The Nile River is like a highway carving though Egypt's desert, with many of the great sights of the ancient world along its banks. Although there's only really one route to travel there are many different ways to journey down the Nile.
The Nile bed is wide and sandy, and in some places quite flat, and the tradition sailing boats: the dahabiya, felucca and sandals, with their tall, graceful sails and bows lying low in the water, have been perfectly designed for these conditions. In the 19th Century paddle steamers, invented for use in the similar conditions, started running the waters amongst the sailing ships, but these days yachts and other pleasure crafts have joined the graceful, floating procession.
A dahabiya is recommended if you're renting a boat rather than booking a whole cruise package. Most often you rent them with a crew and share with a small group of other guests, but some companies will allow you to rent them un-crewed. The wide flat decks of dahabiyas are a perfect space for meals and picnics under the desert stars. This is similar to how the Pharaohs travelled.
The most common Nile itineraries spend four or five days on the river sailing, or floating, between Aswan and Luxor, but there are packages that journey all the way into Cairo, taking up to 12 days. If you're sailing yourself you can take all the time in the world - this is the eternal river after all. Sailors would say there's no real decision when it comes to travelling upriver or downriver – downriver will be smoother and slightly quicker, even if you're in a powered vessel, so you'll have more time on land exploring the sites and sights. Travelling downstream you start at Aswan dam, which you can fly to out of Cairo, and finish your journey in Luxor.
The city of Aswan is a fusion of African and Egyptian culture, art, architecture and design, and is cleaner and less overwhelming than Cairo. Before you meet up with your craft it's a good idea to take a day trip out to Abu Simbel.
Arriving at Abu Simbel by camel caravan would be nice, but if you don’t have time to really play Pharaoh, you can fly or take a tour bus the 300 kilometres southwest from Aswan. Abu Simbel's two temples, carved magnificently out of the rosy orange cliffs, are a fantastic taster for what’s coming. If you take a guided visit your guide is sure to tell you the whole thing had to be cut up and moved, block by block, about 200metres back from the river when the dam was built.
The Unfinished Obelisk is another local highlight worth seeing before you board, and if you have a spare afternoon it's worth using it to visit Elephantine Island. German archaeologists have been excavating and testing Elephantine's ruins for a hundred years, but for the most part have had no luck. The Aswan Museum, found at the entrance of the island, has some interesting facts and relics, dating back to the Predynastic times. After leaving Aswan, some boats take a quick visit to the island of Philae, but you may want to visit it before boarding if you itinerary doesn't allow for it.
One of the main stops on most Nile trips is Kom Ombo, for the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, which has beautifully tactile looking carved stone columns. Temples don't usually share their tribute between two gods, but this one is built with a unique double design that provides courts, halls and sanctuaries for both gods. Sobek, the crocodile god of fertility and one of the key players in the creation of the world has the southern half, and Haroeris, who might be more recognisable under his other name 'Horus the Elder' has the north wing. The design of the temple is very fair – it's perfectly symmetrical. The Chapel of Hathor is a highlight of the temple complex; it contains the mummified remains of hundreds of crocodiles in clay coffins.
At Edfu there's a more famous temple to Horus, the falcon god: it's the best preserved temple in Egypt, and it's also the second largest after Karnak. The ruins of the ancient settlement of Edfu are only about 50m west of the temple, and include the foundations of several pyramids.
Many boats also call at Esna for the silt covered - or sunken as it’s often called - Temple of Khnum, but it's only 50kms south of Luxor, so some tours skip it in lieu of the main event. The modern town has built up around this temple, which is one of the last temples to have been built by the ancient Egyptians, a contemporary building to those of the Greek and Roman periods.
This Nile side city built over the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes is the like the world’s greatest open air Egyptian Museum. The ruins of the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand within the boundaries of the modern city. In their hey-day these temples weren't places of worship in the way we know today, they were considered the 'abodes of the gods' – places that only priests and members of the nobility could go – but these days this is one of the most important, and famous, archaeological sites in the world and on the to-do list of many hundreds of travellers. Across the river are the many tombs of the Valleys of the Kings and Queens and a vast necropolis. The sheer number of visit-worth sites – which also includes the Luxor Museum – means it's almost sacrilege not to allow several days in Luxor.
What many Nile travellers don't anticipate is that as well as the world of ancient Egypt they're also going to experience something of modern Egypt.The thin strip of cultivated land on either side of the Nile is some of Egypt's very limited arable land, so there's a lot of rural activity taking place along the banks:white-galabiya-dressed farmers work their small fields with animal-pulled wooden plows in the same way as their ancestors did. When you're walking amongst these temple pillars and see the Nile beyond, lined with working farmers, the true historic weight of this journey is apparent.
Life on board isn't as leisured and luxurious as an Agatha Christie novel. The desert is pretty impossible during the middle of the day, especially for people not used to it, so itineraries have to time temple visits for the mornings or afternoons. If you can manage it, mornings are generally less crowded.
October through February are the best months to travel to Egypt. The sand storms start up in late March and it's too hot to travel though the middle of the year.
The Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Museums, the Nile, Aswan... the difficulty with travelling around Egypt is what you'll have to miss!
Sun, blue sea, spectacular coastlines, and those pretty villages - Greek Island Hopping ticks all boxes.