Cruising the Nile on the cheap

Exploring the Nile in downtown Cairo comes with volume control, writes Belinda Jackson.

WHAT Cheap Nile cruises in Cairo.

WHERE The Nile River, runs through downtown Cairo.

HOW MUCH From 4 Egyptian pounds (about $1) for a 20-minute spin or 50 pounds for an hour in style.

WHY GO Feluccas have been trawling the Nile for millennia. In Cairo, there are two main types – the long, low, motorised boats and the more elegant sailboats.

Motorised feluccas operate mostly from sunset into the night. They can accommodate up to 20 people for a quick-and-dirty 20-minute spin up the Nile for less than a dollar and depart when the boat is full.

You can't miss these boats; they're the little floating discos with pink, fluoro lights and loud music.

This is definitely a local scene: the outboard motor is whiffy, the PA plays tinny Arab pop cranked up to 10 and unless you hire the entire boat for yourself, you'll find yourself squished up against plenty of happy Egyptian tourists. In short, it's Cairo in a microcosm: loud, smoky and up for a laugh.

You'll skim past ramshackle houseboats, riverside clubs and the big, evocatively named dinner-cruise ships moored alongside the riverbank – Omar El Khayam, Nile City, Le Pacha 1901. Departure points for motorised feluccas include the promenade near Qasr el-Nil bridge in the suburb of Gezira.

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Option two, on a sailboat felucca, is infinitely more relaxing – a quiet hour spent cruising the Nile will set you back about 50 pounds, with the price including the entire boat, which can hold up to 20 people and the captain. The best time is to head out before sunset, armed with a few beers or a bottle of wine.

They sail between University (Al-Gamma) Bridge and Galaa Bridge, near Doqqi. The best launching spot is Dok Dok on the Corniche el-Nil, opposite the Grand Hyatt or Four Seasons Nile Plaza.

You'll spot Dok Dok himself – at 89 years old, the grand doyen of feluccas – taking tea with his many sons on the pier. A taxi will cost you just a few pounds from downtown, but make sure they don't take you to the Four Seasons Giza.

FREE STUFF On the motorised boats, free entertainment comes in the form of a crackling tape player but if you're lucky, the captain's children might get up and do a surprisingly good belly dance or the traditional boys' dance. No, you won't see the pyramids but you will see 187-metre Cairo Tower, a phallic column built in 1961 allegedly with US money sent as a bribe to win Egypt over during the Cold War. As night falls, the sparkling tower changes from pink to puce to aquamarine. You can also see the Cairo Opera House. Forget swimming: the current is ferocious and you could get bilharzia.

ADDED BONUS The sailboats are much slower and steadier than their motorised mates, so you can photograph the Opera House and Cairo Tower. Leave half an hour before dusk for some great skyline shots of Africa's most populous city.

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