The Last Steamboat Down the Nile

Unexpectedly several of the chefs came out from the kitchen, one with drum and one with tambour, and along with a number of the wait staff in flowing blue gallabiyas and red tarboush began a beautiful melodic and driving chant. After the second song, the ship's director, Amir Attira, emerged with a sheaf of official-looking papers, and called on two of the French passengers, Edie and Didier, to come forward. He stumbled through a short, unfamiliar ceremony, a cake was rolled out, and thus the first shipboard marriage ever was performed on the Sudan, the last steamship sailing the Nile.

The best way to see the antiquities of Upper Egypt is on a Nile cruise. There are many ships to choose from—Sun God, Nile Queen, Ramses II—often docked six deep at the quay, but surely the most interesting and unique is the Sudan. Originally built in 1885 as a gift for King Faoud, the Sudan has been plying the Niles waters for over a hundred years, most of those as a private vessel, many of them as a royal ship. At the height of the European Egypt tourism craze from 1900 to the early thirties, Thomas Cook & Co. had dozens of steamships plying the Nile. One by one they dropped by the wayside as motor ships replaced steamers, and SS Sudan, resurrected from the scrap heap in 2000, is the last steamship voyaging the river.    Most of the passengers are French (the Companie de Voyageurs du Monde which owns the Sudan is French) and this holiday complement included families, a few individuals, and the newly-wed couple now officially on their honeymoon.

We had boarded at Aswan in the late afternoon. We returned to the warm lights of the Sudan glowing on the quay in the Egyptian dark after a night visit to the Temple of Philae for the son et lumiere. The show at Philae differs from most in that viewers are able to wander around the lit temple during the show, rather than just sitting and watching and listening.  Sudan’s bar and lounge were aglow, and George, the barman, was ready to shake martinis for us to enjoy in the antique but very comfortable furniture of the lounge/library. George was tending the very bar from behind which Orson Wells, as Hercule Poirot in the 1978 version of Death on the Nile, popped up like a cork (after a damning conversation between two of the characters who didn't know he was there) to utter "Would you like a Creme de Cacoa?” Agatha Christie sailed on the Sudan in the 30's (our forward suite, number 1, is named for her), and was inspired to conceive that famous novel, and even penned its first few chapters aboard.

The ship is completely unique on the Nile. Small, at 73 meters in length, with only 24 cabins, it takes roughly 50 passengers on each leg between upper and lower Egypt. Steel hulled, with cast iron-braced upper structures, the two main levels are honey-colored wood, with black wrought-iron railings and teak decks polished by 100+ years of shoes. The cabins and suites are wood paneled, furnished with antiques and period photos and paintings sourced in the souks and flea markets of Cairo. The bathrooms are generous for a ship, and fitted with elegant marble and porcelain bathrooms fixtures. The main salon/bar and dining room are library-paneled in walnut, with brass light fixtures and a stained-glass coffered ceiling. The upper deck is half-covered with a canvas awning for shade, and numerous wicker chaises and comfortable chairs are seated about for lounging, in or out of the sun, and watching the life on the Nile banks quietly slip by. The ever-changing scene—life as its been for hundreds of years—is alluringly hypnotic, and easily occupies hours, punctuated with a cup of tea or a beer.

Meals aboard are prepared by Chef Maghey Mose and his brigade of 10 chefs in a tight and efficient kitchen below decks that includes refrigerated, glassed cubicles for the garde manger, butcher, and pastry chef. They and the additional handful of line cooks turn out three meals days for a passenger load of 50 and a crew of 67 in the space not much bigger than my kitchen in Sonoma. Dinners aboard may not have the elegance of the gown-clad ladies and gentlemen in evening dress of a century ago, but guest make an effort to be somewhat dressy, and the warm candle-light, gleaming flatware and crystal, fresh flowers and burnished paneling (original) of the dining room create an elegance which is certainly unique on the river.  

The kitchen brigade’s efforts are quite successful, combining continental and Egyptian flavors--many salads, delicious soups, meatballs or kofta kebabs, lamb or fish, and an astonishing buffet of pastries and middle-eastern sweets (remember, the pastry chef's cubicle is not much more than a good sized broom closet.) Egyptian wines have proven to be quite good--Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc, and red combinations such as Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot. Not competition ranking wines, but perfectly fine with meals.

Sudan makes 3 and 4 night cruises down and up the Nile between Aswan and Luxor. Confusingly, Upper Egypt is south of Lower Egypt due to the south-to-north river flow.  We've chosen down, because the size and grandeur of the temples start smaller and build in crescendo.  There are dual motivations for sailing with the Sudan--enjoying the style of travel of a time long past, relaxing as the Nile slips by, and visiting the amazing Egyptian antiquities strung out like golden pearls on a blue strand: The jewel-like island-sited temple at Philae, the Greco-Roman temples dedicated to the gods Horus and Haroeris at Edfu and Kom Ombo; imposing Karnak (can YOU avoid thinking of Johnny Carson?) with its enormous columned hypostyle hall, into which the entirety of Notre Dam cathedral would fit; the broad sweep of Queen Hatshupset's temple on the west bank; and the amazingly preserved 4500 year-old  tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, with their tomb decorations of astonishing color and detail.

The luxury and belle-époque character of the Sudan are certainly unique, but its most singular characteristic might be its restored steam engine, with its complex of rods, levers and valves, its three huge pistons driven by steam heated in the boilers by the 400 degree fireboxes, and the enormous crank-shaft driving the mighty oak paddle-wheels. The engine is on view below, behind a guardrail on the main deck, and the paddle wheels can be observed furiously churning the Nile behind thick glass observation windows.  

Chief engineer Adel Souky is most willing to give a below-decks tour of the engine room. It's an experience just a bit hellish--narrow catwalks passing by the doors of the roaring fire boxes, a tight squeeze past the main boilers spurting steam from pressure relief valves, across under the main works with those huge pistons turning the massive crankshaft; different rods and levers, all attached like a clockwork, performing different small functions in the orchestration of the whole. The Sudan also has a rear directable diesel propulsion unit for maneuvering, and—just in case. The boat is piloted by the turbaned and green gallabiya-clad Ahmed Hares, whose title is Rais, rather than Captain. An affable and welcoming fellow, who happily shows off his pilothouse domain, Rais Ahmed knows every inch of the river--its shoals, its sandbars, and its navigable channels. He comes by his ability to navigate the Nile not by any formal training, but as a result of being on boats on its waters since early childhood.  

The other thing that the steam engine provides Sudan is, literally, a heartbeat. The tempo of the crank and the paddle wheels is a bit a-rhythmic, and slightly reminiscent of a human heart. It reverberates subtly throughout the ship, and our cabin vibrates slightly with the beat while under way. A stream of that heart-flow is directed occasionally to the steam whistle, which produces a deep, stunning scream singularly identifiable on the Nile.  So many expressions we use in daily conversation come from the steam sailing era: full steam ahead; build up a head of steam; blow off some steam; and the boilers actually do blow off steam, in short hard puffs that provide a syncopation to the main beat of the crank and wheel.

With that basso tempo in the background, we lounge in the shade on the upper deck, passing the day alternately reading, napping and taking in the ever-changing view of life at river’s edge: fishermen in small boats tossing their nets wide; donkeys inching to the river to drink; cattle lolling in green fields, or languidly pulling a plow; camels standing passively in the dunes above the verdant swath of palms near the water; turbaned and robed fellows squatting at the water's edge, watching us watch the river go by. A few days combining visits to Egypt’s spectacular antiquities, and hours of this reflective relaxation are a combination that makes Nile cruising unique, and aboard the Sudan, most singular of all.