The more I learned about the Nile, the less forbidding it seemed. I had so often imagined rowing on the Nile that doing so had begun to feel less like a fantasy and more like a memory that only wanted its corresponding action rightfully exercised.
Two years after my first visit, I returned to Egypt, determined to find a boat and make my trip on the Nile. In an effort to acquaint myself with the stretch of the river that I was interested in rowing, I once again spent four days on the deck of a cruise ship, traveling - this time from Luxor to Aswan - with a pair of binoculars pressed to my face, examining every island and shoal, observing the currents, trying to gauge the swiftness of the river's flow, watching fishermen at sunrise laying their nets. When rowing upriver, the fishermen hugged the shore, where the current was less intense and occasionally even eddied in reverse. Their boats sat low in the water, were flat bottomed, were made of steel, were on average twelve to fourteen feet long and three feet wide, and were roughly the shape of a Turkish slipper, narrowed at both ends but slightly higher and finer at the bow. As oars they used long, coarse, bladeless planks that resembled nothing so much as clapboards ripped from the face of a derelict house. They used not the U-shaped metal oarlocks I was accustomed to, but vertical pegs of wood or steel to which the immense oars were lashed with a length of prickly twine. The current never appeared swift enough to vex or deter these fishermen. They maneuvered their boats with breathtaking precision and finesse, making sudden one-hundred-eighty-degree turns with a simultaneous and contrariwise two-wristed snap. From Aswan to Cairo, the Nile bed falls little more than five inches per mile, which means the river offers a relatively slow, peaceful ride. In my observation, the current was swift but never roiling; there were no rapids to speak of other than those tossed up by the boulders of the first cataract above Aswan; and while there were shallows treacherous enough to stop a misguided cruise ship, none was shallow enough to prevent a small, light, flat-bottomed boat from smoothly proceeding. As for the dangerous ships Egyptians had warned of, there were no ships on the Nile that I could see, other than the plodding, festively lit cruise boats equipped with swimming pools and dance floors and packed with vacationing Europeans. (The size of these cruise ships was trifling compared to the hulking tankers I regularly marveled at on Narragansett Bay.) There was never a threat of rain. There was the possibility of a khamaseen, a hot southeasterly wind that whips dust out of the Sahara and renders the air a stinging, opaque mass,* but this was April and just in advance of the season for that. There was a large lock at Esna that looked complex and possibly like trouble for a small boat, and a few bridges that did not. As for crocodiles, there were, the captain of my cruise ship had dismissively confirmed with a dry laugh, no crocodiles whatsoever in the Nile below the High Dam.
In planning my rowing trip, among my greatest worries was unwanted attention from the Egyptian police. In terms of freedom and accessibility, the Nile was a far cry from an American river on which any psychopath could, without hindrance or permission, indulge in any half-baked boating scheme he was capable of devising. I had been told that in order to travel alone on the Nile, I would need police permission, that such permission was not likely to be granted, and that if by some miracle permission was granted, weeks of bureaucratic wrangling would follow; I would have to come up with a considerable amount of money in fees; and that, in the end, if they let me go, the police would insist on sending an officer with me for my protection.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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