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In Egypt: On a Felucca


The view west from my room, Kitchener's Island on the left,
location of the botanic garden.

I arrived later than I’d planned at the Mövenpick dock and found my intended felucca captain, Hamada, already gone. A young man, Mohammed, asked if I was looking for a boat and said he could take me sailing. He introduced me to Ziggy, who’d be sailing the felucca with Mohammed’s help and though not the most professional-looking team, they seemed quite jolly and had the advantage of being there. We came to terms, then wasting no time, I was given a hand into the boat and we were off.


Ziggy, left, and Mohammed.

Our course would take us briefly north around the end of Elephantine Island, then heading south upstream, a stop at the botanic garden on adjacent Kitchener’s island (at the top of the map below), then south through islands and the Nile’s First Cataract, a swing north again and back to Elephantine, several hours on the river.

More often than not, the wind on the Nile comes from the north so sailing north against the wind requires the crew to tack, back and forth catching the breeze to head in a generally northerly direction. Rounding the top (or is it the bottom?) of Elephantine Island, the wind behind us as we turned south, we stopped almost immediately as Ziggy steered us to the dock of Kitchener’s or El Nabatat Island so I could visit Geziret En Nabata (Plant Island), the Aswan Botanical Garden.

Felucca-2 (2)That day there were more gardeners than visitors. A quiet place to stroll was what I wanted so, except for the occasional person wanting to converse, it was the perfect place for solitary contemplation. The island isn’t large, I’d been able to see the entire length of it from my balcony, 3/4 of a kilometer long and half that in width (6.8 hectares), with an office building at one end and deserted restaurant at the other.


Well-groomed with wide shady walkways, with many plants and trees labeled, I found the collection fascinating, species from all over the world. It was named after Lord Kitchener, British Consul General in Egypt (1911-1914), who was given the island and it was he who created the garden, introducing exotic trees and flowering plants to cover the entire island. Kitchener left Egypt in 1914 to become Britain’s Secretary of State for war at the start of World War I. He died in 1916 when the HMS Hampshire on which he was traveling to a mission in Russia hit a mine near the Orkney Islands. Kitchener’s Island was returned to the government of Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation, renamed the Botanical Research Institute, Aswân Botanic Island.


Below, a Nubian village on Elephantine Island, seen from the botanic garden.

Mohammed found me again at the south end of the garden where Ziggy had tied the felucca to wait for me. We set off again, past small beaches, huge boulders, the desert on the west bank with the beautiful Aga Khan Mausoleum overlooking the Nile. Then we sailed into the shallow ripples of the Nile’s First Cataract.  At that point a mechanism was engaged with a lever in the boat’s bottom and though they tried to explain it to me, I never quite understood. It seemed to have something to do with navigating through rocky shallow water and the scraping sound coming from below, I admit, was a bit startling. And, the lean of the felucca as it turned, the water rising on the low side to the edge where I sat was alarming for this non-sailor. Seeing my discomfort, Ziggy suggested I sit in the bottom, rather than on the seat built into the side. Much better.

The Aga Khan Mausoleum


Hard work, below, through the First Cataract.


We made the turn through the First Cataract between small islands just south of the 5-star Old Cataract Hotel, built on the edge of the Nile by the Thomas Cook Company in 1899. It’s hosted royalty, the famous, and the just plain wealthy. Now owned by the Sofitel chain of luxury hotels, The Old Cataract was closed for a complete renovation between 2008 and 2011. As we sailed past, I couldn’t help but admire it high above us and hope I’d have an opportunity to stay there next time.


Sailing past the 1899 Old Cataract Hotel.


Now we were sailing north again, tacking to catch the wind and it took a great deal longer to get back to Elephantine Island than it had going south. But get there we did, with a pass beyond the Mövenpick dock and a swing around to arrive neatly where we’d started. The entire adventure lasted about 4 hours and at 200 Egyptian pounds an hour for boat and crew of 2, cost about US$45, plus a tip for Ziggy, the hired captain, suggested by Mohammed, whose family owns the felucca.

Ziggy, above, up the mast tying the sail.

Looking at photos of feluccas as I wrote this week’s post, I was surprised to find that the design was not limited to sailing boats on the Nile. The photo below shows San Francisco's fishing fleet in 1891, rows of feluccas at Fisherman’s Wharf in my home town.


All episodes of 'PortMoresby in Egypt' can be found here.

And others of PortMoresby’s contributions here.


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