Thursday, 6 March 2008

Boat people

boat journey along the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, stopping off for a gentle temple trip or two along the way should be a leisurely affair.It sounds enchanting, entrancing and to use the rejuvenated jargon that’s once again full in fashion, totally cool.

The reality though couldn’t be further removed from the theory.

The Nile is a virtual fluvial motorway and in peak season you can count on crossing another boat teeming with tourists heading in the other direction roughly every five minutes.

The river is awash with traffic – around 300 cruisers in total – and innumerable falloukas for hire as well as local boats. With an average of 70 cabins for each cruiser and 2 people per cabin – you do the maths as to how many holidaymakers are taking the three-or-five day trips at any one time. And each port of call of course quickly resembles an ancient civilised bun fight to see who can get to the temple door first.

It all means that tour guides have to run the tightest of possible ships. It’s made more complicated not only by the sheer number of tourists, but also the mix of nationalities.

“Line ‘em up, pack ‘em in and send ‘em off” seems to be the unspoken dynamic behind visiting Egypt’s ancient treasures along the Nile. Conveyer belt tourism at its very best.

Take just a typical day on board. The wake-up call, courtesy of front desk, is at six o’clock for a briefing 45 minutes later. And then it’s a rapid route march off to the Kom Ombo temple.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other early risers, it’s like opening day at some sort of ornithological January sales, as mother goose guides jostle to the front and hope somehow their goslings will be able to waddle together obediently in their wake.

First of the mark – and forgive the cliché – are of course the Germans. Maybe they’re not actually the first through the door but they’re certainly the fastest around the site as they ferociously gobble up culture at a furious rate. Schumacher brothers eat your hearts out.

The French aren’t far behind, although they seem to do it much more intellectually and take the sophisticated approach of actually listening to what the guide is saying.

The Russians show little interest apart from striking gum-chewing poses in front of walls of stunning hieroglyphics, whose monetary value they could well be trying to assess, as well as the price for shipping the lot back home.

The Chinese are ecstatic if their excited chatter is anything to go by, and are big hits with the hawkers peddling their wares as they shop insatiably. Next up are the Italians, their guide rattling off the centuries of history one-hundred-to-the-dozen and as with all groups camera shutters are working overtime.

Finally in the morning melee are the Anglophones. The Americans looked just a little dazed by the whole experience – and who can blame them, while the British, probably nursing a hangover from too much of the local tipple the night before, trumpet loudly that they’re all “templed out”. Vive le cliché indeed.

Yes this is mass tourism at its very best and worst. Egypt could surely teach the United Nations a thing or two. The doors have been open barely two hours. The first groups are through and the second “sitting” is ready.

Back on board for a quick breakfast as the boat slides through the film of fuel that has been belched out over the years to give the Nile its distinctive hue and then it’s rendez vous at eleven hundred hours for another briefing before disembarking for the next manic two-hour temple trot.

This pace is relentless and sometimes remorseless. On a previous day, one poor tour group had had prised themselves out of bed at 2.30am for a trip to Abu Simbel – which can only be reached by strictly scheduled convoy. They returned exhausted at 8.00pm, shovelled away a quick meal and than collapsed into bed for yet another early start the following day.

Undoubtedly Egypt needs the tourists and the currency they bring in, but there’s an awful lot to take in. The history, and its documentation are glorious even if some of the stories are quite preposterous – along the lines of “Pharaoh marries mother, has daughter, bumps off mother to be with daughter, who is also his half sister” sort of thing. So basically the stuff for which any modern day soap opera script writer would be laughed off screen.

Perhaps if the organised boat tours along the Nile concentrated more on quality than quantity there would be a little more time to appreciate truly what marvellous treasures this country has. But that’s just not going to happen, as it’s the push to get as many punters as possible through the doors that takes precedence. The philistine might of course say that it’s “up before dawn’s crack to visit yet another pile of ancient stones.” But that would be a far from fair evaluation. To give them their due, the guides are not only knowledgeable and professional, but they also have an enthusiasm, which quickly becomes infectious.

Maybe the best advice to anyone wanting to dabble in the delights of Egyptology without knowing quite where to begin, would be to give the boat trips a wide berth. Stay in town, and pick and choose your guided tour carefully and at your own pace.

After all there’s so much to see, you’re never going to able to “do” it all.

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