, chicken, sushi (SUSHI!!) and all sorts of amazing salads. Yes, in case you ever wondered, honeydew melon does go very well with anchovies!! Very creative chefs, and having seen their workspace, made their creativity all the more remarkable. One of the English couples had booked the big suite, L’Imperice, and graciously invited us to see it. It’s all the way far forward, just below the bridge and is sizable, with décor fitting the Empress Eugenie’s period. There’s a huge bath with jacuzzi tub, wrap-around deck for private sunning, dining room and sitting room, besides the large bedroom I will absolutely keep the suite in mind for the future.
At around 3:00 PM we made the approach to Abu Simbel. With great ceremony music filled the sun deck as we all crowded with our cameras for the best shots. The music (a nice touch, I thought) started as a solemn yet heroic theme (visions of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea filled my brain) and progressed to a sweet Italian love song. At the conclusion we quickly assembled for the short boat ride to the mainland. It was a glorious day and everyone seemed to have been impressed with the Abu Simbel approach. I know I was and this was my 4th time to see these monuments…the first, though, approaching by cruiser.
There are about 100 steps up from the landing to the site and the English group reconvened at the top to hear Magti’s comprehensive description of what we would see in the interiors of both temples. (Guides are not permitted in the interiors…too much congestion.) And again, there are so many excellent descriptions of both the Ramses temple and the Nefertari temple elsewhere that I won’t repeat those here. But I will say that this was my first visit to Abu Simbel in the afternoon and WHAT A DIFFERENCE not having to endure the crush of morning crowds makes! There were maybe 100 visitors on this afternoon…compared to the usual 2000 in the morning. Since Egypt Air does not offer convenient flights to fly in/out on the same afternoon, my suggestion would be that if you have a great interest in spending more private time at the monuments it’s best to either incorporate this cruise OR fly into Abu Simbel and plan on spending the night here. You’ll have the monuments virtually to yourself until the site closes (around 5:30 in the winter). I was just amazed that in two of the Ramses temple antechambers I was totally along for more than 5 minutes!
The Sound & Light Performance, which is not automatically included…I did take it in as I had never seen it, began promptly at 6:00 PM…following sunset at around 5:45. (And no, the sunset pictures I took did not turn out as nicely as I’d hoped.) The program is short…about 35 minutes, but entertaining, weaving both the Ramses story and his great love for Nefertari with the phenomenal tale of how the site was moved to save it from the encroaching Lake. The current location for Abu Simbel is about 65 meters higher and the orientation (so that the rising sun will illuminate the Holy of Holies on Ramses’ birthday) was almost perfectly recaptured. The Karnak Sound & Light is still my favorite but this was enjoyable…and if you’re overnight in Abu Simbel, it is THE thing to do.
Back to the boat we went, arriving around 7:00 PM. I met up with Azza, who had not come on the Abu Simbel excursion, and we returned to our cabins. Azza had not been in her cabin for some hours (cell service returns in Abu Simbel and there were many calls waiting for her)…and let out a small shriek when she opened her door. Hanging in the doorway was a HUGE and perfect orangutan…while the creator of the beast was lolling about in the hallway just to get her reaction. He was NOT disappointed!! My bed was graced with a swan, elegant in her towel-clad form…but honestly the ape took the cake!
We met Magti in the lounge before dinner and he explained tomorrow’s departure procedure: bags out at 7:15 and departure prompted at 8:00 by bus to the airport. (This gives the Eugenie about 4 hours to get ship shape for the Monday-Friday return sailing north to Aswan.). All of the English-speaking group were on the same flight…the 9:15 AM to Aswan, continuing on to Cairo. We enjoyed our last delicious buffet, and our last evening and night of Eugenie ambiance. And when we all compared notes the other guests who had also taken a Nile cruise were far more impressed on every account with the Lake Nasser experience. I would have to concur.
NOTES: Take along good shoes for walking in sand. The shop on board has very competitive prices on silver jewelry, not so much on gold, but they’re in the ballpark. I had 3 silver cartouches made and they were done overnight and they were perfect. The boat travels with a doctor who is on call 24 hours. At dinner a small bottle of Egyptian wine (2 glasses worth) was priced at LE27, and sparkling water was LE15 (beverages are not included). At the conclusion, your guide will discuss tipping guidelines and procedures with you and this is an excellent idea. Vegetarians or any special diet can be accommodated with advance notice. And as I mentioned, there’s no cell reception for most of the sail (except for about ½ hour at Kasr Ibrim) until you reach Abu Simbel. Was this the absolute nicest boat journey I’ve ever had. Absolutely.