It is not a cliche. A traveller to Egypt must sail the Nile. Sitting on the empty upper deck of our river yacht watching this eternal ribbon of light unspool invokes something profound within the raucous babble of the land of the pharaohs. The multifaceted light, the vastness of African sky, the density of heat, and the reflective river silence conjure a rich saga of empire, greed, longing and beauty. It is the enduring watery equivalent of the tree of life, representing the story of our world.
The Nile River stretches like a skeletal arm up through Egypt, the bony fingers of its delta reaching into the Mediterranean. It may look emaciated, but it provides plenty beyond imagining.
Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt as we know it, no rich and enduring culture, nor indeed, much of water-dependent northern Africa – more than 300 million people from 11 African countries rely on its water and the Nile river basin contains more than 10 per cent of Africa's land.
Without this serene waterway, there would be no Egyptian antiquities and even if there were, no easy way to view them. This is why a Nile cruise is such an essential part of an Egypt sojourn, just as it was for the pharaohs' processions down the Nile, the three-month dahabiya (large houseboats with sails) cruises and the Thomas Cook-inspired steamship cruises of the 1880s that cut cruise time to 20 days.
And, of course, colonial Egypt cannot exist without the presence of writer Agatha Christie, whose cruise on Thomas Cook's SS Sudan was an inspiration for her 1937 novel, Death on the Nile.
There will be no death on the Nile for us, or even any appreciable misery. Scenic's 11-day Treasures of Egypt journey includes four nights of pampering aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat III, sailing from Luxor to Aswan, following the course of the ancients as they sailed grandly south. This is an elegant, luxury "river yacht" in British colonial style interspersed with Egyptian/Bedouin touches.
Only 36 guests can be accommodated in 14 luxury suites, two presidential suites and two royal suites. The smaller suites' design draws from the elegant 1920s and '30s. They're compact but pleasing, with four-poster beds, traditional wooden shutters and earth-toned fabrics.
The public spaces are particularly handsome, with their teak floors, mahogany hand-carved furniture in Nubian designs, brass lanterns, ottomans, Persian kilims, silver trays and canvas awnings. So, too, are the upper sundeck with its Nubian-style oasis pool and palms, the Sahara Lounge resembling an Egyptian royal hunting tent, the H. Carter lounge and bar and its adjoining lower sundeck, perfect for breakfast, and the restaurant with close river views.
Enhanced by a willing and enthusiastic Egyptian staff, including Egyptologist, Egyptian chefs and our Egyptian captain, whose Nile knowledge stretches back through generations of Nile seafarers.
Head chef Hassall's cooking class conjures up his moreish babaganoush, then traditional Koshari (Egyptian rice, lentils and pasta with vinegary tomato and fried onion rings) and Om Ali (Egyptian bread pudding). His vibrant green Egyptian fava-bean falafels with creamy hummus are remarkable.
Sanctuary Sun Boat III, which Architectural Digest once dubbed the Jewel of the Nile, has a shorter draft than many Nile cruisers, which means we can anchor at less-populous places such as Qena, especially when water levels drop in summer.
Fresh from Luxor's Valley of the Kings and Queens, Queen Hatshepsut's and Rameses II temples and the Colossi of Memnon, we settle in before visiting the vast open-air temple complex of Karnak with its monumental Hypostyle Hall.
During following days, it's an easy glide from the river to the marvels that pepper the river plains – Luxor Temple, Qena and Hathor's Temple at Dendera, the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Kom Ombo Temple and finally Aswan for the unfinished obelisk, a felucca cruise to a Nubian village, and the Osiris temple complex at Philae, raised from the floods.
This precious waterway generated feverish empire building that began with the pharaohs and persisted through the Romans, Persians, Macedonians right through to the French and British for whom the Nile was its road to imperialism in the 1890s.
These days, the Egyptian part of the Nile is Egypt's alone, but the Nile basin is a shared resource among multiple countries – Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Egypt, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Eritrea all rely on the Nile for their fresh water. Issues of water quality, usage, upriver dams and climate change require delicate ongoing negotiations, while ecological and political demands only increase. Enjoy the river but know that the battle for the Nile continues.
Alison Stewart travelled as a guest of Scenic.
Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi and Egypt Air flies from Abu Dhabi to Cairo. See etihad.com
Scenic's 11-day Treasures of Egypt journey from Cairo to Abu Simbel includes a four-night Nile cruise on Sanctuary Sun Boat III, four luxury hotel stays, Egyptologist tour director/guide, multiple temple, tomb and museum visits, internal flights, most meals, accommodation, tipping, complimentary wine with lunch and dinner. From $9095 a person twin share, departing Giza (Cairo) on May 10, 2019. See scenic.com.au