I love Cairo, but Cairo is choked by cars. The secret is to take to the Nile. The usual method is to hire a felucca (a wooden sailing boat) with a man to sail it. But feluccas don’t go very far, and some bridges are too low to allow them to pass.
Foreigners aren’t encouraged to take their own boats along the Nile without official protection; I didn’t want that sort of interest in my little cruise.
The secret was to find a boat that was invisible: a stealth craft, and what could be more invisible than something as silly and innocuous as a beach toy? My beach raft, which cost about £20, was about 9ft long, with rubber rowlocks and enough room for two — one at each end. I had two tiny oars to row with. My pal, the writer D’Arcy Adrian-Vallance, was happy to keep watch and cradle our only rations — a water bottle and some biscuits. We inflated the toy boat at a garage in Maadi — about six miles upstream from the centre of Cairo — and we launched from the jetty next to TGI Friday’s.
Quickly, we were midstream and travelling fast with the current. Throughout its length, the Nile is never sluggish — it is a young river still, or feels it. No, that isn’t right, it’s a virile river, it knows its own mind. There’s nothing sleepy about it.
I’m always surprised at how little floating garbage there is in the Nile in Cairo. You’d think it would be veritable cloaca. No, the Nile is a clean river, cleaner now there’s a sewage system taking city waste far out into the desert to be treated. I looked down and saw no fish, although I’ve spotted them in shoals before. I rowed on, feeling blissfully happy. D’Arcy dangled his fingers in the water as we streamed along with it, riding the 5mph current taking us towards the centre of Cairo.
We were at the tip of a big island known as Geziret Bahrein (which you can only get to by boat), when children began shouting and waving to us. You never get that on the mainland, where there are too many foreigners walking around for it to be a novelty. We passed a little beach where women were washing giant aluminium cooking pots. Boys dived in to swim to us but, as if adhering to some kind of natural etiquette, they kept their distance from our ludicrous little craft, although their faces were beaming — all wet heads and white teeth.
We declined all invitations to land and rowed on past a huge, two-masted sandal (sailing boat) whose sides were overflowing with freshly cut reeds. It looked like an enormous floating haystack. Special boards — grey and worn — were fixed to the gunnels to raise the ship’s sides. This meant the reeds reached right up to the bottom of the sails. There was no engine on the craft and the rudder was especially massive; hewn, it seemed, from timbers a foot thick, with a great arching tiller arm, like the bough of a tree. Men, half hidden by the high reeds, called out to us, laughing. It seemed we’d found the ideal way to travel into Cairo.
Not 300 yards away was the infamous Corniche, a racetrack along the Nile’s bank where it’s not uncommon to see a car in a tree — that’s how dangerous it can get. On the Corniche you’re often undertaken by a car going 100mph while being overtaken by one going about 90. I’m not surprised foreigners decide to hug the slow lane, come what may, although it does put you nearer to the trees. And the river. Which is obviously the best place to be.
We drifted on past more islands. The force of the current drew us towards the enormous fountain, midstream in front of the bar in the Grand Nile Hotel. The fountain was off, but river water piled past the concrete base — which is like something you might build a lighthouse on. We noticed a small maintenance ladder, which we grabbed hold of. In such a small craft, the scale of the world seems changed, as if we were Borrowers scurrying around a giant’s world.
Finally, we arrived at the cultivated market gardens stretching along one edge of Zamalek island, opposite Tahrir Square. There are similar gardens all along the Nile. Any patch of earth near a water supply gets turned into a bed growing something. When they burned the police huts down during the revolution only the gardens next to them were left unscathed.
We pulled out the boat. Deflated it. Put it on the roof of a hailed taxi and drove back to Maadi in half an hour. It was early but the Corniche was already heaving with traffic.
Robert Twigger’s latest book, Red Nile – a Biography of the World’s Greatest River, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. roberttwigger.com
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Travelller (UK)