Bargain agreed, my new friend and I make our way down the steep bank to the Nile. Three small boys hurry across to us and one offers me a ride on his bike which I decline with a smile. As quickly as they appeared they rush back down the bank and help to pull a small boat ashore. It is only at this point that I realise that, once again, the ‘felucca’ that is being referred to is a rowing boat and that this inconspicuous craft is what we would be circumnavigating the islands of the Nile in. For a moment I wonder if I am going to be getting value for money. Soon after we have cast off, however, I stop wondering and lose myself in this most peaceful way of exploring this beautiful place. Face to face in the little boat we introduce ourselves by name. Nasir is an excellent guide, pointing things out as we pass with the obvious pride of someone introducing you to their home rather than with the indifference of the tourist tout.
Nasir is soon telling me that a rowing boat is a much better way of exploring the river than under sail, and he is right. We can take our time, stop where we want, get up close to things. From the low vantage point of this small boat the granite rocks which emerge from the mirror-like water are dramatic elements in a landscape of contrasting elements – water, rock, sand and sky – around which a fringe of trees makes the perfect frame.
Soon we are approaching Botanical island, otherwise known as Kitchener’s, having been presented to Lord Kitchener by the Egyptian government as a reward for his services in the campaign in Sudan (1896-98). The landing point at the north end of the island is overhung with impressive foliage, some crimson flowers contrasting with the various shades of green. Nasir drops me off on some slimey rocks before we get caught up in the crowd of feluccas gathering at the steps and tells me he will pick me up in half an hour. I climb up the stone-terraced embankment, buy my ticket at the kiosk, doing my best to elude the attentions of the persistent young Nubians selling trinkets, and make my way along a path between high trees where I stop at a bench and take some refreshment.
In truth the botanical specimens – however impressive – do not detain me for long as the real glory of this island is the views it affords of the west bank of the Nile. They are truly heart-stopping, a landscape pregnant with promise and yearning, and to complement it a heron stands patiently on a rock midstream. Downstream, away from the sun, there is the stark contrast between bright blue sky and yellow sand; upstream, towards the great piles of granite that make up the First Cataract, all is sparkles and silhouettes.
When the half hour is up I meet Nasir back at the north end of the island. It is from this point on the trip that he truly ‘earns his corn’ and I realise the extraordinary feat he is undertaking as he rows the two of us around the islands, in and out of little coves, sometimes working against the swirling current. It becomes increasingly apparent that the fifty-Egyptian-pound fare will actually be a bargain. We share some details of family – his roots on the island of Elephantine that we are presently circling; something of politics (the close involvement of presidents Sadat and Mubarak in the area). When I tell him I have written a book on Egypt his smile becomes broader and from now on I am “Dr Tim”. He tells me about friends he has made who live in Oxford, England, and of his numerous European acquaintances who have houses on Elephantine.
On many of the granite rocks we pass, white egrets are perched; on one, one of the small boys we met earlier. This is an enchanting landscape of lush palm groves, papyrus stands, rocky inlets and the white sails of feluccas. In one bay is an elaborate castellated structure which Nasir tells me is a particularly fine example of a sakia, the traditional water wheel worked by buffaloes since ancient times.
As we turn the corner of the most southerly of the islands we approach one of the most famous landmarks of Aswan, the Old Cataract Hotel which featured prominently in the film Death on the Nile. On the rocks below it horizontal bands can be made out marking different historical water levels. Nasir explains to me how at this time of year the water is low and how since the building of the High Dam the levels of the river are varied according to the needs of different crops, such as rice, downstream. For the first time in this country I really get a sense of the Egyptians as a people – from here to the Mediterranean – united by this great river, despite all ethnic, social and religious differences and as I look down I find myself momentarily mesmerised by its crystal clear water.