Egypt presents an ancient past that is full of intrigue and wonder. As the old adage says, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile” and it sure is with a cruise along this marvellous river. It’s as timeless of a journey as it was in the late 18th century.
Despite the political turmoil, savvy travellers are seizing the opportunity to visit well-known and secret temples and tombs. While there was a time when there were easily 350 boats cruising the Nile, numbers have dwindled down to 60 which makes it the perfect opportunity to visit with no crowds.
From the moment we were greeted by the banks of the Nile in Aswan and all the way throughout the 3 day journey downstream to Esna, being aboard Djed Egypt’s The Orient was most magical experience during my entire time in Egypt.
So what is a Dahabiya? In Arabic, it literally means ‘the golden one’ and is essentially a large sailing boat with two large lateen sails. Think of it as a house-boat. In its heyday, archeologists, wealthy adventurers travelled through Egypt along the Nile in these very same boats just as the ancient Egyptians did. Today, these are 19th century replicas of the original boats but you wouldn’t be able to tell because being onboard will literally transform you to that golden age of travel.
While the winds were not strong enough to carry us downstream from South to North, a small tugboat pulled us along at a snail crawl’s pace – the perfect speed.
The minute you step aboard you immediate sense that you jumping into a time forgotten with its mix of elegance and old world glamour. Authentic period wallpapers line the bedroom, furniture and artifacts come from an antique shop, shiny metals can barely be found, and there’s barely an trace of modern technology beyond the air condition which you’re happy to have at night.
This large awkward shaped vessel has a top deck which is perfectly designed for lounging and relaxing. It’s here where you’ll be eating all your meals. It’s also here where you can hang out in a hammock in the shade, reading a book ancient Egyptian history from the library below, hang out along the railings to watch the unpredictable sights that come from the fertile lands that line the famous river, or grab a beach chair and lounge under the sun.
Down below, Dahabiya’s such as The Orient only contain five cabins. Yes you read that correctly, even at maximum capacity, these boats can only carry 10 passengers. That’s a wonderful thing because what you get is a truly private experience.
The best part is perhaps the crew that runs the ship. From deckhands, the captain, and chef to your own Egyptologist, everything feels like a custom tailored experience that is meant to impress. Every member of your crew is at your service the entire time and you barely have to lift a finger. And then you have the onboard Egyptologist. If there’s one thing that truly made this cruise so amazing, I would say it’s because of Abdulla’s encyclopedia of knowledge of ancient Egypt combined with his ability to communicate complex stories, and infectious energy and enthusiasm.
There’s the food of course which were both authentic and delicious. There was never a moment when I felt hungry and there was always a good variety of food for everyone.
Footage of what made Egypt so awesome
The Full Nile Experience
What makes the cruise so thrilling is the fact that you truly get to see a part of Egypt that isn’t accessible any other way. From the morning when you wake up to the morning sounds of being moored by a local farmer’s water buffalos, your senses start absorbing a symphony of sights.
There’s life aboard the ship where you never know what you’re going to see. Ropes creak as the skipper pulls the giant rudder in place. Fishermen float by casting out nets. Horses take a peek up before going back to munching on the grass. The pace is peaceful and idyllic, with the river breeze flowing through and the sun beating brightly.
That is just the beginning of course because the main event are the planned excursions everyday. Accompanied by your Egyptologist, you get to visit temples, tombs, quarries, and villages that are practically only accessible by boat. Excitement courses your veins when you get to see hieroglyphs carved on stone walls, remnants of paintings of stories long forgotten, and full tombs of nobles very few have seen. It’s in this moment that you understand why archeologists have been fascinated with Egypt for centuries.
Throughout it all, Abdulla for us was indispensable to our sponge of excitement. With clipboard, paper, and sharpie in hand, he gave us all the background, anecdotes, stories, and deciphering of hieroglyphs to give us a very coherent picture of what we were seeing. Without our Egyptologist, we might as well have been mummies walking through empty corridors. You know you’re not going to remember most of what he says but in the moment, you really do feel the locations come to life as you get a better understanding of the people and culture. You also come away with the feeling of just how advanced the civilization truly was.
And you know what the beauty of it all is? You barely encounter a large crowd anywhere you go. Only years ago, sights along the Nile were overloaded with tourists but because of the political turmoil, most of these places that you do visit are all but deserted. Safety is also not even close to being a concern as the local farmers couldn’t be bothered with the affairs of the capital and there is also a visible security presence.
Highlights of the Itinerary
Kom Ombo Temple
As the first stop on any cruise itinerary going from the South to the North, pay your respects to a temple that pays homage to crocodiles and the crocodile god Sobek. As a double temple, it is also devoted to Horus, the Falcon God and son of Isis. It’s not a large temple but for us it was a great introductory temple to learn about King Ptolemy’s dynasty.
Sandstone Quarry of Gebel el-Silsila
It’s surprising to say but I was probably the most impressed with the morning of our second day where we were moored at one of the few sites along the river that provided the stones used in all of the major temples and tombs. Walking through the quarry, we learned about the slaves that worked there and could see the full scope of the operation there with remnants of half cut stone and marks from chisels.
Local Village Life
A nice change of pace is the chance to stretch your legs and walk through a few small local villages throughout the cruise. There’s no tourist sights here but it gives you a true picture of life in the countryside where palm and mango trees thrive and there’s plenty to live off of thanks to the giver of life, the Nile.
Temple of Edfu
The star attraction along the cruise is definitely this enormous structure in the town of Edfu. As one of the best-preserved of all temples in Egypt, this Temple of Horus is plain impressive. From miles away you can spot the 36 meter high pylon which acts as a gateway. Beyond, there’s the courtyard, antechambers, halls, and shrine to explore. The main hall is perhaps the most interesting with 12 columns and walls decorated with reliefs of the temple’s founding.
In the ancient town of Nekheb, there is a significant archaeological site along the nile where you get to explore remains of temples and tombs cut right into the cliff. Having not done The Valley of the Kings yet, I found this to be fascinating despite being for lesser known princes, priests, and generals.
Dahabiya As The Best Way To See Egypt
Having done it myself, I can’t see how you can do a trip to Egypt without cruising the River Nile. Sure there are the big sights like the Great Pyramids, Luxor, and Abu Simbel but there’s something to be said for the tranquility of the Nile.
- Being a smaller vessel, you’re able to moor in places that the bigger cruisers can’t stop
- Intimate and private experience
- Practically personal Egyptologists where you don’t have to be afraid to ask questions. You are in control of what you want to learn
- This may change when tourism picks back up again but there are less crowds to deal with
- Walk through small villages which you normally don’t get to do in the larger tours
The Backstory of How I Went
I had just come from an exhausting National Geographic-like adventure in Ethiopia that opened my eyes to incredible experiences like the Donga and countless number untouched tribes but a certain amount of fatigue set in, food poisoning had gotten the best of me, and my travel companion and I were ready to divert from our previous plans of hiking through the Simien Mountains. Deep down I was kind of glad.
In our last days of Ethiopia, we made drastic changes to our itinerary, cancelling old flight plans and booking new ones. With our 3G connection on our phones, Steve did almost all of the replanning with his reward wizardry and research. The question was, “where can we go from Ethiopia?” There were a lot of options with routing options galore but when we looked at all of them, the one place that really stuck out was Egypt. Sure there was some bad press there but since when has that stopped me right?
When Steve walked us through his plan and told me there’s a chance we can make it work to detour from Arba Minch in Ethiopia up to Cairo via Addis Ababa, and that we’d be able to connect that with a flight southwards to Aswan to catch this cruise along the Nile, I was ecstatic.
Last Minute Travel Hacking
Last minute flight changes feel scary but with a few flight searches and calls, we were able to grab seats quite easily. Here’s what we did.
The way that the zones are divided in Africa, Egypt is actually considered to be a different zone from Ethiopia. Understanding this, we hacked a crazy fare together which took us from Arba Minch -> Addis Ababa -> Cairo -> Addis Ababa -> Johannesburg. The trick of course is that Johannesburg is part of the same African zone as Ethiopia (hence domestic so to speak) and we just never took the flights going down to South Africa.
This cost 35,000 United MileagePlus Miles and $64.80 USD.
Things To Know Before You Go
Yellow Fever: There are no Yellow Fever warnings for the country itself but they will most definitely check if you come from one. Despite Ethiopia not checking for Yellow Fever certificate, I am sure glad I had it because it was one of the first things they asked after we got off the plane.
Entry Visa: Before going through customs, you have to pay to get your entry visa. The strange part of this is that the instructions aren’t particularly clear. It took me awhile but eventually I saw a few booths run by banks/foreign exchange it seemed and this is where you pay for your visa. It costs $25 USD so I would say it’s useful to have USD but if not they will always do the conversion for you.
SIM Cards: After you pick up your bags at T3, you’ll see a number of cell phone company booths. I settled on Etisalat where I was able to purchase a SIM and credit for 95 EGP (a littler over $5 USD). This is probably the easiest place to get a SIM card so I recommend doing it in Cairo.
Sleeping at Cairo International Airport: Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to get a hotel and you have to make the tough call to rough it out at the airport. If you’re lucky and you have a connecting flight you can stay airside (inside part of the airport) but if you’re like us where you have separate flight tickets, you have to pick up your bags and sleep landside (public area of the terminal). If you’re in the main T3, there’s not going to be a really comfortable place to sleep besides standard chairs with armrests. If you take a look at Sleeping In Airports, they say that in T3, Level 3 (landside) and Zone H as having a lot of lightly padded benches. Also good to know that they will tell you that security to get into the check in counters opens at 4:30AM but it was more like just past 5AM when they actually did.
Mosquitos: If there’s one thing I could nitpick, it’d be the flies and mosquitoes that were in the room at night. The solution is what they do is fumigate the entire room so by the time we get back to the room, all of them die. Problem is, because there are so many of them, they just kind of fall to the ground. Knowing this, every night I made sure all of my things were under the sheets or zipped inside my bag. I know the bugs are hard to control because of the season and where the boat is moored but I would’ve appreciated a vacuum of the room.
What’s included and what’s extra: All meals are included but beverages are extra including beer but it is all quite cheap. Tips are extra as well. All admission included.
Costs: At the time, it cost $570 USD + 40 EGP for crew tips + 30 EGP for Abdulla + 120 EGP for beverages. Current rates here.