The alarm rang out: ‘Pirates at 2 o’clock!’ We were under attack as our ship M/S River Tosca made her stately progress down the Nile.
Of all the hazards flagged up on our journey to discover Ancient Egypt – never drink the water, beware dodgy hygiene, pack medicine for upset tummies, avoid unscrupulous taxi drivers, harassing hawkers and political protests – piracy was not on the list.
But here were two buccaneers on Africa’s mighty waterway, intercepting our craft, lashing their motorboat to our starboard side, yelling orders and lobbing missiles.
The raiders meant business – retail business. ‘Buy our robes, good price. Buy our towels, real Egyptian cotton,’ shouted the dogged duo. With admirable accuracy they threw their wares up four storeys to our sun deck.
Their ‘intelligence’ was spot on. Tonight was our gala dinner when we were invited to go Egyptian. And these sailing salesmen had just the right kaftans in black and gold, green and turquoise, scarlet and silver, embroidered and embellished and perfect for partying.
Let the haggling begin. ‘What’s your best price?’ ‘Ten US dollars.’ ‘No, too much.’ ‘100 Egyptian pounds.’ After much mid-river bartering deals were sealed, currency despatched in weighted bags and the entrepreneurial pirates of the Nile untied their boat and headed for shore.
‘That was the best shopping experience ever,’ laughed one satisfied customer, a local government finance officer from Florida who looked the real deal in her new black and silver party outfit.
The party was one of many ‘attractions’ on board. While the whirling dervish and belly dancer were an acquired taste, the food was tip-top and the accommodation palatial with huge bed, full-size bath and wide windows for each cabin. You could swim in a pool on the sun deck or take yoga sessions.
And to compensate for all those early morning excursions I plumped for a relaxing full-body Nefertari massage fit for a queen in the ship’s spa.
This was an extraordinary time to be visiting Egypt, whose key tourist industry has been decimated by political turmoil since the 2011 uprising. We were on the first Insight Vacations trip since 2013 when the company was forced to pull out of the area. Foreign Office advice meant insurers were unwilling to underwrite the risk.
Egypt was not alone with her troubles. Syria, Nigeria and Pakistan were all simmering. Just as we flew to Cairo, Paris exploded with the deadly attacks on the kosher supermarket and satirical magazine offices.
‘Je Suis Charlie,’ proclaimed a poster strung up on another ship steaming up the Nile. Australia and Canada and much of Western Europe were all on heightened alert as security forces in Belgium foiled an imminent attack. Today’s global terrorism respects no boundaries.
Our focus, however, was riveted to Egypt’s past, her myths, treasures and achievements stretching back over millennia to 3000 BC. This is the fabled land of kings, queens and gods – Rameses, Nefertari, Ptolemy, Tutankhamen – and we trod in the footsteps of so many figures seduced by Egypt, from Napoleon and Florence Nightingale to Agatha Christie.
Her Hercule Poirot detective novel, Death on the Nile, was set here. So how could we resist taking cucumber sandwiches, chocolate éclairs and Earl Grey tea at sunset on the terrace of an hotel which informed her book.
Leading our journey past the Pharaohs and Pyramids, the mummies and monolithic statues of the gods, the enigmatic Sphinx, the tombs and artefacts of Tutankhamun, exploring gloomy tombs, wondering at the sophistication of architecture and construction, deciphering the hieroglyphics was our guide and tour director Mohamed Ragheb.
Armed with a Masters in archaeology, patience, passion and humour he brought ancient history alive. I was ‘templed out’ after visiting so many: Luxor and Karnak, Queen Hatshepsut’s, Abu Simbil, Philae and Kom Ombo, but wouldn’t have missed one.
We walked the Valley of the Kings, where 63 tombs have been found deep in the Theban Hills, excavated by Pharaohs to stop robbers stealing their treasures. Burial chambers are richly decorated with symbols of their journey through the afterlife and their colours remain vibrant.
We were dwarfed by the Colossi of Memnon and the Pyramids of Sakkara and Giza. Their grandeur and power put the modern works of the Aswan damn into perspective.
Cairo was our base at the beginning and end of the trip, and is not for the faint-hearted driver or pedestrian. Traffic rules have been ditched to accommodate a population and vehicle explosion. Seven lines squeeze into roads constructed for three. Traffic lights have been ditched in favour of drivers navigating their own way through orderly chaos. A half hour journey could take six times as long to our oasis of calm: the Marriott hotel, built as Gezirah Palace in 1869 by Khedive Ismail, founder of modern Egypt. It combined efficiency and charm, a mix of modern and palatial opulence and happy to welcome business visitors and tourists alike.
Fellow travellers on our trip included a Mexican family, baby-boomers from Canada, America, Australia and others from New Zealand and Singapore. Many had had previous bookings cancelled because of unrest and the fall-out from 9/11.
The downturn of Egypt’s tourist industry meant we enjoyed a grandstand view of all the attractions, without jostling crowds and long queues. But it also meant for each of us there were three hawkers intent on selling their wares. Or so it seemed. They were good-natured, but as persistent as mosquitoes. My best deal was swapping a hotel pen for a kitsch ballpoint.
It’s fun to barter for cheap jewellery, aromatic spices and sweet dates from a Nubian village, scarves and finest Egyptian cotton, reviving yourself with strong, sweet coffee and a chat with locals keen to see their tourist industry recover.
Insight is leading the charge. The company prides itself on taking the hassle out of trips to far-flung places: providing door-to-door chauffeur-driven transport between home and airport, easing clients through airport security and visa applications, hand picking well-located high end hotels, devising programmes that balance full-on sight-seeing with down time. And employing expert tour directors.
Mohamed was just that, from sourcing authentic cuisine and teaching us useful phrases to engaging with locals, advising on what prices to pay and when or not to tip. Group travel was new to me, but it proved fun to share experiences and feel a certain safety in numbers.
One of our most forlorn sights that illustrated Egypt’s flagging tourism was a languishing line of Nile boats docked seven abreast at Luxor, all gathering dust instead of tourists. We passed not a single cruise ship in four days aboard the M/S River Tosca.
Maybe now is the time to come aboard and embrace Egypt, her ancient treasures and the Pirates of the Nile.
Gill travelled to Egypt with Insight Vacations and Egypt Air, courtesy of the Egyptian State Tourist Office. Insight Vacations’ 8 day Wonders of Egypt trip from £1,525 per person, excluding flights, and includes 7 nights’ premium B&B accommodation, 6 additional meals, 4 day Nile Cruise, private VIP door to door airport transfers, sightseeing and the services of a professional Travel Director throughout. For information on Egypt, please visit www.egypt.travel.
Return flights from London Heathrow to Cairo with Egyptair. Fares start from £376 and can be booked at www.egyptair.com.